This time the polls overestimated rather than underestimated support for the populist option.
After Brexit and Donald Trump’s election victory, the world has been anxiously awaiting elections in various European countries, where right-wing populists are resurgent.
The first in the electoral calendar this year was the Netherlands, where the populist party of Geert Wilders got only 20 out of 150 seats in parliament. Next is France, where Marine Le Pen has a serious chance of being elected president. The EU might not be able to survive her victory. It is difficult to imagine the EU existing without France – the main ideologue of the common market and currency.
But will conservative populism triumph in Europe and are these the signs of the rise of the black international? Or are there some other dynamics at play that have given right-wing forces a temporary impetus?
Putin’s far-right game
Europe was once divided in two, with the Western and Eastern blocs locked in a struggle. Now it is united, standing in-between Russia and the US, both ruled by populist conservatives, as Germany – which once symbolised the rift between the two blocs – is now the main champion of a united Europe.
Objectively speaking, it is not in Russia’s interest for European integration to fail, even though the Kremlin is doing everything possible for the union to collapse. The crisis in the EU is an important element of the Kremlin’s domestic propaganda and the resurgence of the far right in Western countries is helping Vladimir Putin to justify his criticism of liberal values.
But in the long term, the collapse of the EU – which is Moscow’s number-one trading partner – would result in an economic catastrophe for Russia. But Putin is a tactician, not a strategist, and political stability for him today is more important than economic stability tomorrow.
From Putin’s point of view, everything is coming together according to plan and it’s even overfulfilled. Even before Brexit and Trump, the conservative populists won in a lot of Eastern European countries such as Poland and Hungary, while the leftist populist leaders of Greece and the Czech Republic have displayed loyalty to Putin.
In parallel, Russia is doing everything possible to support marginal opposition forces in Europe, especially on the right. Moscow organises regular gatherings for right-wing movements from all over the world and supports them organisationally, as in the case of PEGIDA in Germany. In the era of global right-wing resurgence, Moscow wants to be one of their foremost champions, as it used to be for communist movements during the Cold War.
The irony is that the generation that organised the student movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Western Europe and the US is now organising a 'conservative counter-revolution'
Europe’s aging population
More recently Western countries have started believing that Moscow has major influence over their internal politics. It seems that even the Kremlin believes that. But in reality there is a rather prosaic explanation for the rise of conservative forces in Europe. One of the main reasons for the consolidation of conservatism is Europe’s aging population.
The median age in European countries has climbed from 30 in the 1960s to 40 today, while people older than 65 are making up a large percentage of the electorate.
The irony is that the generation that organised the student movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Western Europe and the US, is now organising a “conservative counter-revolution”.
And people who have been fighting against segregation in the US in the 1960s are now rallying behind a billionaire xenophobe.
In the heat of the student protests in Paris in 1968, when Marine Le Pen was born, no one would’ve believed that in 50 years the far-right slogans that she is now employing would be popular in France.
In any case this “conservative counter-revolution” is a fake one, the way communism was fake during the Cold War. Hiding behind socialist slogans, the party bosses of the Soviet camp enjoyed all kinds of privileges. They had little interest in the problems of the poor population, which, in turn, was quite indifferent to their slogans.
Trump and Putin have the same attitude towards conservatism. Both love luxurious palaces (the difference is in that Trump always puts his name on them, while Putin tries to put other people’s names on them), both have been embroiled in corruption scandals, and both have divorced their wives (Trump has done that twice).
With this profile, it’s difficult to believe in their conservative piety, high moral principles and family values. Even their pompous demonstration of patriotism is quite deceptive. Trump is constantly insisting on bringing back manufacturing jobs from China to the US, but his branded neckties are all produced in China, while Putin’s elite, which are constantly finger-pointing at Western degradation, own properties in the West, send their wives on vacation there and educate their children in Western schools.
Voting against change
But why are voters not seeing this? Of course they see it, but the majority of them don’t care because they are not really voting for Putin, Trump or Le Pen – rather they are voting against the changes which scare and discomfort them.
The problem now is not that the changes are happening too quickly; the 20th century was a century of rapid change throughout. In the 1960s it was possible not to pay attention to those grumbling against sexual revolution, rock ‘n’ roll and pacifist demonstrations. Today, however, those grumbling against same-sex marriage, legalisation of marijuana and migrants are the majority of voters who turn up at the polls.
But all that said, the fact that the population is aging does not mean that the future is all doom and gloom. The current resurgence of the far right was also accelerated by a number of stress factors such as the economic crisis and increased migration. The general trend is quite different.
Yes, the UK walked out of the EU, but many wanted them to leave anyway and there are still countries that dream about joining the Union and even organise their revolutions under the EU flag. Yes, nationalists are playing the migration card, but there have also been so many demonstrations under the slogan “refugees are welcome” which have often been much more numerous than the far-right ones.
Yes, Trump won, but the majority of Americans voted for Hillary Clinton (and just before that they elected a black president twice, which no one would’ve even dreamed of in the 1960s).
Yes, Le Pen is popular, but France is also advancing on another path – just a few years ago it legalised same-sex marriage.
Yes, Putin is trying to increase his influence, but the Russia Today channel has had very low ratings despite the major financial inflows it’s receiving from the Kremlin, while the parties and movements it is sponsoring remain marginal in their countries. Putin continues to win elections, but that is because he is not allowing any real competition to emerge.
In other words, what in the context of a few years seems like a conservative resurgence, in the context of a few decades seems like less of a problem. The real threat of right-wing populism will transform this resurgence into a kind of a vaccine, which would boost the immunity of Western countries against conservatism and force them to resolve painful issues and mobilise their resources to fight populist propaganda. The only question is how much it would cost Europe in the process. The victory of Le Pen could be too high a price to pay.
Roman Dobrokhotov is a Moscow-based journalist and civil activist. He is the editor-in-chief of The Insider.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.