BERLIN — As the initial shock of the outcome of the 2016 U.S. elections wears off and the imminent presidency of Donald Trump becomes a reality, right-wing populist parties across Europe are betting their electoral fortunes are on the rise too.
Mr. Trump’s stunning victory, coming on the heels of Britain’s decision to pull out of the European Union, has sent an electric surge through right-wing political parties and figures across the continent, who argue that after years in the political wilderness, their moment has come. Many of Mr. Trump’s populist themes — a hard line on immigration, a distrust of trade deals, a defense of traditional values and a suspicion of international organizations and international elites — are the same ones that are getting new attention on this side of the Atlantic.
The leader of France’s far-right Front National and a candidate for next year’s French presidential elections, Marine Le Pen, called Mr. Trump’s victory “a sign of hope” for those disillusioned by globalization, telling CNN that Mr. Trump “has made possible what was presented as completely impossible.”
Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party, who successfully fronted the Brexit campaign to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union this summer, was the first European politician to visit Mr. Trump in person after Election Day. After posing for photographs with the president-elect in Trump Tower’s gold-plated elevator, Mr. Farage — not Prime Minister Teresa May — is now widely viewed as the British politician with the most influence in the incoming American administration.
Mr. Trump’s victory is proof that populists are credible contenders despite opposition from major media outlets and established parties, said Heiko Giebler, a research associate at the Berlin Social Science Center. “It’s similar to what happened after Brexit. Leaders will use this to emphasize that populist movements can be successful, and that they can win even if the odds are against them.”
European populist movements have an ally in the electoral calendar: They’re likely to score more victories in the near future, said analysts.
“With the upcoming presidential election in Austria, polls basically show a 50-50 split between a populist and a nonpopulist candidate,” said Mr. Giebler. “In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders has good prospects of becoming the largest party in the election next March.”
Currently in the opposition in the Dutch Parliament, Mr. Wilders’ anti-immigrant Party for Freedom is set to make big gains in next year’s election that could earn it a seat in the Dutch government.
Ordinary Europeans might perceive the polls and Mr. Trump’s win as a sign of the times and alter their behavior as a result, said analysts.
“They might look at the situation there and think, ‘It worked in the United States, so why not here?’” said Isabell Hoffmann, a European affairs analyst at the Bertelsmann Foundation in Brussels.
Merkel feels the heat
Voters dissatisfied with mainstream political parties might also be fired up by the responses of establishment politicians to populist movements.
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel recently announced that she would campaign for a fourth term after 11 years in power. She’s now frequently described as the last defender of the liberal West due to her insistence on accepting large numbers of Syrian refugees fleeing their brutal civil war in the same manner the West accepted East Germans and others who fled communism during the Cold War.
While some greeted Ms. Merkel’s decision to run as proof of Germany’s commitment to stability in uncertain times, others say another German campaign centered on her refugee policies could help the country’s surging right-wing populist parties at the ballot box.
“Merkel is the face of the German approach to refugee policies, which are totally against the right-wing populist agenda,” said Florian Hartleb, a political analyst based in Berlin. “She is not standing for a new, fresh political project, but rather the status quo. I think it’s a very bad decision for Merkel to run again because she could strengthen these right-wing populists.”
Ms. Merkel admitted as much when she announced her candidacy for a fourth term, noting in her speech that next year’s election “will be even more difficult than those we have had before as we are facing strong polarization.”
The populist, right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) is already widely predicted to get enough support to enter the German parliament next year. The party scored victories this year in state elections across Germany by campaigning against Ms. Merkel and refugees.
“The AfD has been quite successful in portraying Merkel as ‘the enemy’ to their constituents,” said Mr. Giebler. “They have installed her as a figure they can run a good campaign against. They don’t have to come up with new ideas. They know what they are up against.”
That puts pressure on established politicians like Ms. Merkel to come up with bold policies because populism is not a short-term phenomenon that can be ignored, he added.
“Politicians have now realized that they have to find a way of directly competing with them in elections,” said Mr. Giebler. “Or maybe they will form a government coalition with them, like in Austria or the Netherlands.”
Austria’s political establishment might have already lost their battle. The country is on the verge of becoming the first in Western Europe to elect a far-right head of state since 1945, should the oppositional Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer prove victorious in the upcoming Dec. 4 presidential run-off. Mr. Hofer has campaigned against unchecked immigration and interference by EU bureaucrats in Brussels.
In France, members of the conservative Republican Party are taking Ms. Le Pen’s threat seriously. She is expected to outpoll the deeply unpopular Socialist incumbent President Francois Hollande and qualify for the run-off in France’s presidential elections next year.
Last weekend Republican voters rejected an attempted comeback by former French President Nicolas Sarkozy in the first round of the party’s primaries, fearing that he might lose to Ms. Le Pen. Instead, they chose former Prime Minister Francois Fillon, a onetime political aide to the polarizing Mr. Sarkozy.
“Sarkozy upset a lot of people during his presidency,” said Ms. Hoffmann. “His candidacy was seen as risky by many over concerns that not enough people would vote for him in the second round against Le Pen.”
The Republicans are now hoping France’s Socialists and others unite behind Mr. Fillon to defeat Ms. Le Pen, in the same manner former center-right President Jacques Chirac won over the National Front’s Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine Le Pen’s father, in the second round of voting in 2002, said Mr. Hoffman.
The 2002 developments illustrated how many of Europe’s populists have been building their party structures for years, the experts said.
Italy’s Five Star Movement, led by comedian Beppe Grillo, emerged primarily as a critique of European and Italian responses to eurozone crises that erupted seven years ago. The party won seats in the opposition of the Italian parliament in 2013 and has since racked up local victories across Italy, including Virginia Raggi’s victory in Rome’s mayoral election in June.
In Austria, Mr. Hofer’s Freedom Party has been slowly building up a following over decades.
“Austria and also France have had a very long-winded journey with populism over the past 20 years or so,” Ms. Hoffman said. “These successes are in many ways the culmination of a process that began well before Trump.”