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Fertile times for Europe's populist parties

By AFP - Sep 05,2016 - Last updated at Sep 05,2016

VIENNA — Alternative for Germany is not the only populist party enjoying electoral success. Across Europe, these are fertile times for protest movements tapping into unease about immigration to attack a long-cosy political establishment.

The anti-immigration AfD scored a major symbolic victory on Sunday by relegating German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives into third place in elections in her home state.

The result means that the Islamophobic AfD, whose popularity has soared due to opposition to Merkel's open-door refugee policy, is now represented in nine out of Germany's 16 regional parliaments.

Its success has been replicated around Europe, with other anti-immigration populist parties stealing voters in their droves from the established centrist forces.

 For Jean-Dominique Giulani, head of the Robert Schuman Foundation think tank, anxiety in a Europe "looking for an identity" in a fast-changing world has been on the rise for a while.

But, Giulani told AFP, this phenomenon has been "inexorably boosted" by the arrival last year of hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing violence in the Middle East.

"This is a reaction to the absence of credible European responses... to the issues that worry people, starting with the question of immigration," he said.

The next evidence of this backlash could come on October 2 in Austria, if Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party — formerly of the Nazi-admiring Joerg Haider -- wins a tight presidential election.

Next year could see further electoral upsets, not least with Germany set to hold general elections late in the year.

In France, reeling from a string of deadly extremist attacks, Marine Le Pen of the far-right Front National is on course to make a strong running for the presidency.

And the party of Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders, which has vowed to close all mosques and Islamic schools and ban the Koran, is leading polls ahead of parliamentary elections due in 2017.

 

Globalisation backlash 

 

But it's not just immigration. Globalisation, austerity, stagnating incomes, as well as an increasingly unpopular European Union have boosted populist parties, on the left as well as the right, say experts.

In Italy, where the right-wing Northern League has long been strong, the Five Star Movement (M5S), founded by a comedian, is shaking up national politics, winning local elections in Rome by a landslide in June.

Elsewhere in southern Europe, it is groupings more of the left — Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece — that have made hay, tapping into anger about austerity cuts imposed during the eurozone debt crisis.

In Britain, the main opposition Labour Party chose Jeremy Corbyn as leader in 2015, a hard-left campaigner whose beliefs placed him for decades on the fringes of the country's politics. 

Britain then voted to leave the European Union in June in a referendum driven in large part by worries about immigration, economic uncertainty and a perception that an out-of-touch Brussels elite was making the rules.

Since the surprise "Brexit" result, many populist figures — Le Pen, Wilders, Hofer and Beppe Grillo of the M5S in Italy among them — have at least flirted with the idea of their own EU plebiscite.

Anti-establishment parties have also jumped on mooted trade deals between the EU and Canada and the United States as evidence that the established parties are in cahoots with multinational corporations.

The International Monetary Fund's Christine Lagarde conceded Monday at a G-20 meeting of world leaders in China that globalisation "has to benefit all, not a few", but said that the fruits of a connected world were severely undersold.

There was "a determination around the room to better identify the benefits of trade in order to respond to the easy populist backlash against globalisation," she added as leaders at the summit grappled with the problem.

For Paul Schmidt at the Austrian Society for European Politics, the problem for Europe's leaders is that many of the problems can only be solved by supranational action.

"But many voters reject this loss of sovereignty. It scares them," Schmidt told AFP. 

 

In addition, populist parties have found in social media, where issues can quickly "snowball dangerously", a useful weapon with which to attack governments, he said.

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