As Populists Decline, the Center-Left Sees Hints of a Comeback

A long-struggling political faction has seen surprising gains this year, in part because of changes wrought by the pandemic. Can it hold on to them?

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A style of politics long considered in decline is experiencing something of a reprieve, even seeing glimmers of a possible return.

The gray-suited technocrats of the center-left are once more a serious force, at the expense of both the establishment conservatism that prevailed among Western democracies for much of the 21st century, and the right-wing populism that arose in backlash to the status quo.

This month alone, center-left parties have taken power in Norway and appear on the verge of doing the same in Germany. They hold the White House, share power in Italy and lead a newly credible opposition movement in authoritarian-leaning Hungary.

Calling it a comeback would be premature, analysts warn. Center-left gains are uneven and fragile. And they may be due less to any groundswell of enthusiasm than to short-term political tailwinds, largely a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Canada, where the center-left has faced a battle to hold onto power in Monday’s election, may best encapsulate the trend. The forces boosting center-lefts globally have nudged the Liberals’ poll numbers there from poor to middling — a fitting metaphor for the movement’s prospects.

Still, even modest gains among Western democracies could give a long-struggling political wing the chance to redeem itself with voters.

And it would counteract a dominant trend of the past decade: the rise in ethno-nationalism and strongman politics of the new populist right.

“People have been writing for several years now about how the Social Democrats are going to die out for good, and now here they are, they’re the leading party,” said Brett Meyer, who researches political trends at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, referring to the center-left’s sudden rise in Germany.

“That’s been an enormous surprise,” he added.

A Test of Covid Politics

If Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, keeps his job, it may be due in large part to political changes brought about by the pandemic.

Mr. Trudeau’s decision to call an election just two years after the last vote proved unpopular, initially sinking his party’s poll numbers into second place.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a campaign stop on Friday in Windsor, Ontario.Credit…Carlos Osorio/Reuters

But a few factors hinting at wider trends have since tightened the race.

Mr. Trudeau was expected to lose support to the left-wing New Democratic Party. But that party, after years of growth amid global polarization to the left- and right-wing margins, has stalled in its rise. This fits with voters worldwide tilting toward establishment parties in response to the uncertainty of the pandemic.

Two political scientists, James Bisbee and Dan Honig, identified this change by analyzing dozens of primaries and races. The pandemic, they found, boosted mainstream candidates, at the expense of political outsiders, by a sometimes-decisive 2 to 15 percentage points. They call this effect a “flight to safety.”

Other research suggests that the nature of pandemic leads voters to crave strong institutions, forceful government actions and social unity in response.

Those preferences naturally privilege the agendas of left-wing parties. That may be why, even as Canadians express weariness with Mr. Trudeau and disapproval of some of his choices, they remain drawn to the policies that his party represents.

But Mr. Trudeau’s luckiest stroke may be how the pandemic is dividing the political right.

In the 2010s, right-wing coalitions broadly unified over identity issues like immigration. But pandemic-related questions — whether to mandate vaccines, when to impose lockdowns, how forcefully to intervene in the economy — have split moderates from the activist base.

Canada’s Conservative Party, led by Erin O’Toole, has tacked left on climate and social issues. But Mr. O’Toole’s ambiguity on pandemic issues might have allowed the anti-vaccine-mandate People’s Party to siphon off votes. And it has opened him to attack from the left, with Mr. Trudeau challenging him to disavow anti-lockdown activists.

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Canada’s opposition Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole and his wife, Rebecca, arriving for a campaign event on Friday in London, Ontario.Credit…Blair Gable/Reuters

Polls worldwide also show lopsided support for vaccine mandates, greater welfare spending and other pandemic policies that fit better with the agendas of the left than the right — and that left-wing parties can more safely embrace without risking backlash from their base.

Canada is representative in another way, experts say. It shows that, while the pandemic might give the center-left an assist, it is not always enough to ensure victory. Though this year’s Dutch elections saw centrist and left-wing gains, the center-right remains firmly in power in the Netherlands. And polls in France suggest that next year’s elections will split between the centrist incumbent and the far-right Marine Le Pen. The center-left, all but obliterated in 2017, is considered unlikely to soon recover.

“Can you say that the period over the last 18 months is one of social democratic revival?” Pippa Norris, a Harvard University scholar of party politics, said. “Well, it depends on the election you’re looking at.”

While such a trend might become clear in retrospect, she added, for now, “What we’ve got is realignment and volatility.”

The Populist Stall-Out

That realignment is taking at least one clear form. The once-formidable right-wing populist wave has, for the moment, stalled — and may even be slightly reversing.

The movement’s rise has been slowing since late 2018, when its leaders faced a series of setbacks in Europe and the Americas. Its challenges have since deepened.

Half of Europe’s right-wing populist parties saw their support decline under the pandemic, though often by small amounts, according to a study by Cas Mudde and Jakub Wondreys at the University of Georgia. Only one in six gained support.

“It is possible that Covid-19 may have exposed the soft underbelly of populist politics,” Vittorio Bufacchi, a scholar at the University College Cork, wrote last year.

The populists who indulged anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine sentiments suffered the most in polls, such as Donald J. Trump in the United States and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.

Most populists initially defied their anti-institution, anti-expert brands, pushing for forceful government interventions and deference to scientists, Dr. Meyer found. It was another sign of circumstances favoring left-leaning politics.

But many have since reverted to form. Populists typically rely on distrust of institutions and social division to rule, making those habits hard to break.

Right-wing populist governments in Poland, Hungary and Slovenia face sliding poll numbers and rising opposition movements, often led by the center-left.

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Signs outside of an advance polling station in Burnaby, British Columbia.Credit…Jennifer Gauthier/Reuters

Populists are faring little better in opposition. Ms. Le Pen’s far-right party faced setbacks in French regional elections this summer. Alternative for Germany, once seen as the vanguard of the new far-right, has been stuck or backsliding in polls. After championing anti-lockdown sentiment, it suffered losses even in its homeland, Saxony.

This presents a challenge for center-right parties, too. For much of the 2010s, they found success by co-opting nationalist sentiment. But this was easier when identity issues dominated politics. It has become a political albatross, at least for now.

The Flight to Safety

The center-left has benefited from all these trends, but it’s not clear how long it will continue to, scholars say.

“There are short-term forces that always move parties up and down,” Dr. Norris said.

The conditions that drove the breakdown of establishment parties in recent decades still hold, she added. This remains an era of unstable coalitions and shifting electorates, which only momentarily favor the brand of politics that it previously almost killed.

“If parties in the center-left do capitalize on that, which is plausible given the pandemic and the role of government in that,” she said, “they can’t necessarily consolidate that.”

“Can you win on it? You can. But can you maintain it?”

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