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The Rise and Fall of Left-Wing Populism in Europe
Part one of a two-part series on the fate of populism in Europe.
In Europe, populism has been historically associated with right-wingers from Pierre Poujade to Jean-Marie Le Pen. But in the last decade, a left-wing populism akin to the older American Populist Party sprang suddenly to life. Some of the leaders were socialists or former communists, but they spoke the language of populism rather than of Marxist socialism. They claimed to represent “the people” against the elite and establishment, and they made demands that were too far-reaching for both center-left and center-right parties.
When I was in Europe researching The Populist Explosion in early 2016, left-wing populist parties were on the move. They had taken power in Greece and were threatening to eclipse center-right parties in Spain and Italy. In Great Britain, a socialist spouting populist rhetoric had taken over the Labour Party. But this summer, as I returned to Europe, left-wing populism was in retreat. The parties and politicians still existed, but they were well out of power—and in some cases irrelevant.
What had happened? How could movements and parties that seemed so promising expire so quickly? Here's how the most prominent of them rose and fell, and my best effort at explaining why.
Founded in 2004 out of left-wing parties, Syriza got only 4.6 percent of the vote in the 2009 national election that was won by the center-left Panhellenic Socialist Party (PASOK). But during the Great Recession, PASOK succumbed to pressure from the “Troika” of the European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund to slash public services. Syriza, promising to defy the Troika, defeated PASOK and the center-right New Democracy in the 2015 elections. PASOK, allied with another center-left group, got a scant 6.3 percent. Once in power, Syriza, led by Alexis Tsipras, called for a referendum to determine whether Greece should defy the Troika's terms of a loan. The referendum passed, but Syriza buckled under pressure from the Troika and agreed to additional budget cuts, tax increases, and privatization of state services.
Tsipras's turn-around was seen as a betrayal within his own party, and key members resigned and started rival parties. Greece's economy improved under Tsipras, but in 2019, when Greece held another national election, unemployment was still at 18 percent. Tsipras had also angered voters by acceding to Macedonian demands that it name its breakaway state “North Macedonia.” In the vote, Syriza lost the government to New Democracy. In a re-run amidst a notably improving economy this June, New Democracy routed Syriza despite scandals. Syriza won only 17.8 percent of the vote, a bare six percentage points more than a revived PASOK, which charged both Syriza and New Democracy with favoring austerity. With Syriza in shambles, Tsipras resigned as party leader.
In 2013, the Labour Party leadership amended the rules of leadership elections, eliminating the preponderant role of the members of parliament and labor unions. Instead, leaders were now to be elected on a one-person-one-vote basis by dues-paying party members. The parliamentary leadership, many of whom still looked to Tony Blair, hoped the new rules would weaken the left-wing unions, but what the rules did instead was to empower the many thousands of new young members that left-wing backbencher Jeremy Corbyn recruited to support him in the 2015 leadership election.
Corbyn defeated the candidates backed by the center-left parliamentary leadership. When Britain voted for Brexit the next year, the parliamentary leadership tried to recall Corbyn, whose lukewarm support of "remain" they blamed for its defeat. Corbyn easily withstood the challenge with the support of a newly-formed left-wing Labour group, Momentum. The next year, the new Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap national election to consolidate her majority. May had failed to conclude Brexit negotiations, and her platform included cuts to old-age benefits. Corbyn ran as a populist rather than as a socialist, declaring that the election putted “the establishment versus the people.” He campaigned against Tory austerity and promised to complete Brexit—which was favored by Labour's working class base. Corbyn came within a percentage point of defeating her. The prospects for a left-wing Labour government seemed rosy.
Boris Johnson, who replaced May as prime minister, signed a tentative deal with the European Union on Brexit and called an election for December 2019. Johnson ran on a promise to finish Brexit negotiations and “level up” Britain via budget increases rather than cuts, including funds to help revitalize deindustrialized regions that had been Labour strongholds. Corbyn put forth a bold economic platform that temporarily boosted his chances, but he bowed on other issues dear to the activists in Momentum. He backed away from his 2019 promises to conclude Brexit negotiations and to curb immigration that many British voters believed was threatening workers' wages while increasing the costs of (and therefore jeopardizing) social services. He also became saddled with Momentum's controversial stands on gender identity and British nationalism, as well as his own New Left foreign policy views which included, among other things, support for Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.
Labour suffered its worst defeat since 1935. Johnson’s Tories bulldozed Labour’s working class “red wall.” Afterwards, Labour members elected center-left politician Keir Starmer, who expelled Corbyn from the party and ousted his supporters from leadership positions. Starmer tossed out much of Corbyn’s economic platform, which had actually been popular in 2017 and 2019, including re-nationalization of public services that Thatcher had privatized and had been run poorly, for a pro-business incremental approach reminiscent of Tony Blair. Starmer distanced himself from the social views that Momentum and many young Labour voters had backed. He flew the Union Jack at rallies, and members sang “God Save the King” rather than the Internationale to open their annual convention. But what he retained from Momentum and British progressives is a fanciful “Green Prosperity Plan” that, like American leftists’ “Green New Deal,” promises to combat climate change and at the same time create many millions of “well paid and secure jobs.” On the basis of the Tory unpopularity, Starmer may get Labour back in power in 2025, but he may not be able to keep it there.
The left-wing populist group Podemos (“we can”) was inspired by the reaction of Spain's major parties—the Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and the center-right People's Party (PP)—to the Great Recession. With its budget and trade deficits soaring, Spain came under pressure from the European Commission and Central Bank to enforce a budget pact that limited deficits to three percent of GDP. PSOE, which had been in power since 2004, slashed public services and public sector wages in 2010. After it defeated PSOE in the 2012 national elections, PP raised taxes and further slashed the federal budget. As protests mounted around the country, a group of political scientists led by Pablo Iglesias, who had also become a popular television personality, founded Podemos in 2014. It called for increases in public spending and the institution of a 35 hour week. The party’s economics, Iglesias explained, was Keynesian and not Marxist. It used the rhetoric of populism rather than socialism, and championed la gente against la casta—a term borrowed from Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement in Italy.
In the 2015 national elections, with unemployment over 25 percent, Podemos received 21 percent of vote—becoming Spain’s third largest party virtually overnight. Its candidates also won the top positions in Spain's largest cities, Madrid and Barcelona, as well as in smaller municipalities. But Podemos's 2015 result would turn out to be the its highwater mark.
In the 2016 elections, which were called because none of the parties could assemble a parliamentary majority, Podemos sought to increase its total vote share and surpass PSOE by joining forces with the United Left, a coalition led by Spain's Communist Party that had gotten 3.68 percent in the previous election. That jeopardized Podemos's claim that it transcended the traditional rivalry between left and right. The combined party, Unidos Podemos, actually got a million fewer votes than Podemos had received the prior year. PSOE's total exceeded it, but PP was able to retain control of the government.
What sealed Podemos’s fate was what happened in PSOE in the aftermath of the 2016 election. Its leader Pedro Sanchez had argued for allying with Podemos on the left and was forced out, but in a referendum he won back his position against a rival who favored collaborating with PP. That proved a mixed blessing for Podemos: it opened the possibility of Podemos joining the government if PSOE were to take power, but PSOE’s move leftward undercut Podemos’s appeal as Spain’s main anti-austerity party. In the 2019 elections, called after a vote of no confidence in the scandal-plagued PP government, PSOE’s vote rose to 29 percent but Unidos Podemos’s plummeted to only 12.9 percent. It was now Spain's fourth party, trailing the new right-wing populist party, Vox, that received 15 percent of the vote.
Podemos Unidos did join PSOE’s victorious coalition and received five less important ministries. That proved to be the final blow, because with it Podemos lost its distinctive anti-establishment appeal. As Sanchez’s government faced the challenges of the pandemic, rising energy prices, and unemployment, it became unpopular, and Podemos’s own popularity sank with it. Iglesias, who had served as second deputy prime minister, quit the cabinet in 2021. In the May 2023 local and regional elections, Podemos Unidos was ousted from regional parliaments and its mayoral candidates in Spain’s major cities lost. Its moment had passed.
Italy’s Five Star Movement was founded in 2009 by comedian Beppe Grillo and website entrepreneur Gianroberto Casaleggio. Like Podemos, Five Star claimed to be above traditional political divisions, but Beppe and Casaleggio advocated a kind of new left populism that stood for environmentalism, a guaranteed annual income, and direct democracy by means of the internet. The movement itself was organized through participation in its website platform, Rousseau. It was leery of Italy's subordination to Brussels and threatened to dump the euro.
The party was critical of both Silvio Berlusconi's center-right Forza Party and the center-left Democratic Party—the PD, composed of remnants of Italy’s Socialist and Communist parties. Most of all, it positioned itself against the established parties' rampant corruption and even criminality, initially through Grillo's V-Day ("vaffanculo" or "go fuck yourself") rallies. It drew on students and the college-educated young for its primary membership, but its advocacy of a guaranteed annual income gained it support among the unemployed and in the downscale cities of southern Italy, while its stance against corruption attracted many in Italy's middle class who were disgusted by decades of political scandals.
In the 2013 national elections, Five Star burst forth with 25.8 percent of the parliamentary vote—barely trailing Forza’s 29.2 percent and the PD’s 29.6 percent. But consistent with its rejection of both major parties, it refused to form a government with the PD, which in turn had to rely on other parties to govern. Then in the 2018 elections, Five Star obtained the highest vote: 32.69 percent compared to 17.34 percent for Forza and 14 percent for the right-wing Lega party (primarily identified by its opposition to immigration) and 18.76 percent for the PD. It proposed forming a government with the PD as its junior partner, but PD leader Matteo Renzi, resentful of past criticisms, refused and the Five Star ended up in a coalition with the Lega. The two parties shared a hostility to Brussels and agreed on immigration, but disagreed on economics, where Lega was conventionally conservative.
Once in power, the Five Star was hobbled by its inexperience in governing and its awkward structure, with Grillo and Davide Casaleggio (who had succeeded his late father) at the top, the parliamentary leadership and party organization near the top, and a web-powered direct democracy below. But most of all, the movement lacked a common approach to Italy's challenges. The next four years saw three different governing coalitions, two prime ministers, and several disastrous schisms within the party.
The first coalition, headed by economist Giuseppe Conte, was torpedoed in 2019 by Matteo Salvini's Lega. Salvini hoped that in new elections Lega could win power, but Five Star defied him by creating a Conte-led coalition with PD, which Renzi had left, and two smaller parties. But in 2021, one of the small parties (led by Renzi!) rejected Conte's plan for disbursing COVID funds and defected. In response, Italy's president appointed Mario Draghi, the former president of the European Central Bank, as prime minister of a unity government that included every party except Giorgia Meloni's Brothers of Italy. But the next year, Five Star, dissenting from Draghi’s plan to fight inflation, brought down his government and precipitated elections.
At each step along the way, Five Star suffered from defections. When it joined up with PD, 20 Five Star members of parliament quit—with some joining Lega. The issue in this case was Five Star's abandonment of what remained of its populist opposition to Brussels and the PD over economics and immigration. By teaming up with PD, Five Star had become part of the establishment it had railed against.
Five Star’s decision to cast its fate with Draghi led to sixty more parliamentarians leaving, along with foreign minister and former party leader Luigi di Maio, who formed a new party, Together for the Future. Di Maio and the parliamentarians bolted because the party organization, now led by Conte, was unhappy with the Draghi government’s and di Maio’s enthusiastic support for NATO aid to Ukraine in its war against Russian invaders. In both cases, the issue was Five Star’s abandonment of its outsider role. As a final blow Grillo withdrew from active leadership, and Casaleggio, angered by the refusal of Five Star members to help pay for Rousseau, shut down the platform and quit the party.
In the September national elections called after Draghi resigned, a decimated Five Star came in a distant third with 15.43 percent—behind the PD with 19.04 percent. Meloni's Brothers of Italy, which had captured the populist elan from Lega and Five Star, topped the vote with 25.98 percent. The Brothers, along with Forza and the Lega, formed a new right-wing government. A deeply divided Five Star may yet survive—Italy's politics remain extremely volatile—but it is unlikely ever to attain the success it enjoyed in 2018. If a challenge to the formidable Meloni comes, it is more likely to come from a revived PD.
Lessons for the Future
Many of the reasons why European left-wing populists failed are peculiar to their parties and their countries. Syriza was hurt by the controversy over North Macedonia, Podemos couldn't escape its founders' infatuation with Latin American authoritarian socialism, Corbyn's foreign policy views and charges of anti-Semitism damaged his party's prospects, and Five Star's inexperience at governing—epitomized in Five Star Rome Mayor Victoria Raggi’s difficulties collecting garbage—undermined public trust in the party. But there were also general factors that doomed the parties.
The left-wing populists’ appeal rested very much on their promise to defy the restrictions that the eurozone placed on their national economies. But once they were in government—or even before that—they succumbed to the power wielded by EU institutions over their economies. They replaced defiance with subservience—much to the displeasure of voters and especially their own supporters. Syriza bowed to the Troika's demands, while Podemos and Five Star both abandoned their demands to renegotiate their countries' debts and abide their countries' rising deficits. Syriza and Five Star found themselves hemmed in by the need for financial assistance from Brussels.
Under the current eurozone provisions, countries like Italy, Spain, and Greece couldn’t resort to either deficit spending or industrial policy to rebuild their economies in the wake of the Great Recession. They also couldn't devalue their currency to boost trade and remained overly dependent on tourism. That put left-wing and center-left parties that relied on working class votes at a particular disadvantage. The parties had two choices: they could attempt to leave the eurozone, or they could attempt to work collectively with other governments to amend the EU's Growth and Stability Pact and eventually create a unified European fiscal policy like the United States.
Podemos and Five Star discovered that their voters were unwilling to leave the eurozone; Greek voters did support opposing the Troika’s ultimatum, but Tsipras and Syriza were justifiably worried about reorganizing their country’s finances overnight. The alternative was to attempt to amend the EU rules and move closer toward a United States of Europe. For the most part, left-wing populist parties were not ready to contemplate, let alone form, the kind of alliances that this political project would require. Podemos, for instance, saw its own allies as other anti-Brussels parties like Jean-Luc Melenchon's La France Insoumise. Left populist parties had thrived on the illusion of national defiance and were unwilling to give it up entirely. But long-term reform of European institutions, however, seems to be the only way forward for European parties of the left and center-left that want to create greater equality and control over the direction of their economies.
The populist parties also suffered from identification with unpopular social stands. As these parties abandoned their most radical economic stands and as established parties co-opted what remained of their economic programs, they fell back on social and cultural programs which reflected, above all, the influence of the young urban voters who had flocked to their banner. Particularly important were their stands on immigration. When it was part of the PSOE government in 2020, for instance, Podemos opposed the attempts by the EU and PSOE to tighten rules on immigration and asylum. At the annual Labour conference on election eve 2019, Labour activists got the party to endorse open borders. For their parts, Five Star and Syriza were predictably divided on the issue.
Left-wing populists also took controversial stands on gender issues. In Sanchez's government, an equality minister from Podemos championed a controversial bill that allowed anyone sixteen or over to change their official identity as a man or woman without any certification from a medical professional. Ahead of the 2019 election, the Labour Party was beset by a debate over whether feminist organizations had a right to limit their shelters—dubbed “safe spaces”—to biological women and whether a biological man who simply self-identified as a woman would qualify for women's rights under Britain's Equality Act.
These stances on social issues didn’t just cost the populist parties support among large swathes of the electorate, they also provided an opening for populist right parties that made their opposition to transgender rights and support for family and faith as well as their opposition to immigration and asylum their signature issues. As left-wing populist parties faded, these parties saw their stock rise. In Spain, the right-wing party Vox now polls well ahead of Podemos. In Italy, the Five Star Movement was eclipsed by the Brothers of Italy. As the populist left precipitously declined, the populist right has endured and even prospered in the third decade of the twenty-first century—a phenomenon we’ll examine more closely in a second post.
John B. Judis is author of The Politics of Our Time: Populism, Nationalism, Socialism and, with Ruy Teixeira, the forthcoming Where Have All the Democrats Gone?