Undoubtedly 2016 will be a year which takes up many pages in the history books. The rise, and success, of the populist right has been as stark as it has been surprising for many onlookers. As 2016 became 2017 the future appeared to look much the same as the recent past, with elections throughout Europe poised to bring results matching Brexit and Trump. The march of right wing populism against the established order looked set to continue.
In the Netherlands, a renascent Geert Wilders was highlighted as the potential next successful insurgent. Elsewhere, elections in France and Germany looked set to herald the ascension of firebrand anti-elitist Marine Le Pen and fall of establishment stalwart Angela Merkel.
However, another lesson from 2016 seems to be how quickly the political landscape can change, and how quickly the mainstream media can fall behind.
This was illustrated in the Netherlands, where papers across Europe dedicated headlines and column inches to Wilders. Despite this, the ‘environmental left’ as represented by GroenLinks and D66 made the most significant gains in the March election.
Looking to France, media coverage of the Spring presidential election is largely dominated by the actions and words of right wing populist Marine Le Pen. Yet most polling and analysis suggests that it is the leftist liberal, Emmanuel Macron, who has the clearest path to victory.
Perhaps most surprisingly Angela Merkel, often considered the last stand in the fight against populism, finds herself under threat. However, the threat comes not from a movement of the right, but from one of the oldest centre left parties in the world. If Martin Schulz and the resurgent SPD were to triumph in September, it would certainly not be the end to 2017 that many predicated as 2016 drew to a close.
2016 showed us that predictions and assumptions can make a fool out of even the most experienced pollster or analyst. Yet these three examples demonstrate that 2017 may well turn out to be a year where those on the left of European politics were able to counter some of the ‘alt-right’ rhetoric which, momentarily in 2016, seemed unstoppable. If making predictions is risky, perhaps predicting the unpredictable is the only safe bet left.