European far-right populist movements energized by Britain's 'Brexit' vote and Trump's victory

The online denunciations pile up daily: Muslims can’t be trusted. Neither can the mainstream media. The elites have run amok. Institutions are out of touch with the will of the people.

It might sound a lot like the hubbub surrounding last month’s U.S. presidential vote. But this time, the balloting is in Austria, which on Sunday will become the latest testing ground for European far-right populist movements energized by Britain’s June vote to exit the 28-nation European Union — and the November election victory of Donald Trump.

The rise of populism — a volatile but loosely affiliated mix characterized by strident nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiment, economic resentments and a deep suspicion of international alliances and trade pacts —  has been building across the Continent for years, particularly in its more disadvantaged corners.

But this has been the year that European populist movements burst into full and furious view, driven by complex factors that vary widely from one country to the other — united, however, by a broad sense of grievance against the political establishment and all it represents.    

Elections set to take place next year in Germany and France, continental Europe’s main political and economic powers, are being closely watched as candidates declare themselves — or take themselves out of the running. So too is next year’s balloting in the Netherlands, a onetime liberal bastion that could be poised to make a sharp rightward turn. 

On the immediate horizon, contests that might otherwise have garnered relatively little outside attention — Austria’s presidential vote, coinciding with a Sunday constitutional referendum in Italy — are looming large as indicators of whether the populist wave has already crested or is poised to gather even greater momentum.  

“Everybody’s very nervous —  it’s hard to know what’s going on,” said analyst Heather Grabbe of the Open Society Foundation’s European Policy Institute. “There is really a question as to how the zeitgeist is changing.”             

Trump’s triumph could be as much a sign that European movements leaped across the Atlantic as the other way around, some analysts maintain. Or leapfrogged back and forth; as a candidate, Trump greeted the “Brexit” result with glee —  though with a measure of confusion, as he congratulated Scots who had overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU.   

Whether they saw themselves as followers or forerunners, European far-right leaders rejoiced at the American election results. Marine Le Pen, a French presidential hopeful, declared that Trump had “made possible what was presented as completely impossible.”

Many of the populist figures embracing Trump consider his win not only a vindication of their more incendiary political views, but a sign of kinship born of proudly self-proclaimed outsider status.

Hungary’s staunchly anti-immigration Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who swept to power in 2010, has until now been held at arm’s length by both Washington and centrist European leaders over actions widely perceived as anti-democratic. That ostracism, the Hungarian leader crowed, would soon change. 

“Our position has improved remarkably,” the prime minister told the Hungarian business daily World Economy after speaking with the U.S. president-elect by phone late last month. “He invited me to Washington; I told him I hadn’t been there for a long time as I had been treated as a ‘black sheep.’’

To which, he said, Trump laughed and replied: “Me, too.”

The presidential race in Austria, the Alpine enclave that is Adolf Hitler’s birthplace, has been a tempestuous one, pitting far-right parliamentarian Norbert Hofer against leftist Alexander Van der Bellen. The electoral battle has dragged on for more than a year after an earlier result was contested in court.

In its latest incarnation, the campaign has been marked by social-media smears of Hofer’s opponents, including a recent Facebook post by a leader of his Freedom Party suggesting the 72-year-old Van der Bellen might be senile. There has also been heavy traffic to a far-right news website —  Unzensuriert, or “Uncensored” —  with distinct conspiracist bent and a preoccupation with the influx of migrants to Austria over the past two years.

Sunday’s contest was expected to be close enough that results might wait until Tuesday.

Anti-European Union sentiment is a crucial engine in some of the most highly fraught political contests, and the alarm of the bloc’s leaders has only grown since Britain’s shock decision to abandon the EU. Most of them see a potent new threat in Italy’s national referendum on Sunday, with Prime Minister Matteo Renzi saying he will step down if a package of constitutional reforms is voted down.

That could open the door to political opponents who want to break with the EU —  a move that could not only spur other member states, but potentially trigger a new and widely felt banking crisis in Italy, the continent’s fourth-largest economy.

And damaging economic reverberations across the Continent, which has already fought off repeated crises involving its common currency, would likely add fuel to the populist fire. The movement is bolstered by the perception that a regulatory-heavy European Union and a self-interested political and social elite consistently trample the economic well-being of ordinary people.      

“It’s all going to be very complex how these things play out,” said Alina Polyakova, a senior European analyst at the Atlantic Council. Even without far-right victories in key elections, she said, “Brexit and Trump have set off a trend of anti-EU forces that are likely to follow.”

While the populist movement has many champions across Europe, the centrist camps that have dominated the continent’s politics for a generation have struggled to find charismatic leaders around whom to rally.

Scorched-earth tactics have been a boon for politicians like the Dutch firebrand Geert Wilders, once considered far outside the mainstream but winning adherents with bellicose calls for the closing of Islamic schools and creation of a religious registry. Wilders, awaiting a verdict in his latest hate-speech trial, leads the Party for Freedom, which is leading in the polls in advance of March’s parliamentary elections.       

That leaves a heavy responsibility in the hands of a few stalwarts. German Prime Minister Angela Merkel, her immense popularity dented over the last two years by Europe’s migrant crisis, announced last month she would seek a fourth term.

But she sharply rejected the notion that she could serve as a sole standard-bearer for liberal democratic principles such as human dignity and equality under the law — values she made a point of citing in a carefully worded message of congratulations to Trump.

Meanwhile, the political casualties pile up. French President Francois Hollande, whose approval ratings have sunk so low that members of his Socialist party have stated publicly he couldn’t win next year’s election, cited the threat posed by the extreme right when he announced Thursday his decision not to run.

Even if the United States is not commonly held up as an exemplar —  many far-right movements have had a traditional mistrust of things American — the dawn of the Trump era has helped cement the view that political insurgency reaps big rewards.

“Certain kinds of political behavior have been normalized,” said Grabbe, the analyst. “And it’s made the anti-establishment candidates say to themselves, ‘See, you can win.’”

laura.king@latimes.com

@laurakingLAT

Times staff writer Alexandra Zavis contributed to this report.

This article incorrectly refers to Angela Merkel as Germany's prime minister. She is the chancellor.
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