Continental politics in 2016 was defined by a series of anti-establishment revolts. In Britain and Italy, sensational referendum results led to the departure of two previously secure regional premiers, David Cameron and Matteo Renzi. The election of Donald Trump, meanwhile, though it took place a few thousand miles away across the Atlantic Ocean, was no less significant in terms of its ramifications for Europe’s political climate, heralding a new geopolitical era in which European powers look increasingly lonely as defenders of what remains of the liberal international order. An emboldened Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, may well sense greater opportunity for sowing confusion and instability in seemingly secure European democracies, having seen similar efforts in the American context so handsomely rewarded.
In 2017, elections in several European countries will give us the chance to see how the political preferences of European populations are developing in response to these developments. They will also allow us to decipher whether 2016 represented the peak of the anti-establishment surge in Western party politics, or whether it instead represented the inauguration of a volatile ‘new normal’ in such affairs, in which the only prediction we can make with much certainty is the increased presence of uncertainty.
An early clue as to which direction we are heading in will come in March’s Dutch general election. The key aspect to look out for here will be the performance of the Party for Freedom (PVV), whose figurehead Geert Wilders was recently found guilty of inciting racial discrimination against Moroccans. If, as polls currently indicate, this far-right and vehemently anti-Islam party becomes the largest outfit in the Dutch Parliament, we can safely assume that the anti-establishment tide has far from subsided. In the unlikelier event that it is also able to form a majority government by winning the support of other parties, Europe would be facing a political earthquake on a par with Brexit, with the hard Eurosceptic PVV committed to withdrawing the Netherlands from the European Union. On the other hand, if the polling position of Wilders’ party recedes somewhat in the next two months, and the party finds itself comfortably beaten by Mark Rutte’s centre-right incumbents, we may justifiably predict somewhat calmer climes in the rest of 2017.
Nonetheless, whatever happens in the Netherlands will pale into insignificance if Marine Le Pen of the Front National succeeds in capturing the French Presidency in May. If Le Pen were to fail to make it into the second round of the presidential elections, in which the first round’s two most popular candidates face each other in a run-off, then establishment and pro-EU parties across Europe would heave a mighty sigh of relief. It is far more likely, however, that Ms Le Pen will indeed match the achievement of her father Jean-Marie in 2002 by making the run-off. In this eventuality, we can expect the run-off of 2017 to be a much closer affair than was that of 2002. Then, voters from across the political spectrum united to deliver incumbent President Jacques Chirac the largest landslide in French electoral history against his far-right opponent. This year, however, Le Pen’s most likely opponent in the run-off is Francois Fillon of the centre-right Republican party, who is likely to be rather less successful than Chirac in convincing left-leaning voters to ‘hold their noses’ to vote for him – his “Thatcherite” economic platform, which includes a pledge to cut half a million public sector jobs, lies considerably to the right of the protectionist economic proposals of the Front National. If Le Pen was indeed to make it all the way to the Presidency, Europe would be facing a political crisis on a par with anything it has experienced since the Second World War, with the potential unravelling of the EU only the most dramatic of the many immense consequences the election of a far-right, nationalist French government could have.
The final easily imaginable political earthquake in Europe in 2017 could come in Germany, with the EU’s largest country by population due to hold federal elections at some point between August and October. The potential for an upset here to disrupt international politics is even greater than in France, with Europe’s largest economy under Angela Merkel currently poised to play a pivotal role defending Western liberalism in the Trump era. Nonetheless, the election in Germany will be awaited with rather less anxiety than that of France, with the prospect of a successful far-right anti-establishment revolt in Germany looking considerably more remote than it does in her Westerly neighbour. The main reason for this is that the far-right is considerably weaker in Germany than in most other countries in Europe, in part due to easily understandable historical factors. Thus, while we can expect the Eurosceptic party Alternative for Germany (AfD) to enter the Bundestag for the first time in 2017, the only real threat to Ms Merkel successfully lengthening her twelve-year tenure as Chancellor comes from her current coalition partners, the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD). While a victory for the SPD would come as something of a surprise, it would not constitute an anti-establishment upset akin to a triumph for Wilders or Le Pen.
Overall, then, three pivotal European elections in 2017 present, with varying likelihoods, the possibility that politics in the new year could be further rocked by 2016-esque anti-establishment revolts. Of these three, the election of most single significance will probably come in France, where a far-right victory is both more feasible than in Germany and would have greater impact than in the Netherlands. Nonetheless, I would urge readers to keep an eye out for one more potentially significant trend in the elections of 2017. So far, the main beneficiaries of the anti-establishment wave have been the far-right, reflected in the victories of the Brexiteers and Trump as well as by the potential successes of Wilders, Le Pen and the AfD. My hunch is that 2017 may be the year in which we begin to see greater successes for the Corbyn/Sanders-esque populist left, which possesses just as much disruptive and transformative potential as the populist right. If the anti-establishment ‘new left‘ does indeed kick on in 2017, becoming a force of comparable electoral potency to the insurgent far-right, then the democracies of Europe and the West really will be entering uncharted new territory.