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Why populism is on the rise?

Globalism, Islamophobia, the financial crisis and the changing nature of society are all fuelling a winter of discontent across Europe

Madrid: Last weekend, thousands of demonstrators for and against the far right squared off in mass rival rallies in the heart of Berlin. Calls of “we are the people” were met with chants of “go away Nazis” and loud pulsating techno music.

The Berlin protests and counter-protests are being played out with increasing regularity across Europe — a continent that has seen far-right politics and parties gain in electoral support at the expense of more mainstream, centrist and neo-liberal politicians.

In Italy, where national elections were held March 4 and no singular party had enough votes or support in either the Chamber of Deputies or the Senate of the Republic to govern by itself, the far-right Italian League is now a coalition kingmaker. Its leader, Matteo Salvini, along with Luigi Di Maio of the Five-Star Movement had agreed to a coalition deal. They had also proposed the 82-year-old Euro-sceptic Paolo Savona as Finance Minister, a nomination that Italian President Sergio Mattarella rejected, leading to market turmoil across the European Union and calls from the League’s Salvini that Brussels was subverting Italians’ political will.

Salvini managed to inscribe the intention to deport 500,000 refugees illegally in Italy into the proposed coalition deal.

In Germany, Alternative for Germany (AfD), a far-right party with neo-Nazi roots, gained enough support in last September’s federal elections to surpass a post Second World War constitutional threshold meant to thwart extremists, and is now the third-largest party in Berlin’s Bundestag.

It’s a scenario that has been repeated across Europe. Poland, Greece, France, Sweden, Denmark, Austria and Hungary have all seen anti-immigrant — and anti-Muslim — parties of the far right make electoral gains.

But why?

“There are many things as play,” Dr Owen Worth told Gulf News. He’s a senior lecturer in International Relations at the University of Limerick in Ireland and an expert in the rise of the right in the EU. “The wider de-industrialisation that has happened since the 1970s, coupled with a growth in international organisations after 1991 [and the collapse of the Soviet bloc],” has been a factor. So too broader societal changes.

“The move to a wider global economy has seen great multiculturalism and labour being imported from outside a host’s country,” he said. “There tends to be a split between baby boomers, who tend to favour far-right parties and romantic nationalism, and the young millennials who are generally accepting of change and multiculturalism — and are condemned by the former as ‘politically correct’ — this has contributed to high divisionals in some countries. The attitudes of one drives the attitudes of the other.”

Along with globalisation, there’s also the impact of the financial crisis of 2008.

“The financial crisis has increased fears of losing national identity and social identity with community,” Dr Worth told Gulf News. “And there’s immigration, which is reinforced by popular myths surrounding indigenous employment” — the notion that foreigners are taking jobs from locals.

While those economic and societal factors are at play, the parties of the far right are focused now too on Islam, and the perceived Islamification of a predominantly and traditionally Christian region — and Dr Worth describes this as “central” to the rights’ rise.

“Islamophobia has replaced anti-Semitism in more far-right parties — with many favouring the Israeli state, although not necessarily Judaism — as the main external enemy,” he said. “Islam is portrayed as singular, backwards and highly threatening to a western way of life.”

Germany’s AfD in its party manifesto, for example, says “Islam does not belong in Germany” and calls for a ban on the construction of mosques. In the neighbouring Netherlands, where the People’s Freedom Party under Geert Wilders finished in second place in elections in 2107, the far-right group ran with a proposal to ban the Quran and close mosques and Islamic schools.

But globalisation too plays a significant role in the rights’ rise and the growth of populist movements Dr Worth noted, adding that “globalists” and “globalism” had been singled out by nearly all nationalist-populist groups from the United Kingdom Independence Party to Italy’s League and Wilders’ party.

“It refers to a conspiracy of businessmen or bankers who want to construct a world socialist government to undermine the western way of life and national sovereignty,” he said. “It follows that same premise of conspiracies as such that date back to Nesta Webster in the years after the First World War and as seen in Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’.”

As Sunday’s rally and counter-rally in Berlin demonstrated, there are groups willing to oppose far-right parties at the street level. But how can the rise of the right be countered effectively?

“Much — but not all — of the support is generational, so it does mirror similar rises in support for the right that we’ve seen before in Europe,” Dr Worth told Gulf News. “Many of the parties are short-termists and are prone to splits, and therefore there is an argument that populism might burn out.”

But he also noted that a radical left tradition has “emerged across Europe to counter the movements on the right and has far more of a rational — as well as age — behind it”.

For Dr Worth, however, there is a central theme.

“It really comes down to the nature of post-crisis capitalism in Europe — one that is rife with austerity and inequality,” he said.

And certainly too, social media is a driving force behind the far-rights’ growth and in keeping its conspiracy theories well fed with constant updates and new material.

“Certainly, conspiracies abound around globalism that were once seen as preposterous but have started gaining significant support,” he said. “In this sense, it is a post-truth era as every bit of mainstream news is questioned,” he said.

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