Populism’s Ineffectiveness at Governing

The first round of France’s presidential election, which took place on April 23, received much international attention. The four leading candidates were so close in the polls that the winners could not be predicted. The issues at stake – France’s continued involvement in the European Union and its immigration and business policies – could have negative global repercussions depending on what changes the new president makes. In light of some recent elections elsewhere, an additional concern is the protest candidate.

After the United States presidential election, there is no need to point out the significance of the protest vote. Many American voters chose Donald Trump as their president because of all the things he was not. He was not a member of the Washington elite or a reflection of the establishment politician. He actively campaigned against the “Washington establishment,” and in his inaugural speech promised to transfer power from Washington back to the American people.

This anti-establishment attitude is obvious in America’s current political culture and is emerging in Europe as well. Citizens have sometimes elected candidates based on their distrust of conventional politicians or because they simply resent the government. This misguided way of electing politicians, however, must be addressed, especially in France. As French citizens choose their next president in the second round of the election, institutions like the EU are on the line.

One needs to look no further than France’s neighbor, Italy, to see why voting for candidates simply because they are not politicians is a horrible way to maintain a functioning government. In 2013, the Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle) received more seats than any other party in the Italian Chamber of Deputies, and two of its members have since been elected the mayors of Rome and Turin.

The Five Star Movement runs on the issues of public water, sustainable transport, sustainable development, the right to Internet access, and environmentalism. While these are all acceptable causes for a political entity to back, the Movement – which was started by popular Italian comedian and blogger Beppe Grillo – does not have enough credentials or policy specifics to run an effective government.

This populist, anti-establishment party is so irresponsible in governing Rome and Turin that, according to the Guardian, Italian health officials are now blaming an alarming rise in measles on its anti-vaccination stance. Many Italians who voted last December to reject Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s reforms – and his role as prime minister more generally – are supporters of the Five Star Movement. Populist movements like the Five Star Movement do not offer solutions to establishment politics. They do not create new, fairer systems of governance or wipe out corruption, as Rome’s “anti-corruption” mayor should now be able to attest after the arrest of her top aide for alleged corruption.

Furthermore, protest candidates simply do not know how to govern. Germany’s populist and pro-nativist party, Alternative for Germany (Alternativ für Deutschland) is facing internal problems for this very reason, especially in light of protests against the AfD in Köln, as the Süddeutsche Zeitung reported on April 23. The AfD exists as a populist alternative to Angela Merkel, her politics, and her refugee policies. When it comes to actually running a government, the AfD, like most other populist parties, deals only with certain specific issues – in this case, promoting anti-Euro policies and attempting to restrict immigration.

In countries that tend to have coalition-run governments, many voters are choosing parties, like the Five Star Movement and the AfD, that cannot and should not form coalitions. As Reuters reported,  no mainstream parties will consider working with the AfD. Should they, too, successfully (and miraculously) win the German federal election in September and oust Merkel from her fourth term, the German government would come to a standstill.

Donald Trump illustrates the problem with populist parties and candidates as well. Although the Republican Party has control of both houses of Congress, his credentials as a reality TV host and businessman and his “America First” foreign policies have contributed nothing to a viable domestic program. The utter failure of Trump’s and Paul Ryan’s health care plan, involving an issue central to Republican campaigns in recent years, to pass Congress is strong evidence of the point.

As France chose among four candidates this past Sunday – the leader of the far-right National Front, a business-friendly, independent centrist, a mainstream candidate mired in corruption and nepotism scandals, and the far-left “Bernie Sanders of French politics” – it was voters’ responsibility to leave their hatred of establishment politics (and politicians in general) outside the polling place. When the economic, political, and humanitarian stakes are as high as they are now, it is irresponsible to choose a president based on who sticks it to the government the most.

Voters must keep this in mind as they make their choice in the upcoming presidential run-off between the “far-right” candidate, Marine Le Pen, and the young “centrist,” Emmanuel Macron.