LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Like democracy and the Cold War, European populism after the financial crisis had its origins in Greece. The leftist Syriza party swept to victory in January 2015 promising to dismantle the elite, thumb its nose at European creditors and restore prosperity through radically worker-friendly policies.
Yet less than two years later Syriza has become part of the problem. It has failed to revive employment or growth: half of all young Greeks are still out of work, and GDP is expected to have flatlined in 2016. The centre-right New Democracy party, which Syriza ousted, is more than 15 percentage points ahead in the polls. Once associated with cronyism, it has reinvented itself under leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis as a pro-reform and moderate alternative. If Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras holds an election in 2017, he will probably lose.
For liberal politicians facing radical insurgents elsewhere in Europe, this tale has an encouraging silver lining. It suggests parties that make promises they cannot keep will face consequences.
Populism, which might be defined as a movement that plays on a struggle between corrupt elites and the disadvantaged majority, is well-established but tends to be unstable. In Latin America, countries like Argentina and Brazil that embraced populist leaders are now swinging back to the middle.
The question is whether this shift will happen in Europe too, and how fast. France, Germany and the Netherlands, where radical anti-establishment parties are in the ascendant, will all hold general elections in 2017. But Austria rejected a far-right candidate as president on Dec. 4, favouring a pro-European member of the Green Party.
Britain will be an important test case. Populists there didn’t take power, but they did get what they wanted: a vote to leave the European Union. They campaigned on a series of undeliverable promises of economic prosperity, such as a 350 million pound weekly windfall for the strained National Health Service, and the effortless creation of fast, free and fair trade deals with countries like China and India.
Centrists in Britain are hoping voters might change their minds as economic reality sinks in. Tony Blair, the former UK prime minister, has announced a new movement that would bring together voters and politicians fed up with political polarisation. A liberal pro-EU candidate toppled Brexit-backing parliamentarian Zac Goldsmith in a local election on Dec. 1.
It’s not enough for liberals to be the least bad option. If a shift back to the middle is to be sustainable, they need to be strident - and at times unpopular.
Take Angela Merkel. The German chancellor looks set to win a fourth term in the country’s federal election, and is one of the few examples of a European leader pursuing a successful centre-ground policy. Her rigid insistence that countries like Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal stick to EU rules has shored up her support at home but created resentment abroad. By contrast, Merkel’s decision to welcome migrants chipped at her domestic ratings, but made her a figurehead for European and humanitarian values.
In France, the unpopularist message is getting through. Centre-right presidential candidate Francois Fillon, the favourite to beat National Front contender Marine Le Pen in the race to replace unpopular President Francois Hollande, is a social conservative who is also an unashamed proponent of liberal markets. On that score, British Prime Minister Theresa May’s efforts to create a system that works “for all” look flawed.
Promises to curb the excesses of capitalism have been watered down already, but so have threats to stigmatise hiring foreign workers. Trying to please everyone is a recipe for fuzzy policies that don’t work for anyone.
The other challenge is newness. The likes of Merkel, Mitsotakis, Fillon and Blair are known quantities. That suggests a lack of fresh blood. Voters who feel there is nothing over the rainbow but a return to the past will become more disengaged. That’s reflected in low turnouts: only 54 percent of the electorate cast ballots in the recent British by-election in Richmond Park. Almost three out of every four voters nationwide took part in the EU referendum.
The moderate centre therefore has its work cut out, and 2017 will be a crunch year. At least over in Greece there are signs that populism has its limits.