From Italy to Sweden: what’s behind today’s anti-establishment revolt?

Saturday 13 October, 14:0015:30, Pit TheatreEye on the World


How should we understand the recent populist upsurge in Europe? From the Brexit vote to the extraordinary rise of the Sweden Democrats, from Italy’s Five Star Movement to Germany’s Alternative for Deutschland (AfD), explicitly anti-establishment parties and positions seem to be gaining support across the continent.

Critics argue that this is an expression of the rise of right-wing politics. Italy’s coalition between La Lega and the Five Star Movement has taken a hard stance on immigration, rejecting the EU’s demand that Italy takes migrants arriving at its borders. The Brexit vote is often labelled as a bigoted, xenophobic vote – comparable to the anti-immigrant policies of France’s National Front or the hard-right Party for Freedom in the Netherlands. Many anti-populist commentators assume that radical right-wing parties are beneficiaries of pre-existing racism, xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment. They warily view this supposed revolt of the masses as a frightening rise of far-right sentiments amongst the masses, with the spectre of the 1930s deployed to explain the emergence of these trends.

But are things more complicated? Could there be other – more positive – explanations for the way voters are thumbing their noses at the mainstream? For example, many of those voting for the National Front, AfD or UKIP are traditional supporters of parties associated with the labour movement and the left. Is their recent voting switch likely to represent a radical shift in their world view or represent a transformation into hardened anti-Semites or Islamophobes? Arguably, for many, the appeal of populist parties lies in their rejection of an old way of doing politics, a defiant rejection of mainstream parties for ignoring their social, economic and cultural concerns.

The rise of Germany’s AfD could be a response to the collapse of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union rather than a new turn to the hard right among German voters. In the UK, the Brexit vote, though not tied to any particular party, was in part a desire for change – a demand for a new way of doing politics, a call for an overhaul of the old political order.

It is understandable that new movements that claim to give voice to the anger of millions and take their concerns seriously, that appear to reject the dismissive and contemptuous elitism of complacent establishment parties, can have mass appeal. Those movements are not just right-wing: new populist parties from the left like Podemos in Spain and (at least before forming a government) Syriza in Greece have been successful, too.

How do we understand the changing mood in Europe? Is this a genuine anti-establishment revolt? In challenging the technocratic approach to politics characterised by the EU’s way of dealing with politics, is this new desire for political change something that can be harnessed by the left? If ordinary Italians, Britons, Germans or Greeks are asking for political change and revolting against the establishment, isn’t that a good thing? Or are today’s populist parties mostly right-wingers in various degrees of disguise? Regardless of specific populist parties, is the alienation of a significant section of the electorate from the party-political mainstream to be welcomed or feared?