The Right Nationalist World Tour’s Next Stops: Rome, Amsterdam, Paris, Berlin

by Benjamin Studebaker

Right nationalism seems to be having its moment in the sun. The right nationalists believe that the inequality and economic stagnation we see today across many rich democracies is caused by immigrants, minorities, and foreign states which take jobs, drain welfare states and public services, and push through expropriative trade deals. They want to put a stop to free trade and free movement in a bid to recreate the strong, ethnically and culturally homogeneous nation states that prevailed in the 1950s. They won a stunning victory in Britain’s EU referendum, and have now followed this up with a come-from-behind surprise win in the US presidential election. But there are many right nationalist movements scattered throughout the rich countries, and many of them will have a chance to gain power and influence in upcoming elections. Here are four biggest opportunities for right nationalists to upset the liberal world order in the next year.

We can think of this as a right nationalist world tour. Here are the tour dates:

  • June 23, 2016, London, UK–52% to 48% referendum victory for Brexit
  • November 8, 2016, Washington DC, USA–306 to 232 electoral college victory for Donald Trump
  • December 4, 2016, Rome, Italy–constitutional referendum result TBA
  • March 15, 2017, Amsterdam, Netherlands–general election result TBA
  • May 7, 2017, Paris, France–presidential election result TBA
  • September 2017, Berlin, Germany–federal election result TBA

If they were selling really lame t-shirts for this, they might feature an image like this:


Right now the polling looks robust enough to keep the right nationalists down in Germany and to a lesser extent France, but in both Britain and the US the right nationalists came from behind and trailed in the polls late. To make matters worse, the Italians are up first and it looks like they are in deep trouble–if their referendum fails and this precipitates a new round of Eurocrisis, this could change the conditions in the Netherlands, France, and Germany. Each race that tips could produce more momentum, especially if other exogenous shocks–like a terrorist attack or global economic crisis–hurt Europe’s political establishment. Let’s take a closer look at the state of each race, in the order in which they’ll go down.

The Italian Referendum

Italy’s constitution is a bit of a mess. Unlike most countries that run on a parliamentary system, Italy’s government is responsible to two houses at the same time–the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate of the Republic. All legislation must be passed in both houses in the same text, and the government needs the confidence of both to stay in power. This makes it exceptionally difficult for the Italian Prime Minister to get things done and maintain a stable government. So Prime Minister Matteo Renzi wants to pass a suite of reforms to make it easier for him to run the country and make Italy more similar to other parliamentary systems. The key thing is that the reforms will massively weaken the senate so the Prime Minister doesn’t have to balance two houses at once, making it more similar to the British House of Lords and allowing the Chamber of Deputies to override it on most matters.

Italy has already passed some electoral reforms that will give the leading party winning in excess of 40% of the vote a minimum of 340 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, or 54% of the total (if no party wins 40%, a run-off is held between the two strongest parties, similar to the French presidential system). The remaining 277 seats are then distributed to the losing parties proportionately. In combination with the constitutional reform, this electoral reform will ensure that the leading party in Italian politics always enjoys a comfortable governing majority in the only house that really matters, eliminating coalitions. In this way Italy retains proportional representation for losing parties but gives the winning party the kind of governing security enjoyed by winning parties in countries that run first past the post, like the UK.

Italy’s small parties loathe these reforms, because they deprive them of the chance to join coalitions with the major parties. Additionally, because Italy is accustomed to proportional representation and coalitions, there is concern that the reforms are undemocratic and give the Prime Minister too much power (though it would not be unusual by British standards). Among the leading opponents is the Five Star Movement, a Euroskeptic, anti-establishment party promoting protectionism and condemning foreign military interventions. It’s not a perfect mirror of Trump–it recognizes climate change and cares a great deal about environmentalism, for one–but it’s also led by an entertainer with no political experience, Beppe Grillo. Grillo hopes to defeat Renzi’s referendum and capitalize on the defeat to force a new election which the Five Star Movement might win, allowing it to achieve its longstanding aim of holding a referendum on EU membership.

Currently the situation looks bad for Renzi, but he’s not without hope yet–most recent polls have “yes” trailing by 3 to 4 points:

If Renzi blows the referendum, he’s probably in serious trouble. The Five Star Movement (yellow) is already hot on his trail (red):

The Dutch General Election

In the Netherlands the PVV (Party for Freedom) is surging in the polls. Led by the deeply Islamophobic (and Trump hairstyle emulator) Geert Wilders, it is now expected to increase its share of seats in the Dutch House of Representatives from 15 to somewhere between 21 and 42, with most November polls putting them on around 25. There are 150 seats in the Dutch legislature elected by proportional representation. If the PVV can secure 28 seats, it’s reasonably likely to have the largest number of seats, but far from enough to form a governing majority on its own (which would require in excess of 75).

The current Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, comes from VVD (People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy), a center-right party which has supported austerity. In 2010, PVV came third and VVD included PVV in a right wing coalition. When Rutte attempted to pass austerity measures in 2012, PVV blocked them and forced the government to call a new election. In that election, PVV’s numbers fell and VVD elected to form a unity government with PvdA, the Dutch Labor Party. This coalition eventually reintroduced and passed austerity measures in 2013. This seems to have destroyed the Dutch Labor Party’s anti-austerity bona fides–its poll numbers have collapsed since then, much like the British Liberal Democrats’ numbers dived after they U-turned on their promise not to support tuition fees. VVD also took a hit, albeit not as severely. As the Dutch center has collapsed, a variety of anti-establishment parties on both the left and right have experienced gains, but none more so than the right nationalist PVV.

Traditionally, the party with the most seats gets the first chance to form a governing coalition. There is a good chance that this could be PVV. But if other parties refuse to work with PVV, it could be boxed out of power. This could be accomplished even if PVV does exceptionally well and beats its current numbers.

Let’s imagine, for instance, a scenario like this, in which PVV gets 31 seats:


It would still be possible to keep out PVV with a grand coalition including all of the left and all of the center. VVD, Labor, the Socialists, the Democrats, and the Greens could combine for 77, which is just enough for a majority. But this alliance between the center and the left would be difficult to hold together, and its majority would be very small:


Unfortunately, even if PVV finishes near the bottom of its projection, the Netherlands would still need a grand coalition to keep it out. Here’s what happens in the worst poll for PVV taken during the last month, in which it finishes 10 seats worse than in the above projection:


Even in this configuration, the coalition cannot survive without VVD or Labor. It can cut the Greens loose, the Socialists, or the Democrats, but only one of these. So it is virtually guaranteed that PVV will either go into government or an unstable grand coalition will be assembled to keep it out.

The French Presidential Election

French President Francois Hollande is deeply unpopular and he’s going down, hard. The latest polls have him hovering near 10%. The French presidential elections run in two rounds. The two with the strongest showing in the first round advance to the second, while the rest are eliminated. At present, current polling strongly suggests that Alain Juppe will defeat Nicolas Sarkozy to become the center-right Republican Party’s nominee and will end the first round with something like 30% of the vote, while the National Front’s Marine Le Pen will finish either immediately ahead of him or behind him. This means all the left and center-left candidates are likely to finish outside the top two, which would mean an early defeat for the incumbent Hollande as well as the left wing Jean-Luc Melenchon and the centrist Emmanuel Macron, each of whom polls in the low to mid teens.

In a Juppe/Le Pen second round matchup, Juppe remains the heavy favorite, leading by a near 2 to 1 margin. Le Pen is usually a French voter’s first or last choice–few voters are willing to move to National Front in the second round. But the first round is not until April, so there is still time for things to change, and they may change substantially if Italy has disposed of Renzi and voted to leave the EU and the Netherlands has put the PVV in government. In the 2012 presidential election, Le Pen won only 18%. Aided by Hollande’s unpopularity and a slew of terrorist attacks in France, she has already managed to add about 10 points to that. We have no idea what her ceiling is. This would also mark the first time that National Front has made it into the second round since 2002 (when they were emphatically crushed 82 to 18). Even if they went on to lose 65-35, it would be a step in the wrong direction and a shameful display for the French left, which would not even have a candidate in the second round.

The German Federal Election

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been around since 2005, and she remains a tough out. The right nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) remains far behind in third place, and there’s little confidence that the Socialist Party (SPD) can work effectively in a left coalition with the left and the greens. Nevertheless, Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has been weakening in the polls quite consistently for just over a year now, and there remain another 10 months until the election (which is usually held in September):

CDU is black, the SPD are red, AfD is cyan, the greens are green, the left is purple, and the liberals are yellow. All told, CDU is down about 10 points from its August 2015 high, a loss of nearly a quarter of its support. In the same span of time, AfD has climbed from the basement to the low to mid teens, occupying a space similar to Britain’s UKIP. The left wing parties have not been able to make significant inroads–the SPD have also lost support in the last year, the left is flatlining, and the greens’ gains are offset by the SPD’s losses. The liberals have picked up a few points, but not much. The trend appears to be for defecting SPDers to go to the greens and defecting CDUers to go to AfD. This means the German center is being squeezed from both sides, but especially by the right. If in the next year CDU were to drop another 10 points all to AfD, the CDU, SPD, and AfD would all finish with around a quarter of the vote apiece, with the remaining quarter split between the greens, left, and liberals. The CDU and the SPD would keep AfD out with another coalition, but their majority would be diminished substantially and the outcome would deeply embarrass Germany, which prides itself on having moved past such things.

But with this race still so far away, it’s very hard to know what will happen. The CDU may yet recover some of its losses, and because of Germany’s history right nationalists face higher cultural barriers there. There is arguably no country which has benefited more economically from its EU membership than Germany, which gained an immense number of dedicated, tariff-free markets for its industrial exports. But because of a persistent German media narrative in which the peripheral economies are portrayed as immoral parasites on German prosperity, the EU doesn’t poll as well in Germany as one might expect–they only like it slightly more than the British do:

It’s still too early to be highly confident about the outcomes of any of these races. In due course they will tell us if 2017 will be another banner year for the right nationalists or the year Europe’s establishment shows it’s still capable of mounting effective resistance.