Noel Whelan: Expect another year of populism and nationalism in 2019

The EU is facing further threats in the European Parliament elections next May

The Trump re-election campaign slogans are ‘Keeping America Great’ and ‘Promises Made, Promises Kept’. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The Trump re-election campaign slogans are ‘Keeping America Great’ and ‘Promises Made, Promises Kept’. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

 

This year witnessed the depressing outworkings of the 2016 victories for populist and nationalistic politics, namely the Brexit referendum and US presidential election.

The new year will see two electoral contests – one in Europe and one in the United States – come into sharp focus in a way that is also likely to reflect further advances for populist and nationalist politics.

The result of the European Parliament elections will be announced on the evening of Sunday, May 26th. The Irish representation in the parliament will change dramatically that weekend. Not only does Brexit mean that there will no longer be MEPs from Northern Ireland, but up to five of the 11 MEPs elected south of the Border look set to retire. In addition – again assuming Brexit proceeds on schedule – Ireland will get an extra two MEPs.

Even though our use of PR-STV means the European elections are personality-driven contests, the outcomes for Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin in particular will still be watched as indicators of their national electoral standing. A failure to get a seat in the enlarged Dublin constituency or to hold the seat currently held by Brian Crowley in the South constituency would be significant setbacks for Fianna Fáil.

Sinn Féin did extraordinarily well in the 2014 European elections, topping the poll in both the Dublin and South constituencies and just off the top of the poll in Midlands North West. It will be difficult to match that performance. Fine Gael is likely to hold its four seats even with Brian Hayes’s decision not to stand again in Dublin and the party will be focused on gaining a seat in Midlands North West.

 

Eurosceptic sentiment

More generally across Europe there is every likelihood that the May elections will reflect a further surge in anti-establishment and Eurosceptic sentiment. The European Union, and the fundamental values of democracy, equality and the rule of law on which it is built, are already threatened by the involvement of the Fidesz party in government in Hungary, the Law and Justice party in Poland and the left-right populist coalition in Italy that includes the Five Star and League parties.

A major breakthrough for populist candidates from parties such as these across Europe in the May elections is predicted by most commentators. The fragmentation between such groups at European level, and in particular their likely inability to unite under the same banner during the election campaign itself or as a single anti-EU grouping in the European parliament afterwards, will, it is hoped, limit their ability to actually destabilise the union.

There are no scheduled main elections in the United States this year, but the focus will be on the early indications for the 2020 presidential election campaign.

Since he has come to power, Trump has done little to upset his support base and much to please them

The official start date for the 2020 election is not until the Iowa caucuses on February 4th, 2020. However, across 2019 quarterly fundraising returns for – and visits to – Iowa and other early states by the leading contenders will be followed closely.

There is even talk that the Democrats could hold their first primary debate as early as June 2019. The three highest-profile contenders are former vice-president Joe Biden; Senator Bernie Saunders, who performed very strongly against Hillary Clinton in 2016; and Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, whose unsuccessful bid for the US Senate set progressive political hearts and wallets fluttering during the autumn.

These contenders are engaged in a staring match, waiting to see which one will formally declare early in 2019. Meanwhile, a couple of dozen other Democratic politicians, including senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, are hovering around the race.

Clearly defined

By comparison, the Republicans already have a clear candidate in the incumbent Donald Trump. His approval ratings as measured in the polls may be historically low, but he already has a clearly defined offering. The Trump re-election campaign has already encapsulated that offering in two slogans “Keeping America Great” and “Promises Made, Promises Kept”.

Since he has come to power, Trump has done much to irritate liberal Americans and to annoy the rest of the world, but he has done little to upset his support base and much to please them. Trump is, above all else, a transactional politician. He promised tax cuts to the wealthy and he has delivered. He promised places on the Supreme Court to the Christian and conservative right and has delivered twice over.

He promised trade protection and greater immigration controls to the displaced working class and insecure middle-class Republican voters. Whatever the merits or substance of his initiatives, these supporters have every reason to feel he heard their call for action on these issues also.

Coherence matters in presidential politics. The Democrats, with no clear candidate and no clear offering, have much ground to make up in 2019.

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