Risky shift in political winds in past and upcoming elections

Slovakia's election signals a worrying rise in populism that threatens Europe's unity in support of Ukraine. Left-wing parties are in crisis as far-right ideologies gain ground. Meanwhile, Spain is allowing three regional languages in its national parliament.

Published on 16 October 2023 at 16:33

In the latter half of the 2010s, Europe experienced a populist surge fueled by events like Brexit and Donald Trump's election, sparking concerns about the future of the European project. However, as time passed, this wave gradually receded, giving way to an unexpected development: unprecedented unity among member states when faced with Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Phrases like "Frexit" and "Grexit" have faded from European headlines. But a new unease has emerged, echoing through the continent's media. Populist nationalism, once associated mainly with the far-right, has evolved, now finding its way into traditional left-wing parties. 

The growing apprehension around this trend is exemplified by recent parliamentary elections in Slovakia, a country that rarely grabs international attention. Despite its small size and modest economy compared to larger EU members, Slovakia has played a surprisingly significant role in supporting Ukraine. It ranks as the world's sixth-largest contributor of military supplies to Ukraine in terms of GDP, surpassing even major European powers like France, Italy, and Spain. The resurgence of Robert Fico, a self-proclaimed social democrat with a nationalist and sometimes openly pro-Russian stance, has reverberated across the continent. Fico, a former communist leader, was ousted in 2018 amid corruption allegations and suspicions of ties to the murders of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée. This alliance, combined with Hungary's divisive leadership under Viktor Orbán, threatens European support for Ukraine. In this geopolitical struggle, Ukraine is caught in the short-term political maneuvering for votes, raising concerns about Europe's stability.

“Reactionary wave spreads across Europe”, titles Público (in Spanish). Political scientist Ruth Ferrero-Turrión warns on the pages of this Spanish online magazine that the ”the worst is the contagion effect that the reactionaries inoculate among the traditional parties of the center right, the center left or even among the Greens”. Hungary and Poland set the precedent, with countries like Sweden, Finland, Estonia, and Italy following suit. But examples include also Denmark outsourcing asylum management, the Netherlands limiting refugee access, and Germany's shift towards stricter border controls, fueling the rise of right-wing parties. This trend threatens to overshadow critical issues like the rule of law and fundamental rights in Europe's political landscape. “There's an urgent need for spaces to articulate alternative proposals as security and defense dominate the agenda”, concludes Ferrero-Turrión. 

The same phenomenon is also noted by Deník Referendum (in Czech), which asks in its headline "Can the left reverse the rise of the far right in Europe?" According to the Czech left-wing online daily  “far-right parties gained ground in recent European elections, while the left struggled”. Robert Fico's SMER, despite its affiliation with the European social democratic parties, has opted for a trajectory akin to "mainstreaming the far right". This alignment places SMER in a category analogous to Poland's PiS or Hungary's Fidesz within the party spectrum. The left's reluctance to address economic disparities and cede discourse to the far right contributes to its decline. To reverse this trend, the left must focus on economic challenges in smaller towns and rural areas, emphasizing inclusive policies.

In Italy Linkiesta expresses concerns (in Italian) over the worrying trend of a “crumbling pro-Ukraine European front, with right-wing and left-wing populism equally contributing to this shift”. The independent online newspaper points out that Slovakia has been a significant supporter of Ukraine, both in terms of military aid and diplomatic support. However, the rise of Moscow-leaning politicians within the EU, “which starting from the epicenter of Russian infiltration into the EU, i.e., the Visegrád bloc states, could quickly spread westward and in particular toward the founding country historically most compromised in dangerous relations with Putin – Italy”.

Italy presently appears detached from this dynamic, with the Meloni government swiftly aligning itself with allied nations, despite past support for Putin by Lega and Forza Italia, and Fratelli d'Italia's critique of Western dealings with Moscow. However, this Atlanticist shift could reverse due to convenience and dependence, rather than critical reflection on Italy's Putin-friendly stance in the past. The left faces even greater challenges. Democratic Party (PD) under the new chairwoman Elly Schlein is susceptible to pacifism, hampered by Giuseppe Conte and the Five Star Movement's unwavering disarmamentism, exemplified by their recent proclamation, coinciding with Fico's victory in Bratislava, calling for an immediate halt to military supplies to Kiev.

A similar concern about war fatigue and the waning appetite of Europe's neighbours to help is shared by the Austrian daily Die Presse (in German, paywall), which argues that “From now on, Kiev must fight not only against Russian aggressors, but also against the fear of being abandoned by the West”. According to the Viennese newspaper, Europe must focus on the reasons for the growing preference for populism. To support Ukraine effectively, allies must prepare for a protracted conflict, securing Western aid even during domestic political setbacks. Simultaneously, the EU must formulate a robust response to the refugee crisis to prevent the rise of populist leaders across member states. With eight months to the European elections, EU leaders must act promptly, not only for the sake of Ukraine but also to preserve their own stability.

“Dangerous drift to populism”, proclaims the headline of Tagesspiegel (in German), which assesses Robert Fico's Smer party's triumph as a major hurdle for the dominant ruling SPD party. Smer, an official ally of the SPD and a constituent of the SD family of social democratic parties in the European Parliament, faces mounting calls to follow in the footsteps of the Christian Democrats who recently severed ties with Orbán and his Fidesz party. According to Germany's most widely read newspaper, The Slovak election outcome should serve as a wake-up call for many in Germany. Anti-democratic trends and EU rule-of-law issues are often labeled as "right-wing”. Yet, Fico's return showcases a "left-wing" variant. This social democrat shares similarities with Hungary's "right-wing" Viktor Orbán. Distinguishing "right-wing populism" from "left-wing populism" seems arbitrary. Both merge national and social aspects, akin to "national socialism", a term tabooed by German history. Sahra Wagenknecht, former leader of Die Linke in the Bundestag, is pursuing a comparable convergence of national and social ideals within her party project.


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In partnership with Display Europe, cofunded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the Directorate‑General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.

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