2016 was a fascinating year for elections, the United States was embroiled in its most unconventional and unpopular election in history, Spain faced its second general election after an indecisive election in 2015 that left no party or coalition with a majority, Austria nearly elected Europe’s first far right head of state in decades to the mostly ceremonial post and the United Kingdom and Italy both voted in referendums that forced their Prime Ministers to resign and sent their respective states into chaos. What will 2017 look like? Will the populist wave from 2016 continue for another year? 2017 will feature prominent and important contests in Germany, France and the Netherlands that will deeply affect our world.
Germany is perhaps the most powerful country in all of Europe. Germany is the highest net contributor to the European Union’s budget and exercises profound influence over the bloc. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is seeking a fourth term as the nation’s head of government. Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union have been in power since 2005. Merkel has become a symbol of European stability and was named the “leader of the free world” by the Washington Post in November 2016 (following the election of Donald Trump in the United States). Merkel does have her problems. Her party’s poll numbers have been consistently declining since summer of 2015 when Merkel allowed nearly 1 Million Syrian Refugees into Germany, a controversial decision. The policy gave way to the right wing Alternative for Germany party (AfD) that capitalizes on Euroscepticism and Populism.
While the AfD has seen a rise in the polls, they are nowhere near forming a government, averaging between 10 and 15 percent in most polls. Merkel has attempted to make overtures to populists in Germany by calling for a ban on the niqab in Germany, a Muslim garment. The shift was perceived as necessary because of Merkel’s shift to the left since 2005 through policies such as the abandonment of nuclear energy among other things. Angela Merkel and the CDU will likely remain in government, but there will also likely be more populists in the Bundestag after 2017.
France will face an unusual election in 2017. President Francois Hollande has announced that he will not seek a second term as the country’s President. This is the first time since the founding of the Fifth French Republic in 1958 that a sitting French President has not sought re-election. Hollande’s decision was motivated by his poor approval numbers, which were largely because of the various terrorist attacks that France has faced under his tenure. Beginning with Charlie Hebdo in 2015 and continuing with attacks in Paris and Nice, France has dealt with terrorism throughout Hollande’s presidency. The leading candidates to succeed Hollande are former Prime Minister Francois Fillon of the Republicans, Marine LePen of the National Front and Prime Minister Manuel Valls of Hollande’s own Socialist Party.
Fillon recently won the Republican Presidential Primary on November 27th. The Republicans (formerly known as the UMP) is the largest center-right party in France. Fillon is currently the front runner to become the country’s next president. Fillon is conservative on economic matters and has been described as a “Thatcherite” for his belief in limited government. Fillon has also reached out to Populist voters by describing his opposition to “Islamic Totalitarianism”, as national security is a high priority in the Presidential Election. Fillon has also indicated that he wishes to work with Russia in Syria, a break from France’s current foreign policy that is in line with what American President-elect Donald Trump has said.
Marine Le Pen has been even more overtly vocal on these issues. Le Pen is a populist anti-immigration candidate who has made it clear that she opposes the European Union. Le Pen has stated that if she wins the French Presidency, she will call for an immediate referendum on France’s membership in the European Union and fight for “Frexit.” Le Pen has also stated that the wearing of the Muslim veil within France is “the tip of the iceberg” in the Islamization of France.
The governing Socialist Party has not yet had its primary to nominate a candidate for the presidency. The leading candidate so far has been incumbent Prime Minister Manuel Valls. Valls is seen to be at the right wing of his center-left party. He has been described as a “third way” candidate like Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Matteo Renzi. Valls would likely continue the work of President Hollande in a more centrist fashion. Currently, it is likely that Fillon and Le Pen will advance to the second round of voting and that Fillon will defeat Le Pen by a wide margin to become France’s next President.
The Netherlands is also facing a General Election in 2017. The Dutch will likely choose between incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy and Geert Wilders of the far right Party for Freedom. Rutte will represent the status quo and a continuation of Pro-European policies. Wilders will represent a Eurosceptic and Anti-Islamic perspective. Wilders has said that he “doesn’t hate Muslims, but hates Islam”. The contrast between the two candidates is very similar to the choice that voters in France will be given in 2017. Wilders was recently found guilty of hate speech after he criticized Moroccan immigrants, though he received no sentence for his crime. Wilders’ party has seen an increase in the polls after the conviction and has been leading consistently in all recent polls. The problem that Wilders could face is forming a government. Governments in the Netherlands are usually formed between multiple parties. Wilders could find it difficult finding parties that agree with him, even if he has a plurality of the seats in Parliament.
Elections in 2017 sound like elections in 2016. The political mainstream is being attacked by populist forces from the right. It is possible that our political battles in the future could be fought between mainstream centrists and extremist populists. 2017 could also be a completely different year. There could be a new political movement that could sweep Europe and the rest of the world. Ultimately, the decision will be up to the people across the world to decide what political doctrines will rule them.