By the middle of 2017, Emmanuel Macron’s victory in France’s election, the relative underperformance of populist parties in elections in the Netherlands and the backlash in the United States against President Trump convinced some commentators that the populist wave had peaked. Pollster Nate Silver expressed the optimist view when he argued that Trump’s performance as president and his global unpopularity might further stain populist parties and far-right figures in Europe.
On closer inspection, though, such hope appears misplaced. Over the next two years, populists — who generally pit “the people” against corrupt and privileged elites, attack institutions and position themselves as radical outsiders who will overturn the political order — will keep coming. In so doing, they will demonstrate that their revolution has legs.
Indeed, populists will continue winning in the next two years because mainstream parties, in Europe and parts of Asia, have taken few steps to assuage public anger over inequality graft, and a perceived disconnect between politicians and voters. Populists will also continue to rise because many mainstream parties have tried to demonize individual populists — such as Trump or the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte — rather than treating them like political figures and developing coherent political platforms to oppose them. Finally, populists are succeeding because, in some countries, mainstream political parties have responded by uniting to form coalition governments, as has now happened in Germany. In so doing, they give populists the chance to argue that the center-right and center-left parties are basically the same — and that new voices are needed to shake up politics.
Indeed, populists are poised to do well even in places, like Italy, that already lived through a long era of populism in the 2000s. They also may do well in Asia, where economic growth has been strong and immigration, a key theme for Western populists, is not a major political issue. Not all of these populists are the same, of course. Some would throw out political elites, and foster needed reforms, while maintaining commitments to democratic norms. Yet others seem ready to destroy democracy itself.
In Italy, former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, a Trump-like figure before Trump, is poised for a major political comeback as a kingmaker in next month’s general election. Berlusconi, whose previous periods as prime minister coincided with horrendously low growth rates and a gusher of corruption scandals, is portraying himself as more centrist this time around. But as prime minister, Berlusconi used typical populist strategies to destroy institutions, portray himself as the only source of truthful information and pit elites against “the people.” Now in his 80s, he is unlikely to change his political style. (He is legally barred from holding elected office until 2019.)
Meanwhile, another powerful populist party, the Five Star Movement, also could gain substantially in the Italian election. Five Star would likely govern from the left, but, like Berlusconi, it has generally positioned itself as a radical break from Italy’s politics as usual.
In Brazil, where national elections will be held in October, populism could make major gains. Jair Bolsonaro, a hard-right populist candidate, leads polls for the first round of the presidential election, if former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is excluded from the survey. (Lula was recently convicted on corruption charges and may not be able to run again.) The brash Bolsonaro, who speaks favorably of the country’s past military dictatorship and appears to endorse torture, presents himself as an outsider populist who would shock Brazil’s political system and potentially assume the role of a caudillo. Even if Bolsonaro does not win, his success would demonstrate that there is a growing market for outsider, even strongman, populism in a country fed up with elite corruption scandals, low growth and inequality.
In Mexico, voters’ anger at the two of the major parties has put left-leaning populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador in the lead for the July presidential election. López Obrador, who has run for president twice before, refused to concede the 2006 election, raising worries about his lack of respect for democratic norms. But he has promised, if elected this time, to govern responsibly.
In Asia, where populists receive less coverage in the international press than Trump or Berlusconi (with the exception of brash Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte), fed-up electorates may vote for massive change in 2018 and 2019. In Indonesia, former lieutenant general Prabowo Subianto, who lost the 2014 presidential election, may be making plans for another run next year. In 2014, Prabowo presented himself as a strongman who would be the voice of the people, while publicly criticizing Indonesia for becoming, essentially, too democratic. Since 2014, he has made an apparent alliance with increasingly powerful Islamist groups in the country — an alliance that could help Prabowo triumph in 2019.
There are more examples of populism’s global strength. British Prime Minister Theresa May hangs onto office with a weak mandate from the public and her own party. Many British politicians and publications believe that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn will eventually reside at 10 Downing Street.
Populism’s continuing appeal should remind long-standing, mainstream political parties worldwide that the factors behind the populist wave are, if not universal, found in many different countries now. Furious voters may turn to populist outsiders, like Corbyn, who would shock political systems but not destroy them – or like Prabowo, who could well demolish them. Either way, 2018 and 2019 will provide more reminders that populism is here to stay.