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‘Spot the Populist’: An Increasingly Difficult Game?

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

Opinion Piece

By Catheryne Kelly

Marine Le Pen, the far-right populist leader in France | Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Loud and proud populists are everywhere these days. A taste for brashness is undoubtedly underlined and written in bold at the very top of their job description and closely followed by a passion for perennial campaigning. A delight in X (née Twitter) roguery and a penchant for an ‘off script’ quip also work wonders - the more inflammatory, the better. This breed of politician - especially one with hard right sympathies - is becoming an increasing norm across Europe, from Slovakia's recently elected Robert Fico to Hungary's near-dictatorial constant, Victor Orban, to Italy’s emboldening Giorgia Meloni. Others like them are on the rise in critical places; Marine le Pen is set to have her best-ever punt at the French presidency. Germany and Austria are seeing hardline nationalist populists surging to the top of polls months ahead of next year’s elections. Yet a covert populist: is such a thing possible?

Perhaps this variant takes its inceptual form in Pieter Omtzigt of the Netherlands. Commanding the lead in the polls just days before this year’s general election, Omtzigt’s approach is to challenge the established order from the centre position with a party that is but three months old. A former technocrat and Christian Democrat Appeal MP, Omtzigt has gained notoriety among the Dutch public for his scathing criticism of the current political order and vaguely advocates for ‘good governance’ above all else. From the baseline credentials, it seems clear that Omtzigt is far from your ‘classic’ populist. Granted, it is jarring to square centrist managerial politics with the hot-blooded, polarising impulse we’ve come to expect from its most zealous proponents. Yet a closer look at Omtzigt on his shiny new soapbox reveals him to be a dedicated pupil of the populist strategy we’ve seen repeatedly. He hits all the tropes: performatively casting himself outside the bounds of the ‘status quo’, tactically appealing to a vast, largely unspecified, majority and delivering an essential lack of policy content, prioritising form instead. What is the reason for this distant familiarity we get with Omtzigt, and what is it doing in the centre ground? It is a new phenomenon, a very Dutch one at that, and that matters for Europe. Omtzigt’s split-second apotheosis is the product of an innately capricious electoral system. In the Netherlands, infantile ‘parties of the moment’ tend to enjoy short careers in parliament due to the absence of an electoral threshold needed to secure seats within. While this means we cannot be too hasty in scything trends from fads, this feature nevertheless encourages attitudes of reflexive ‘political consumerism’ - a ‘pick n mix’ approach to voting whereby past sympathies quite easily cede to novelty. Trying something new politically is not unusual, and the Dutch system’s sensitivity to newcomers enables it to identify prospective patterns. As a result, the Netherlands has historically proved to be a bellwether state in Europe, an augur of the political paradigm shift. Its own left-wing student rebellion arrived before anyone else’s, erupting in 1966. Wim Kok, a Labour prime minister elected in 1994, propagated Third Way centre-left policies before Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder did. Anti-Muslim populism took off earlier than elsewhere in Europe, and the country elected a centre-right government in 2002, again foreshadowing Britain and Germany. So what is the game plan for Omtzigt’s brand of centrism, and how does it gesture to the populism that Europe has come to know so well?

He is, first and foremost, a shepherd of complex discontent. Deep and multileveled, such sentiment is the true kingmaker of populists in Europe today. Whether stemming from visions of eroded national sovereignty, institutional disillusionment, or reactive scorn for austerity, discontent structures a societal fault line around which to rally vast, vague and emotionally charged support. Omtzigt takes this one step further and navigates discontent on not one, but two, planes, exercising that trademark, finger-pointing, populist refrain of ‘I’m not him’ with dynamism.

He’s got one eye on public apathy for Mark Rutte’s incumbent government, its inefficiencies and blunders, its mishandling of immigration influxes and its child benefits scandals. The other recognises the palpable distrust (and growing disgust) of Europe’s demagogues. Last month’s messy elections in Poland are a prime example of the emerging taste for populist rebuttal; the result calling for an ousting of Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice Party (PiS) after its eight-year reign and years of badgering from Brussels on rule of law violations and kleptocracy claims. In chartering the bounds outside of both ‘classic’ populist and out-of-touch technocrat, Omtzigt now refuses to comment on whether he would stand as Prime Minister if elected, something he explicitly denied when founding his party, the ‘Nieuw Sociaal Contract’ (NSC). Much like his populist forebears, Omtzigt’s appeal rests, as it stands, in the realm of novelty for novelty’s sake. While this could change when he’s elected, his campaign thus far has been personality-driven and light on policy specifics. Cas Mudde, a Dutch political scientist and an expert on populism, dubs Omtzigt the ‘ordinary man’ - an epithet capitalised upon by Trump, Nigel Farage and the like. What’s available, politically, in this portrayal is the impression of direct, personalised representation, distance from elite spheres and, potentially, that of a sober, pragmatic alternative to highfalutin crowd pleasers. NSC’s skeletal policy plan and its image as ‘a party in the works’ invites a freshness that can appeal broadly. Omtzigt’s party was the last to present its programme for the upcoming Tweede Kamer elections on November 22nd and announce its candidates. Improvisational breathlessness is a handy tool to keep manifesto commitments light and campaigns largely single-issue. Omtzigt’s website admits that “there are still many issues on which we have not yet formulated a well-considered position.” Haziness, reality deficits and general ambivalence are, for populists, no bad thing, after all. Protesting your indignation for the status quo becomes much easier when issues are left vague; widespread support proves achievable as personal grievances inescapably resonate with something on the vast canvas.

What we can say about his policy stance is that his platform mixes leftist welfare policies with tough measures on immigration and conservative social views. Above all, though, particular homage is paid to the unspecified notion of ‘good governance’ as a way to rebuild lost trust. This trust is kept hostage by incumbent actors who have ‘become detached from their core task’, paving the road for their own inevitable failure. Isolating systemic inefficiencies in this way, Omtzigt’s authority is bolstered under the mantle that ‘we were not in power so we’re not responsible.’ The UK’s Labour Party, out of power for thirteen tumultuous years, has also started to adopt this mantra in its novelty-fueled approach to campaigning. It will undoubtedly saturate much of their message throughout next year’s anticipated general election. But what’s to say that this aim to evoke ‘the people’ en masse doesn’t betray Omtzigt as more of a ‘catch-all’ politician? For one, the Dutch system has little time for the catch-all impulse, given the nuance and variety it permits in its government’s coalitions. A premiership by one party alone is near impossible. Second, while many populist movements align themselves to traditional conceptions of either the ‘left’ or ‘right’, the ‘left’/’right’ cleavage itself is often exploited by populists for the part that it has played in generating societal dissatisfaction with ‘status quo’ politics. In their broadly-appealing, vastly-signifying, largely single-issue campaigns, populists have developed an impression of transcending left and right while effectively positioning themselves as radical ‘anti-establishment’ alternatives to current apathy. Populism, then - arguably in astute awareness of its defiant lack of content - has the power to carve a place for itself roughly at (what now seems to be) the centre.

What is now taking root in the Netherlands may be a concrete expression of attitudes seen raising their heads tentatively across our current Europe. While the first embodiment may be Omtzigt, we should remain watchful to identify potential successors. Ever reactionary, this populism speaks to an emerging ‘new normal’. An estimated one-third (32%) of Europeans now regularly cast an anti-establishment vote, compared to just 12% at the turn of the century. This influx sees populist candidates - today, overwhelmingly bearing far-right sympathies - ever more entrenched into Europe’s political mainstream. The case of Pieter Omtzigt’s rise issues much food for thought on the current state of the brick throwing’ compulsion. Are nascent groups of voters searching to square greater nuance with their anti-establishment loyalties? Indeed, as populism has set in, the unfortunate ‘classic’ mainstays of nativism, xenophobia and Euroscepticism need not be expected; to go so far beyond their core following, populists have had to diversify. If populism is so entrenched, has it had to become more complex, now having to react to itself, a new strain emerging to soothe the irritation of the first iteration, while, at the same time, reacting to the traditional, institutional ‘establishment’? Is it merely a matter of electoral strategy, a working ode to the adage ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’? Only time will tell.


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