A year ago, there were premature predictions that the populist wave would soon crest around the world. Yet sure enough, populists then won elections in Brazil, Italy and Mexico. Now, some political observers are again arguing that populism has already peaked, even though populist leaders like the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte maintain extraordinarily high popularity, with one recent poll showing Duterte’s approval rating at 81 percent.
Populism “faces its darkest hour” in 2019, Gideon Rachman recently predicted in the Financial Times. Max Fisher claimed in The New York Times that populism had a “rocky” time in the West last year, citing, among other things, the Democratic Party’s gains in the U.S. midterm elections and mixed election results for Poland’s populist Law and Justice party in local elections. Fisher cited Cas Mudde, a Dutch political scientist and leading scholar of populism, who “has predicted that the movement’s once-meteoric rise will become ‘modest’ and ‘uneven’ in 2019, with more setbacks ahead.”
To be sure, some populists in North America and Europe are struggling, whether in government or, like the far-right Alternative for Germany, to grow their appeal and build coalitions that could propel them to win local and national elections. Nonetheless, the populist wave seems more likely than not to keep rising this year and next, with potential new victories on the horizon.
One of the first countries poised for a populist resurgence this year is Thailand, even if the elections that will be held there on March 24 will not be fully free or fair. Thailand’s military junta has severely repressed political activity before the vote, passing a new constitution to entrench the army’s power and trying to engineer a lower house of parliament controlled or de facto run by pro-military figures. Despite those obstacles, the populist Pheu Thai party and its allies, with a deep base of support, could still get a majority in the lower house. That might only lead to further chaos, if the army and its allies try to oust a new populist government.
Even in Western countries, populists managed to pull off some victories in 2018. The Alternative for Germany, or AfD, won enough of the vote in Germany’s regional elections last fall to take seats in the parliament of Hesse, one of Germany’s most powerful states. A populist coalition triumphed in Italy. A study by The Guardian, released late last year, showed that populist parties have more than tripled their share of votes in Europe in the past 20 years. “Two decades ago, populist parties were largely a marginal force, accounting for just 7 percent of votes across the continent; in the most recent national elections, one in four votes cast was for a populist party.”
Populists could soon make further inroads in Europe, with a coalition of right-leaning euroskeptic parties looking to make substantial gains in European Parliament elections in May. According to a recent internal poll by the European Parliament, those parties are set to increase their share of seats from 10 to 14 percent. Mark Leonard of the European Council on Foreign Relations anticipates that turnout for the vote will be much higher than normal, perhaps in part because of growing voter interest in the ideas of right-leaning populists, who hope to gain enough power in the European Parliament to undermine it and other European institutions. As Leonard and others have noted, if the populist coalition wins enough seats to throw a wrench in the European Parliament’s activities, it could further aid populist parties in individual European countries by watering down or blocking EU rules that help constrain the bloc’s autocratic-leaning governments, such as in Hungary and Poland.
In Estonia, populists are aiming to boost their vote share in general elections in March and make the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia one of the largest parties in parliament. A pro-Russian populist party got the largest share of the vote in neighboring Latvia’s national elections last fall, although they are not in the governing coalition. In Denmark, which will hold elections by mid-June, the opposition Social Democrats have inched closer to the populist positions of the hard-line populist Danish People’s Party, on issues like immigration. The Danish government has already adopted a range of policies influenced by the populists’ positions, like linking social welfare payments to education in “Danish values” and putting certain migrants on a remote island. Despite those efforts, the Social Democrats, with support from the Danish People’s Party, have a strong chance to win control of government this year.
Even when populists do not win, they are pushing more centrist politicians to embrace their ideas and strategies.With Belgium holding federal elections in late May, a strong showing could give populist parties there a place in the governing coalition. In Italy, the populist and increasingly popular League party, which is currently in a coalition government with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, could force an early election and possibly take full control of government. In Spain, where elections are scheduled for late April, a far-right populist party might take seats in the national parliament for the first time. And in France, the far-right National Rally, previously known as the National Front, has drawn even in polls with the party of President Emmanuel Macron, raising the stakes if Macron fails to deal with political tumult in the country.
Across the Atlantic, Argentina, which is suffering from a deep and debilitating recession, could swing back to populist rule in elections in October. President Mauricio Macri defeated a populist rival, former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, four years ago, but he has failed to deliver on his economic promises and could lose in the fall to the Peronist party, which Fernandez and her late husband have dominated for nearly two decades.
To be sure, populists are not winning everywhere. The main populist setback in Europe this year appears to be in Greece, where the leftist Syriza party looks like it could lose elections in October to the center-right New Democracy. But even when populists do not win, they are pushing more centrist politicians to embrace their ideas and strategies, as seen in Denmark, and across Asia as well. In Indonesia, a country that seems ripe for autocratic-leaning populism, with continued high inequality, distrust of political elites and a history of strongman rule, incumbent President Joko Widodo is likely to triumph in April’s elections, as he leads most reputable polls. Yet he has embraced some unsavory tactics, like fear-mongering and the demonization of minorities, probably to blunt the effectiveness of an alliance between Islamists and his political rival, former Lt. Gen. Prabowo Subianto, a man who likely would rule as an autocratic-leaning populist. Jokowi, as Widodo is known in Indonesia, has also watered down his early promises of economic reform, instead embracing more populist measures in the run-up to the election.
Meanwhile, in India, the ruling BJP, a Hindu nationalist party that has many populist characteristics, has struggled in recent state elections. It could be vulnerable in upcoming general elections, although polls still show it ahead of the main Congress-led opposition. The appeal of populist ideology, however, has led both the BJP and Congress to embrace populist, right-leaning positions ahead of the vote, potentially damaging India’s democratic norms and institutions. Congress has played down its longstanding reputation for protecting minority rights and secularism in India. Meanwhile, the BJP’s violent, Hindu nationalist rhetoric has sparked a vigilante campaign largely targeting minorities, while the party has overseen growing attacks on the press and other classic populist tactics.
Once in office, populist governments, especially those with autocratic-leaning leaders, often prove to be both corrupt and incapable of effective governance—characteristics that can eventually turn publics against them. This disillusionment takes time, though, and often leaves countries struggling to return to full democracy. For now, voters in many countries still appear ready to put more populists into power, accelerating a global democratic regression and making it even easier for populists to win in the future.