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Populism runs up against electoral reality

Rob Hoffman writes in Inside Story (21.3.17) that recent election results in Western Australia, Austria and the Netherlands show just how unpopular populist policies can be.

‘Last week was not a great one for nativist populism. Coming off the high of Brexit and Trump, fellow travellers across the globe have been angling for their own successes, but these are proving elusive. In two distinct disappointments, Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom, or PVV, polled poorly in the Dutch general election, and the high-profile intervention of Pauline Hanson and One Nation in Western Australian politics proved something of an own goal. Taken together, these failures help illustrate the limitations of populism as an electoral platform.

‘In the Netherlands, the PVV enjoyed a clear lead in opinion polls through most of 2016. Wilders was sufficiently confident that he dubbed Wednesday’s vote the start of a “patriotic spring” that would sweep across Europe, returning a host of outsiders opposed to immigration, Islam and European integration. Come election day, the party attracted just 13 per cent of the vote, well down on both polling and recent results in local and regional elections, and won twenty of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives.

‘… Back in Australia, the Western Australian election delivered not just a change of government, but also an apparent backhander to One Nation. What looked to be a run-of-the-mill defeat of a tired government with a poor economic record was spiced up when the Liberals struck a preference deal with One Nation. The deal also came at the expense of the Liberals’ traditional ally, the National Party, although the relationship between the two parties has been weaker recently in Western Australia than in other states, with an outdated rural gerrymander strengthening the Nationals and encouraging more independent behaviour.

‘The gambit failed. Liberal support dropped markedly in the weeks between the preference announcement and the election, and the party went on to lose two-thirds of its 2013 vote and a third of its seats, with Labor winning government in a landslide. For its part, One Nation attracted just 4.9 per cent of the Legislative Assembly vote, well down on pre-election poll figures of up to 13 per cent and forecasts of a number of likely seats. In response, Hanson dubbed the preference deal “a mistake,” arguing that her party had suffered from both the stale government and voters’ limited understanding of the preferential system. The Liberals remain insistent that it was a pragmatic necessity, despite the former premier’s unease.’

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