Loughborough University: Political links with Putin have not harmed populist leaders’ election campaigns

Marine Le Pen’s ties to Vladimir Putin should have dented her French presidential campaign, but like other populist politicians who have aligned themselves with the Kremlin, she has managed to retain her popularity.

The far-right populist politician, who wants to sever France’s links with NATO and the US if she is elected, has previously stated her admiration of Putin and defended him on a number of occasions.

And although Le Pen has recently condemned his invasion of Ukraine, she has also called for a ‘strategic rapprochement’ with Russia once the conflict is over.

On Sunday (24), French voters will visit polling stations across the country to decide who they want to be the next president – Le Pen or Emmanual Macron.

Logically, Le Pen’s association with Vladimir Putin should have buried her campaign, according to Dr Gerhard Schnyder, an expert in international relations and populism at Loughborough University London.

But that hasn’t happened.

It is one of a number of cases in Europe where politicians, who have aligned themselves with the Russian President, have seen their popularity increase.

Dr Schnyder said: “The war in Ukraine is first and foremost a big challenge for populists in Europe because siding with Putin against domestic governments – for populists in opposition – has always been a media stunt that they like to pull.

“You remember (Matteo) Salvini (former Deputy Prime Minister of Italy) wearing a Putin t-shirt on the Red Square in Moscow. You remember Marine Le Pen in France having her picture taken during the 2017 campaign shaking hands with Putin.

“It’s always had this factor of provocation, but also showing we stand for something different… we reject this softy, liberal, globalist of Western Europe that our governments adopt, and we stand for what Orban called, the liberal democracy.”

New re-elected Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban – a nationalist – has met Vladimir Putin 12 times in the last 12 years and is known for his close relationship with the Russian premier.

“Quite frankly I expected it to force these populists to keep their distances from Putin, but in actual fact that’s not what has happened,” said Dr Schnyder, speaking on Besieged: A podcast about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Hungary had an election and Orban was elected with a two-thirds majority.

“That’s quite astonishing in the current context, especially if you compare it to Poland, where the Polish populist government takes a very anti-Putin stance and is solidaristic with Ukraine.

“So, in Hungary, the proximity to Putin hasn’t harmed Orban’s electoral campaign.

“The same is true for France, where we can see that Marine Le Pen is polling very well – she may actually win.

“If you asked me to put my money on Macron or Le Pen, I would say Le Pen.

He added: “But to me, it’s a puzzle. Why did this proximity to Putin not hurt them?”

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