The 2009 European Parliamentary Elections: The Populist Dilemma?

The coming EU elections have very interesting effects on the radical right populists across the Union. From the corner that interests me the most I can definitely say that these elections would be some very interesting events.

For instance in Finland, the leader of the populist True Finns (PS/ Perussuomalaiset/ Sannfinländarna), Timo Soini suddenly decided to take upon himself the task of getting the party into the European Parliament (EP). However odd this may sound, but he declared he had changed his mind, in the sense that he turned from a staunchly anti-EU party leader of previous EU elections into the main candidate of the PS alliance with the Finnish Christian Democrats (KD/ Kristillisdemokraatit/ Kristdemokraterna). This came to calm down suspicions that the two parties will support the candidacy of a controversial independent politician that was elected into the capital’s city council with the support of PS. He was later on accused of racism and discriminatory remarks.

So now party leader Soini has to convince his faithful that his party has any clear agenda once sent to Brussels. But what he is allegedly convinced of is that he would manage to bring to life an EU alliance of like-minded parties.  One may actually start wondering how successful would he be, having in mind that the last such enterprise, the now defunct Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty (ITS) EP political alliance, did not manage to live more than a year, a result of the inherent clashed between parties with an agenda defined by their strong suspicion of the Other. How would Soini manage to convince all those populist EMPs and their national leaders that in fact they are not each other’s Evil Other, but in fact more than circumstantial allies? Le Pen was recently bared from symbolically opening the coming EP session, so an educated guess is that any such suggestions may go well. But how persuasive can be a Finnish MP, future EMP, with no experience of the European dealings? Does the announced cooperation with the future to be trans-European EU-skeptical Libertas alliance (there is a lot of irony in being an anti-EU, and yet pan- European grouping, isn’t it?) hold any chances for successful political leverage at EU level?

Or will he attempt to join the European People’s Party and European Democrats (EPP-ED), the biggest alliance of parties within the EP, based on his electoral alliance with the aforesaid KD? But how effective will this be, having in mind PS’s record as a party at least suspicious, if not outright against anything that may be even hinted at as not being Finnish? Soini has always appeared to tone down the sometimes radical affirmations of his subordinates, so this may play in his advantage, but how much can one do to improve PS’s reputation as an isolationist, and even racist party? Well, these are just a few of the question that come to mind once reading about Soini’s EU turn.

Looking at Romanian politics, it is going to be a very unusual election period. The Greater Romania Party (PRM/ Partidul Romania Mare) has decided, or more rightfully said, its leader Corneliu Vadim Tudor decided that the party’s EU election list will be opened by him and another controversial political figure, George Becali. Becali was for a while leader of another populist party, the New Generation Party (PNG) but this seems to have become a thing of the past.

As such, the two former rivals, Tudor  and Becali appeared on the party’s electoral posters reading: “Two Christians and patriots will purge the country from crooks” (“Doi crestini si patrioti vor scapa tara de hoti!”). What the two apparently have in common is their dedication for the church. This is intended to heal the rift between the two after several years of public confrontations that ended up in personal remarks not at all elegant, to put it mildly. It is to be seen how well the two temperamental leaders will put aside their past conflicts and march towards a EMP position.

So, what could such a churchly dedication of the two do in the EP is not as obvious as the party leaders may think. PRM has already a certain tradition of allying itself with the French populists led by Le Pen (they were actually instrumental in the constitution of the aforesaid Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty (ITS) political group). But they are also those responsible, at least partly of its demise. To complicate matters further, PRM did not manage to convince Romanian voters of its ability to represent them at European level last time. It is to be seen if two religious figures, or at least declaratory religious, would manage to get the party the desired seats in the EP.

On a closer look, it is not very clear what PRM has to offer this time around either. Romania has recently been criticized by the ineffectiveness of the judicial system and there are rumors that the country may have a similar fate as neighboring Bulgaria and see its EU funds frozen. How could the two populist leaders demise these dangers from their possible EMP seats? There is no easily distinguishable answer to these questions. The only sure thing is a discourse focused on, at least symbolically, punishing the corrupted elites. But here is a serious problem PRM faces, how to balance a discourse that promises impartial and harsh justice with a presence in the EP that is the epitome of compromise and long negotiations. What is almost certain, however, is that if they manage to get in, they will not be alone as the anti- sentiments across EU are on the rise. And for that is enough to look at another neighbor, Hungary, and the recent backlash against the Roma this country witnessed.

Swinging back to the north of EU, what is happening in Sweden? Well, not much really. The main parties appear to be more preoccupied with rowing over internal politics, even when it comes to televised public debates about the future of EU. Having in mind that the country will be undertaking the presidency of the EU council the coming July this does not look too promising. But even Sweden may appear EU-friendly when compared witht the Czech performance so far.

Returning to populists, the Sweden Democrats (SD/Sverigedemokraterna) do not fare much better than in previous opinion pools. SD has been ostracized to the peripheries of Swedish politics from early on, so the party still struggles to gain national representation; it is however quite strongly represented in the southern parts of Sweden. Even if they could have tried to ride the same populist, panic driven agenda as elsewhere, there is another forseable winner in the confrontation. SD was hoovering around the parliamentary threshold for a while but it is unlikely it will surpass the popularity of the Pirate Party (Piratpartiet).

Theirs is a different type of populism, concerned, mainly, with the issues of copyright and patents and privacy writ large. And if it is to take into account the party membership numbers (which exceed to date those of the second largest governing party, the Center Party/ C/ Centerpartiet), and their strong support among the young voters, the Pirate Party seems to be on its way to register its first electoral success. But then again, labeling the Pirate Party as populist does not do much justice for its cause. It is more a single cause party, and it is to be seen, if it will enlarge its political agenda with other issues as well. Of crucial importance, in case of a victory is if the party will manage to survive its own political success and how much of the initial agenda will be preserved in the daily compromise politics at EP level.

Three countries, three different populist trajectories. All competing for votes for a suddenly much wanted EMP position. Here rests the populist dilema, how much of the anti- attitude can a party preserve once joining the place where everything is ground to small, almost imperceptible nuances of language in official communiques?

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Tuesday, May 19th, 2009 Research