Jun 6, 2024 - World

Voters everywhere rage against the incumbents

Illustration of a hand in a suit reaching out from a pile of red x's

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

BERLIN — Across the continent, parties in power are bracing for a drubbing in this week's elections for the European Parliament — in many cases, at the hands of far-right populists.

Why it matters: Four years of successive crises — a global pandemic, large-scale war in Europe for the first time in decades, and debilitating inflation — are fueling anti-incumbent backlash in the biggest election year in human history.

Driving the news: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been described as the most popular leader in the world, but even he was humbled by election results this week. He'll keep his job, but without an outright majority.

  • Last week in South Africa, the long-ruling African National Congress suffered its worst performance since the end of Apartheid.
  • Ruling parties from South Korea to Senegal have suffered recent defeats.
  • Next month, U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and the Conservatives are on course to be wiped out in a landslide.
  • President Biden is trailing former President Trump in most polls.

By the numbers: Biden's approval rating is stuck in the high 30s, and even that is better than leaders like Canadian PM Justin Trudeau (35%), German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (26%), French President Emmanuel Macron (23%) or Japanese PM Fumio Kishida (15%), according to Morning Consult's tracker.

  • The most popular leader on the tracker, aside from Modi, is Argentina's Javier Milei (61%) — a self-described "anarcho-capitalist" who was swept to office in December on a burn-it-all-down platform.
  • Mexico defied the trend last week by electing an ally of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Claudia Sheinbaum. Before that, incumbents in Latin America had lost 20 elections in a row, the AP reports.

Zoom in: Mainstream parties are seeking to slow a populist surge in the EU's parliamentary elections, in which 373 million people will be eligible to vote in 27 countries between Thursday and Sunday.

  • In Germany, the Social Democrats — who lead a strained and unpopular coalition government — are hoping that late-breaking scandals will prevent the far-right AfD from making huge gains.
    • One top Social Democrat borrowed one of Biden's favorite quips in a meeting with Axios this week: "Don't compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative."
  • In France, the far-right National Rally leads comfortably in the polls and is casting the elections as a referendum on the term-limited Macron.
  • In the Netherlands, anti-Islam campaigner Geert Wilders pulled off a shock upset last November, making his party the biggest in parliament. He's now seeking to carry that momentum into the European elections.

Between the lines: German Social Democrat Matthias Ecke, an EU candidate who was attacked last month by teens with suspected far-right ties, said he believes the radicalizing effect of the pandemic has been "underestimated."

  • "It's really contributed to a larger share of the population that's open to the idea of anti-democratic forces," Ecke told Axios, citing a "rabbit hole of conspiracy theories" that sprouted from vaccines and lockdowns.

Reality check: There are clearly divergent factors driving down support for social democrats in Germany and Modi's Hindu nationalists in India. Even within the West, analysts debate whether social media and disinformation are making voters angrier, or economic insecurity is largely to blame.

The bottom line: It's a bad time to be running for re-election just about anywhere.

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