Analysis: European populists lose their charm to scandals, trials and unpaid debts
Analyst Vojtěch Berger, writing for Czech news server Hlidacípes.org, reflects on how in the spring of 2019, populist parties were saying they all wanted to "change Europe" together. Today, however, the leaders of the majority of Europe's big populist parties are on the defensive and losing voters.
Such parties are also encumbered by many lawsuits and scandals around their financing and their contacts with Russia, which are beyond standard. While the COVID-19 pandemic has also redrawn the political map of Europe in 2020, politicians such as Le Pen, Salvini, Strache and others got lost in their own problems long before that.
When, in the autumn of 2018, Czech President Miloš Zeman received Steve Bannon, the disgraced former advisor to US President Trump, at the official residence of the Czech President in Lány (accompanied by an "Alternative for Germany" MP of Czech origin, Petr Bystroň), it seemed the ultra-right in Europe was on the cusp of a golden era. There was a little more than half a year to go before the European Parliament elections and populist parties were preparing to rewrite the history of the EU.
Now it is all but certain that two of the three participants in that meeting will not be doing anything of the kind in the near future. Bannon was arrested last week by federal law enforcement in the United States on suspicion of embezzling money that had been contributed to a collection for building the border wall between Mexico and the USA.
The US Department of Justice has announced that in order to finance an ostentatious lifestyle, Bannon and others allegedly took hundreds of thousands of dollars from what was originally advertised as a "charity" fundraising project to accelerate the building of the barrier. Bystroň, the other guest of the Czech President during that 2018 meeting, is also not exactly experiencing the best times of his political life today.
"Alternative for Germany" (AfD), at this particular point in the COVID-19 crisis, has national voter preferences of just roughly 10 %, and extremism inside both the party and its youth organization is being investigated by German counter-intelligence. The Bavarian branch of counter-intelligence has also been investigating Bystroň because of his own proximity to right-wing extremism (e.g., the Identitarian Movement).
When "Mr Clean" is dirty
Bannon's latest scandal is closing the circle that the far right - or rather, the populist right movement, which is frequently close to the ultra-right - began to redraw several years ago, worldwide. When, in 2016, Donald Trump was elected president of the USA, it was exactly because of Bannon's hearty contributions as head of Trump's campaign, and he later became the chief strategist in the White House.
An avalanche of similar electoral results followed all over the world, amplified by the reverberations of the Brexit vote. Immediately after that, however, Norbert Hofer lost the presidential election in Austria as a candidate for the far-right Freedom Party.
Marine Le Pen, head of the far-right National Rally party (previously the National Front) then unequivocally lost the fight to become the French head of state the following year. She also ended up significantly underperforming during the next elections to the national legislature.
In Italy at that same time, on the other hand, Matteo Salvini and his Northern League party (which later stopped using "Northern" , becoming just "Lega") was on the rise. We will return to his story a bit later.
First let's reflect on Bannon. He was the ideological model for all the above-mentioned populist leaders.
Bannon's online publication Breitbart, which has faced criticism for disseminating antisemitic and racist attitudes, served as the prefiguration of the different alternative media outlets that began in Europe during that time and that are so close to all the above-mentioned parties. After leaving Trump's services, Bannon attempted to form a pan-European alliance of populist parties.
His visit to the residence of the Czech President was apparently one component of those negotiations. However, he did not enjoy the success he had anticipated - despite announcing, with great fanfare, the participation of Salvini, by then the Italian Interior Minister, in 2018.
Salvini was, during the following year, apparently the most prominent figure involved from among the populist parties that then formed the "Identity and Democracy" political group in the European Parliament (although they prefer to call themselves "nationalist" or "patriotic" parties). Tomio Okamura's "Freedom and Direct Democracy" (SPD) party is the Czech Republic's member of that group.
In some countries the far-right distinctly strengthened its performace during the elections to the EP, but in others it lost influence or stagnated. The outcome was 73 EP seats and the position of the fifth-strongest group in that body.
Europe's "transformation" has had to wait. Moreover, that outcome was followed by a year during which the leaders of the ultra-right have definitively lost their image of being uncorrupted fighters against the political establishment, as they had done their best to present themselves to the voters.
Salvini: Migrants and Russia
In Austria, the Freedom Party was shut out of government in the spring of 2019 by the scandal of a secret video recording in which the then-head of the party, Heinz-Christian Strache, discussed financial support for the party with somebody whom he believed to be the niece of a Russian oligarch in exchange for state contracts that would be extended to Russia in particular. This orchestrated provocation, the so-called Ibiza affair, is still being investigated.
What is more, Strache faces accusations of allowing the cost of his luxurious lifestyle to be paid for with party money. The Freedom Party's voter preferences have fallen roughly by half since last year and the party is doing its best (so far in vain) to find a new face.
Salvini, no longer Interior Minister, is also facing police investigation on suspicion of abusing the powers of his office when he banned a boat carrying refugees from docking at an Italian port. The Italian Senate stripped him of immunity in July and facilitated his prosecution.
The Italian Parliament had also stripped Salvini of immunity in a separate similar case in February. Police are also investigating a different scandal related to the Lega party itself.
According to recordings published by Buzzfeed in collaboration with the investigative reporting teams at Bellingcat and The Insider, representatives of Lega negotiated in 2018 in Moscow about possible financial support for the party from Russia. "Subsidies" to the party in the amount of roughly EUR 3 million were meant to be camouflaged as the resale of oil from Russia to Italy.
Lega may still remain the country's strongest party in Italian polls, but support for it has been permanently declining, and during the last year the party has lost roughly 10 % of its voter preference. Despite this setback, and because of the traditional instability of Italian administrations, Salvini is apparently still in Italian politics and is far from having spoken his last.
Le Pen: Calm the creditors in Moscow
Legal disputes and scandals over party financing have long been faced by the National Rally in France as well. The EP has ordered Le Pen's party return millions paid to employ non-existent assistants.
The entire EP group of which Le Pen's party is a member has also been instructed by the EP to return millions because the contributions were spent without authorization on political activity such as overpriced parties, Champagne and Christmas presents. Another lawsuit involving the National Rally is underway in France, alleging abuse of state monies for the party's 2012 campaign.
A loan that Le Pen's party took from the (now-defunct) First Czech-Russian Bank has also been controversial. In addition to the fact that the Western European party borrowed from Russia for its 2014 campaign, doubts have been raised about the morale of the National Rally when it comes to paying their bills.
The party did not pay the loan back in time and the successors of the now-defunct bank have sued. Le Pen did not reach agreement with those creditors on the conditions for paying off the loan until June of this year.
AfD: Shadowy sponsorhip gifts
The last big European party in the populist family to be combating its own scandals is the AfD in Germany, home to the German MP of Czech origin Petr Bystroň described above. The AfD may have scored a record result in the most recent elections in several states, but the COVID-19 pandemic has frozen its national results at around 10 % - and Angela Merkel's governing Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is benefiting.
In addition to its demonstrated proximity to extremism - especially of its radical wing, "Der Flügel" - the AfD is facting investigations on suspicion of accepting illegal financial gifts. One of the cases involves party chair Jörg Meuthen.
The AfD eventually agreed in June to pay a fine of EUR 270 000 over the wrongdoing. The financing of the party has long been a sensitive subject.
At the close of 2019, the AfD called on tens of thousands of its members to send the equivalent of another year's membership because one million euro was missing from the party coffers. The daily Bild called the party's appeal a "beggar's letter".
However, this year the party received a record-setting gift in the amount of roughly EUR 14.5 million, bequeathed by a dead sympathizer. German media reported that it was the biggest gift ever made to a political party in the country's history.
First published in Czech for the Institute of Independent Journalism (Ústav nezávislé žurnalistiky).
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