Left-wing Populism - An overlooked threat for Europe?

, by Benedikt Putz, Translated by Noah Roth

Left-wing Populism - An overlooked threat for Europe?
BeŻet, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/license...> , via Wikimedia Commons Gaffiti of a person holding a red flag

Sahra Wagenknecht’s party constitutes the newest player in Germany’s political landscape, ideologically uniting classic leftist positions with a conservative stance on society. Its populist approach relies on simple answers to the great questions of our time, signifying a novelty in the country. This, however, does not hold true for other EU member countries. But just how potent is left-wing populism in the European Union in anticipation of its 2024 elections? What are its characteristics? And which challenges does it hold for the future of Europe?

Public perception often locates populism within the right-wing spectrum of politics, and rightfully so. Right-wing populist parties are surging in all EU member states. However, populism is by no means a phenomenon exclusive to the political right. The left too is no stranger to giving simple answers to complex questions. This has been the case since the meteoric rise of the Greek Syriza Party during the Eurozone crisis, when left-wing populism found its way into the European mainstream. However, the potential of such parties in the EU has never been as high as it is today.

Leftists vs. the EU - decoding the basis of left-wing populism

Left-wing populism has traditionally been a phenomenon in Latin America, exemplified by the more moderate former Bolivian President Evo Morales or Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro. Although their actual political agendas may differ as much as one could imagine, they are but united in a similar style of doing politics: focusing on a supposed “common will of the people” while relegating the observance of democratic processes to the background.

In contrast, left-wing populism is still very much in its infancy across the EU. Belgian political scientist Chantal Mouffe laid the ideological foundation for the European variant via her book “For a Left Populism”, in which she advocates for the political left to also make more use of populist techniques. In this way, its distinction to right-wing populism lies in the pronounced enemies of the people: instead of migrants, left-wing populists would fight against neoliberal economic elites. A common element of populism across both political spectrums includes sceptical stances on the EU. For its right-wing version, the EU represents a threat to what it regards as being the central political unit - the Nation-State. Left-wing populism follows a similar idea, albeit with a different reasoning. Ethnic considerations make way for a more economically focused challenge to the EU. Decisions from Brussels would undermine the interests of local populations, who should be protected from the impacts of globalisation by means of protectionist measures such as import tariffs. Just like their right-wing counterparts, however, left-wing populists also mainly distinguish themselves in times of crises. Germany’s newest high-profile party exemplifies this trend. Sahra Wagenknecht and her new Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance (BSW) split from the Left Party after crises concerning COVID-19, migration, and Ukraine enabled her to develop a unique political profile among German mainstream politicians. Notorious for her polarising speeches during her tenure in the Left Party, she decided to form her own splinter party only after multiple crises had hit the country. Left-wing populist parties thus chiefly constitute anti-movements, thriving in times of chaos.

Which countries are strongholds for left-wing populism?

As illustrated, this style of politics shines especially in places marred with problems. Political landscapes where traditional social democratic parties are unable to find satisfactory answers to central political questions turn into fertile ground for populists. In Greece, the Syriza party, led by Alexis Tsipras and Yanis Varoufakis, scored a major victory in the 2015 legislative elections and went on to head a coalition government in the aftermath of the Eurozone crisis. Initially achieving notoriety due to its strong rejection of EU-ordered austerity measures, the party’s popularity declined over the years. During the latest election in 2023, Syriza received 18% of the vote. While this meant that the party was still the second biggest in the Hellenic Parliament, its share decreased from the original 36% in 2015.

Three years after the initial success of Syriza, a left-wing populist party in Italy also scored a major success. Founded by comedian Beppe Grillo, the Five Star Movement capitalised on the rising discontent in the country. Slow economic growth and high unemployment led many voters dissatisfied with established parties to eventually gravitate towards Grillo’s party. Similarly to Syriza, however, the success of the Five Star Movement proved to be temporary: its coalition with the right-wing populist Lega broke down after merely a year, and the ensuing cooperation with the social democrats of the Democratic Party was not particularly successful either. The Five Star Movement recorded only 15% in the 2022 elections, coming in third.

Currently, one can find just one left-wing populist as head of government in the EU: Slovakia’s Robert Fico. During last year’s election, his Smer party became the strongest party in the country with 23% of the popular vote and went on to form a coalition with the centre-left Hlas and the ultranationalist Slovak National Party. Exactly what this alliance plans programmatically remains hard to gauge, but it appears to be committed to the EU and NATO, albeit voicing this support through a Slovak nationalist rhetoric. Fico, in particular, has been in the spotlight for his position to cease further assistance to Ukraine. Such attitudes seem to be the main factors determining the current surge in popularity of left-wing populists in the EU.

2024 - A major year for left-wing populism in the EU?

In the course of the European election campaign, left-wing populists could play a decisive role. Considering the ongoing economic difficulties and array of social tensions that have swept Europe in recent years, these actors find auspicious prospects to base and deliver their messages on. This may hold true principally in countries where approval rates for social democratic parties have plummeted, and trust in and satisfaction with politics is low.

Populist parties on the political left will probably try to capitalise on popular discontent with the EU and the perceived incongruence between decisions made in Brussels and the needs of the people in the coming elections. However, it will be interesting to observe just how united these parties will be. For instance, which political group will the German BSW join? Or will there be a new populist grouping on the left spectrum? It may well be assumed that left-wing populism will significantly shape the European political structure in 2024. In doing so, it poses considerable risks for Europe’s future. Most importantly, its challenging attitude towards established authorities could facilitate increased erosion of voters’ trust in European institutions, potentially jeopardising the continent’s stability by amplifying the severity of social tensions in European countries. Additionally, its call for increased protectionism may sabotage the process of European integration, impeding trade flows and encouraging unilateral action. In this way, although populism’s leftist version differs from its right-wing cousin in terms of its political agenda, the goal remains the same: weakening the EU and strengthening the respective nation state.

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