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Three small victories: A turning point?

Sep 07,2019 - Last updated at Sep 07,2019

Have we reached peak fascist in Europe? Well, all right then, peak hard-right nationalist, but are we there yet? That would be reassuring, and three events in the past week give some cause for hope.

First, on Sunday Germany’s far-right party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), failed to win first place in the two state elections where it had a chance of forming the government, Saxony and Brandenburg.

Both states seethe with resentment because former East Germany is still poorer than the western part of the country thirty years after reunification. Never having experienced immigration under Communist rule before 1990, many people in the east live in permanent panic about being overwhelmed by immigrants, although there are actually very few immigrants there.

So out of Germany’s 16 states, Brandenburg and Saxony should have been the easiest wins for the AfD, but they did not win. They came a close second in both states, but they were beaten by an unusually high turn-out, clearly made up largely of people who do not ordinarily bother to vote but realised that their votes were needed to stop the AfD.

Secondly, on Tuesday it became clear that the hard-right League Party in Italy has been comprehensively snookered. Back in the days, when it was the ‘Northern’ League it was more openly racist, and wanted to secede from Italy to get away from the allegedly lazy and corrupt southern Italians. “South of Rome lies Africa,” as the nastier variety of northern Italians say.

The League, although renamed and prettied up, is still the Nasty Party, but for the past 18 months, it has been in a coalition government with the anti-establishment, but not so nasty, Five-Star Movement (M5S). The League was doing well in the opinion polls, however, so its leader, Matteo Salvini, broke up the coalition in the hope of winning sole power in a new election.

Instead, the M5S found a new coalition partner, the Democratic Party, and the League is out in the cold. On Tuesday, 79,634 members of the M5S ratified the deal in an online vote. The party is ultra-democratic, and the League may have to wait another three-and-a-half years for a general election. Maybe by then its polling numbers will be down.

And then there’s the United Kingdom, where new Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson met Parliament for the first time on Tuesday and immediately lost a key vote; because 21 members of his own party voted against him.

Boris, ‘Al’ to his friends and family (he switched to ‘Boris’ as a young man because he thought it was more memorable) is not a neo-fascist. He is not ideological at all. At the moment, his identity is hard-right English nationalist.

Many of the people around him have drunk the Kool-Aid, however, and really are ‘Little-Englander’ nationalists who do not care if Brexit breaks up the United Kingdom. Together, they have hijacked the Conservative Party.

But Boris’s political future is unclear. He is currently a contender for the title of shortest prime ministership in British history, because his defeat in parliament and the defection of so many moderate Conservative members of parliament mean that there will have to be an election, which Johnson may well lose.

There have been no epic victories this week, no decisive turning points. The virus of nationalism still infects the politics of many European countries, and even the long-term future of the EU, guarantor of peace in the continent for the past 60 years, cannot be taken for granted. But clearly the far-right nationalists can lose as well as win.

That should have been obvious, but the populists seemed almost unstoppable when they first surged to prominence in 2016. Brexit and Trump, then Hungary and Poland, then Italy and Germany, the only question was: “Who’s next?”.

Now the bloom is off the rose. They win some, they lose some, and they lost three big ones in the past week. They will doubtless be around for quite a while, but we may be nearing peak populist.

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