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In Populists vs. Establishment, the Establishment Strikes Back

Posted by hkarner - 28. März 2017

Date: 27-03-2017
Source: The Wall Street Journal

In elections in the Netherlands, Australia and Germany in recent days the forces of nationalism and populism suffered setbacks

Is it possible the populist tide is cresting?

It’s too early to draw any definitive conclusions, and the biggest test comes next month in France’s presidential vote. But in elections in the Netherlands, Australia and Germany in recent days the forces of nationalism and populism that have been on the march across First World democracies suffered setbacks.

The most recent test came over the weekend in Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democratic Union struck a blow for the political establishment with a convincing victory in the state of Saarland, a good sign for the chancellor ahead of a national vote in September. The Christian Democrats’ secretary-general, Peter Tauber, said voters had “opted for stability and trustworthiness…The CDU is the only force that has made clear it wouldn’t work with either left- or right-wing populists.”
In the Netherlands two weeks ago, the Dutch political establishment prevailed against anti-Islam firebrand Geert Wilders. His Party for Freedom, which campaigned for halting Muslim immigration and exiting the European Union, fell short in its challenge to the party of Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

Meanwhile, in Australia, the ruling party of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull gambled by joining forces with a controversial nationalist figure, Pauline Hanson and her One Nation party—and was rebuffed. In state elections in Western Australia, her anti-immigrant party won less than 5% of the vote, helping drag the government to defeat.

Those results are mere straws in the wind. Still, taken together,they suggest the possibility that the beleaguered political establishment may be learning some lessons and regaining its footing.

The reverse seemed true last fall, when British voters defied their prime minister and voted to exit the European Union, and when Donald Trump smashed expectations as well as the establishment leaders in both parties to win his stunning U.S. election victory.

Those results gave a shot of adrenaline to economic nationalists and anti-immigrant movements. Those forces still undoubtedly exert more influence than they did just a year ago, but exactly how much influence has been the question.

France now looms as the big test case. There, a coming presidential race increasingly appears to be between right-wing nationalist Marine Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron.

Onetime front-runner François Fillon is embroiled in scandal and fading, and Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Macron are essentially tied in polls heading into the first round of French voting April 23. The great unknown is how much strength Ms. Le Pen—who has embraced the Trump victory as a turning point in Western politics—can show in the final round of French voting if matched head-to-head against Mr. Macron.

A weekend poll in France showed Mr. Macron well ahead in a matchup against Ms. Le Pen. But the poll also showed a large share of French voters remains undecided. That big chunk of uncommitted voters, plus the possibility that the French are shy about admitting to pollsters their support for the controversial Ms. Le Pen, means it would be foolish to discount her chance of winning the presidency.

If she does prevail, she will push for a French exit from the European Union to match the British one, for a clampdown on immigration and for a much warmer relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Nationalism will be recharged.

On the other hand, Ms. Le Pen may have gone a bit too far in embracing Mr. Putin during a surprise visit to the Kremlin on Friday, just two days ahead of a Kremlin weekend crackdown on Mr. Putin’s opponents.

The rocky opening weeks of the new Trump administration, as well as some buyer’s remorse in the wake of the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, may have served to erode some of the appeal of populist movements elsewhere.

It’s also likely, though, that if the political establishment in the West is regaining its footing, it is doing so in part because it has moved to co-opt some of the nationalist messages of its opponents.

The Netherlands’ Mr. Rutte, for example, adopted his own version of an anti-immigrant line, albeit a softer one than that brandished by Mr. Wilders. Mr. Rutte told immigrants that they should adapt to Dutch ways, adding: “If you don’t like it here, you can leave.”

Similarly, Ms. Merkel has defended her policies on refugees and immigration, but last fall also offered Germans a bit of an apology for the refugee influx.

That, in fact, is what smart, successful parties do: They don’t dismiss the ferment revealed by upstart political movements, but absorb the lessons and adapt. The sentiments unearthed by the Brexit vote and the Trump victory are real and aren’t going away. It may be, though, that the establishment now is learning better how to adapt to them.

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