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Defeating National Populism: Lessons from Austria and Portugal

By Rui Tavares

What lessons can we learn from Austria and Portugal, two beacons of hope in 2016’s less than sunny political scene? Rui Tavares tries to unpick what helps progressive forces triumph, drawing on Portugal’s history and unique lack of populist and nationalist movements, and Van der Bellen’s recent success in Austria.

The year 2016 will be remembered for Brexit, Trump’s victory in the US presidential election and the emergence of a new type of politics that one could call ‘national populism’. Let’s bear in mind that what is ‘populist’ about it is not that it comes from below but that it wrongfully claims to be the sole representative of the will of the people, whereas what we are actually witnessing is a fight between divergent elites loudly (and probably falsely) claiming to be able to do something about globalisation. But this political movement is indeed nationalistic: Trump has declared that ‘Americanism, not globalism, is our creed’, and Theresa May, wishing to ingratiate herself with the all-powerful hard-Brexiteers in her party, has claimed that ‘If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere’. If anything, 2016 has given strength to the need for a third axis to define our political reality: apart from left and right, authoritarian or libertarian, one has now to choose between nationalism and cosmopolitanism in order to locate oneself in the current ideological landscape. National-populism, which is inherently authoritarian and mostly of the right (although, in some cases, left varieties of it can also be found), now seems to have the upper hand. However, appearances can be misleading. Because of their vociferousness it is easy to forget that national populists are seldom the majority in any country; in fact, our societies are split in half, with either huge minorities (the 48 percent of ‘Remainers’ in the UK) or even outright majorities (the almost 3 million votes more that Clinton had over Trump) supporting a more open, tolerant, and cosmopolitan outlook. What the cosmopolitan half of the electorate is lacking is the self-awareness, the voice, and the leadership that is needed in order to best defend its values, conquer its goals, or keep what it has achieved in the past – including, on our continent, the development of the European project, and in the world in general the defence of an international system strongly based on the notion of universal human rights.

This is why I have chosen to remember 2016 not for the well-known and over-analysed UK and US ballot results, but for the political news coming from two smaller European countries (medium-sized by EU standards): Austria and Portugal. Political developments in both countries have provided us with valuable insights into national populism and how to beat it, insights that will be precious for all of us in 2017.

Portugal has escaped the current wave of national populism so far. Looking back on its history, Portugal has also escaped any major outbursts of racially-motivated, xenophobic, or anti-cosmopolitan politics. This is starting to attract the attention of international media and a few days ago I was asked by the Financial Times if I had an explanation for this phenomenon. What follows is more or less based on the exchanges with the FT’s Peter Wise.

At its simplest, the explanation for the lack of political national populism in Portugal may be that nobody has consistently tried to gain political advantage by advancing these politics. It may seem tautological, but for national populism to take hold of the public debate there has to be someone who is willing to start voicing national populist themes in public, and other people to approve of that discourse. Apart from this there is not much which unites countries that currently are enduring big populist waves: they can be rich as the Netherlands, big as the US, afflicted by stagnation like Italy, or small like Switzerland. The degradation of political discourse starts when there is someone willing to start it and – at least after a while – no one to condemn it. In Portugal there were some mild attempts at xenophobic discourse by Paulo Portas (then the leader of a small conservative party) more than 20 years ago, but he was roundly criticised by everybody, and because he wanted to be a ‘respectable’ politician with a prospect of gaining power, he cut it out.

It helps – counter-intuitively – that Portugal has a proportional political system. In the UK and in France, nationalist parties are kept out of the national parliament, and then they go the European Parliament to enjoy not so much the perks of the EU they so much decry, but rather the possibility of political representation and professional 24/7 politics that they are denied at home (in fact, talk of EU perks only serves to disguise the fact that the EU is more democratic – in the sense of representative and proportional – than the national politics of France or the UK). In Portugal, there is no clause barring fringe parties from the Assembleia da República. Although the Constitution does forbid fascist parties, judges of the Constitutional Court have interpreted this clause in a very restrictive sense. There is no 5% threshold like in Germany, no ‘first past the post’ like in the UK, no two-round uninominal system as in France. Voters are free to try out a couple of MPs from fringe parties and see if they really do serious work – parliamentary commissions are often televised and are great opportunities for MPs to build their political careers. Had the people elected a couple of extremist MPs, those would have had to prove themselves as competent, hard-working deputies during their mandate, or risk not being re-elected. By excluding populists from parliament, the UK and France risk boosting their careers outside the normalcy of national parliamentary politics. It gives people like Farage and Le Pen the option to choose for a lavishly-funded career in the European Parliament, where they don’t bother to do any real work apart and instead spend their time on honing their media skills in order to exaggerate the grievances of their domestic constituencies until the tipping point is reached when their discourse becomes ‘normalised’. That is how Farage and Le Pen can – without being elected for their respective national parliaments – force far-reaching constitutional changes on their countries. This has already happened in the UK with Brexit; it may happen soon in France should Marine Le Pen win the next presidential election.

Another factor which helps keep the Portuguese parliamentary system healthy is that there is no electoral prize for the party that comes first in the elections, as in Italy or Greece, i.e. the Portuguese system favours coalition-making. Up until recently only the centre-right parties had taken advantage of this system, but with the last election the parties to the left of the Socialists have also been forced to accept that part of the political game in the country by supporting the current government. In practice, this has made them understand the limits of their anti-EU rhetoric, although I suspect they are not ready to confess it yet.

Two last points, one on history and memory and the other one on the crisis. Portugal has had a dictatorship in living memory, and nationalism (and a tragic colonial war, still present in the psychological lives of many of our fathers and grandfathers) was part of that package, so the new democratic regime, although patriotic, was established on a firm ground of international commitments to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, decolonisation, the European Project, and so on. There is a democratic narrative for these things. Whereas in Eastern Europe, for example, nationalism often comes imbricated in resistance to dictatorship, in Portugal there is no heroisation premium for being a nationalist. On the contrary, good relations with the former colonies (as well as with Brazil) and post-colonial attachment to their culture and peoples is something that politicians tend to appreciate and are appreciated for. The narrative of Portuguese ‘conviviality’ with other peoples and races may only be a narrative, but people believe in it. All this may be a matter of domestic circumstances and thus hardly applicable to other countries.

As for the crisis, things are more complex. In a sense, socio-economic crises may not produce the same political results everywhere and at every time. The conventional narrative according to which people with less money and fewer jobs inevitably turn on their neighbours and against foreigners does not seem to hold in the Portuguese case. People in my country have spent the last decade anguished by the long wait for the next pay check, the prospect of unemployment, the fear of having their house or wages seized because of unpaid taxes, and also – crucially – the emigration of many of their loved ones. There is simply no time to worry about foreigners – how they pray, how they dress, how they speak – like in countries that are much richer and closer to full employment. From a Portuguese perspective, the Dutch do not have much to worry about. This certainly puts on shaky ground the classical explanation about an automatic link between socioeconomic crises and xenophobic politics.

In any case, many of us hope that Portugal stays a relatively progressive and civic-minded example of stability in the continent, but it is Europe and the European Project at large that need saving or Portugal will be swept away by the winds of history as it has in the past.

Not all the contingencies of the Portuguese situation can or should be reproduced in other countries. For this I now turn to Austria, a country where national populist politics has been strong for the whole of the 21st century, and that for much of 2016 seemed to be ‘the’ country where the next piece of the EU domino would certainly fall. This has led to implications that the EU was already lost; for months, it was just a question of the far right winning in Austria for the EU’s death knell to sound. For the prophets of doom there was even the additional frisson of the Austrian national populists having three chances at winning the presidential elections: on the first round in April, on the second round in May, and again in December because the margin of their previous defeat  was not clear enough for all doubts to be dissipated. Finally on  December 4th these elections were settled for good: the far right did regress significantly in relation to its previous votes and its candidate, Norbert Hofer, quickly conceded defeat.

What was strange in these elections was that there was only talk of the defeated candidate. What about the winner, Alexander Van der Bellen? What has almost never been mentioned, amongst all the fuss about a semi neo-Nazi rising to power, was that in Austria we had for the first time in one EU country the possibility of a president coming from the ecological, libertarian, and cosmopolitan left – a possibility that has now materialised.

In fact, the victory of Alexander Van der Bellen is not only good news because the far right did not win. It is good news because Van der Bellen belongs to that part of the left which is diametrically opposed to the far right; not the centrist and accommodating left, nor a closed, nationalist left with sympathies for authoritarianism and corruption (as long as they can claim to be ‘anti-imperialist’). The left of Alexander Van der Bellen is one that argues that we are all citizens of the world, that we all have a responsibility to the planet, that we must all be faithful without compromise to human rights, that our states have an obligation to receive refugees (Van der Bellen himself is the son of refugees), that there is life beyond the nation-state, and finally that the construction of a democratic European project and a world politics in which citizens (and not only governments and multinationals) have a voice are the only ways to regulate globalisation so that it benefits everyone and the planet itself.

These are the values that when courageously and integrally defended can achieve majorities. The far right would probably have won power against a candidate ‘of the system’. And if the far right had been opposed by a supposedly ‘anti-system’ candidate who in the end would agree with it through his or her sympathies with Putin and with a penchant for the closing of borders – it wouldn’t have made much difference. But when the extreme right is confronted with adversaries holding openly opposing principles and values, the choice becomes clear: authoritarianism or freedom, regression or progress, fascist past or democratic future, xenophobia or cosmopolitanism, a united Europe without frontiers and with a role in the world or a mere collection of countries afraid of their neighbours, fostering a distrust of foreigners, and becoming increasingly irrelevant. Where the case of Portugal shows that proportional representation and political inclusion can lead to a public debate devoid of national populism, the Austrian case shows that a clear defence of cosmopolitan values will more easily command electoral majorities than a shallow defence of the status quo against its national populist pseudo-challengers (in fact, national populists are more in favour of securing the status quo than of challenging it).

To restate, in present times it will not do to just add a second essential distinction between libertarian and authoritarian to the classic distinction between left and right. The ecological crisis, the plight of the refugees, and the unruly globalisation which plays into the hands of the most powerful bring to the forefront a third essential distinction: nationalism or cosmopolitanism. Nationalism means to think that the world is organised according to watertight territorial and populational compartments and that in each of these compartments, be they democratic or not, a state or a strongman or an oligarchy will impose their respectively preferred order. Cosmopolitanism means to think that in addition to being citizens of our city, our region, and our country, we have rights and duties as citizens of our continent and our world.

Being nationalistic is not the same as being patriotic – quite the contrary. It is the citizens of the world, the cosmopolitans, who are not only the best guardians of the planet and the best defenders of our common humanity, but also – importantly – the best patriots for their country. If we voice these ideas clearly and with conviction, we will at least know what we are fighting for, and in doing so we may well win the day.


This article was originally published on the blog of the Heinrich Boell Foundation.