Over the past year, far right political parties have made major gains in divisive elections throughout the West. Although some of these movements enjoyed victories in previous elections in the 1990s and early 2000s, success of this magnitude across Europe has not occurred since before WWII. Grown from worldwide recessions and refugee crises, nationalism and populism are newly ascendant political forces to be reckoned with. While coverage of right-populist movements has mainly focused on Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump, the far right has been strengthening throughout the West. Austria almost saw the Austrian Freedom Party gain the presidency, the National Front is making great political strides in France, and the Party for Freedom is ahead in the Netherland’s presidential polls. Additionally, the Golden Dawn has been a strong force in Greece, while in Germany, the Alternative for Deutschland party is expected to gain seats in its state’s parliaments.
These right nationalist campaigns, including those of Brexit and Trump, have run on two fundamental ideas currently trending in many western countries: uplifting the poor working class in a crippling globalized economy, and constricting immigration from the Middle East. Although the political clashes in culture and economics seems to be the major driving forces of the rise of the far right, there is another factor at work. The economy and immigration concerns have only been political speaking points disguising the true catastrophe of modern politics: the loss of the general public’s trust in institutions. This has been largely a product of the left’s identity crisis, and the prioritization of political opportunities over the representation of the people in the political arena. The rise of the far right has been possible because of widespread feelings of insecurity.
Europeans have been facing economic crisis since 2009, when interest rates on government bonds in Greece, Cyprus, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Ireland skyrocketed. Economies were crumbling, debts were growing, and many welfare systems were not sustainable. Although the European Union has worked to subdue the economic crisis by implementing financial support mechanisms, by writing off debt and providing emergency loans, another banking crisis may be on the horizon in Italy. In an interview with the HPR, Dr. Daphne Halikiopoulou, associate professor in comparative politics at the University of Reading who specializes in research on radical nationalism, stated that the financial insecurity from the economic crisis has caused both working and middle class Europeans to be concerned with unemployment, salary cuts, welfare access, pensions, and access to health care.
What is so appealing about the far right’s economic platform that people are turning to it in an economic crisis? Halikiopoulou remarked that “anybody who is economically insecure is considered to be a far-right party supporter.” She explains that in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the far right parties that wanted to stay relevant shifted from old-right ideology, with its fascist core, to a modernized platform. The parties adopted a statist economic policy that was centered on welfare, along with a moderate stance on democracy, and eventually began to gain popularity. The far right is competing directly with the left on economic policy; however, the far right is exploiting the rift in the left. “Part of the reason that you see the rise of the far right is because the left is having an identity crisis of its own. It doesn’t know where it is going,” said Halikiopoulou. Distrust in the ability of the left to accomplish its goals has led to political opportunities for the far right.
The far right is able to brand itself as stable, while continuing to tear apart the more ‘establishment’ left wing. In some countries, populist and nationalist movements have tied economic hardship to the failure of the political elites. In Italy, the populist Five Star Movement has campaigned against the established, major Democratic Party with accusations of corruption. Similarly in Greece, according to Halikiopoulou, the Golden Dawn has adopted a strategy of targeting traditional, left-leaning candidates. “If you look at the source of votes for the radical right, there is some cross over from working class and traditional left-wing party constituencies, but most of it is poaching off of the center-right,” said Bart Bonikowski, an associate professor of sociology at Harvard University, in an interview with the HPR. “In some ways there is a crisis on the left, but there is also a crisis on the right. It is really a crisis of the established political parties.”
Border Control and the Refugee Crisis
Although both the far right and the left support the welfare systems of Europe, there is one pivotal difference between the two platforms: far right parties do not include immigrants in their welfare agendas. Economics and immigration are difficult to disentangle, because some fears of immigration are associated with economic insecurities, such as loss of jobs to immigrants and questions over welfare distribution. In an interview with the HPR, Professor Laurenz Ennser-Jedenastik from the University of Vienna stated that the conflict is over globalization and the increase in saliency. “Saliency is about the question of how open national borders should be all types of movements across borders, movements of people, movements of capital, movements of goods, and trade,” said Ennser-Jedenastik.
Fears of an erosion of Western culture, sparked by the Syrian refugee crisis have also led to a rise in xenophobia, which far right movements have capitalized on. Marine Le Pen, leader and presidential candidate of the National Front in France, publically stated that she is against a multicultural France, and has suggested that immigrants should adapt to French culture. The Austrian Freedom Party candidate, Norbert Hofer, defended a platform focused on restricting immigration to Austria to slow “Islamification.” He rose in the polls with Austrian discontent over the open door immigration policy, which allowed 90,000 Syrian immigrants to enter the country in 2015. The Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, elected in 2010, has continually employed strong rhetoric against migrants and refugees. He has suggested that illegal immigrants be “rounded up and shipped out,” and has fought against large-scale immigration into the European Union.
The Syrian refugee crisis itself has not been a causal factor of the rise of the right; however, it has exacerbated its rise by allowing the far right to capitalize on fears of national security and terrorist attacks. “It’s got more to do with perceptions than even any actual numbers. If you look at Marine Le Pen with the terrorist attacks in France, it has been such a good rhetorical tool,” said Halikiopoulou. The far right is capitalizing on the inability of current governments to provide fully confident security to people. Additionally, the embrace of immigrants by the current establishment has been received negatively by many Europeans—specifically conservative political groups. Angela Merkel faced strong opposition over her open door policy from the Christian Democratic Union and the Alternative for Germany parties, and has since stepped back from her pro-integration stance, admitting that she lost control of the refugee crisis.
On a more local level, the Syrian refugee crisis has caused political ramifications for areas hosting refugees. In regions where large numbers of refugees are assimilating, grassroots movements have taken hold and are inciting violence. In Greece, violence erupted between far right protesters and refugees on the islands of Lesbos and Chios, while in Germany, violence between far right and far left supporters over the refugee crisis is rising at unprecedented levels. “The impact is not only at the electoral level, but the refugee crisis has revealed a more grassroots, deep, local level problem,” said Halikiopoulou.
Little to Lose, Much to Gain
The far right has been making notable gains in elections throughout Europe. In Austria, candidate Hofer pounced onto the political scene, winning the first round of the election last April with a shocking 35.6 percent of the electorate in a six-candidate race. The two major parties in Austria since World War II, the left leaning Social Democratic Party and the right leaning Austrian People’s Party, both lost their standing in the national election and took fourth and fifth place in the race. Ennser-Jedenastik attributed the party’s success to a variety of factors: a party platform that is anti-immigration in a time of multiple refugee crises, their centrist position on socioeconomic issues, and the political advantage of being a minor opposition party.
Hofer’s Eurosceptic views helped him in the general election when multiple candidates served to dilute the vote; however, it was surprising how well he performed in the run-off election, garnering roughly 47 percent of the vote when he opposed the European Union to win the first election. However, only about one third of Austrians are against the European Union. According to Ennser-Jedenastik, although Hofer’s loss was not as divisive as the media made it seem—the Austrian president is mostly a figurehead—the biggest consequence of the election lies in the future. “If you do the math you see that a large chunk of the Freedom Party voters had never before cast a vote for the Freedom Party,” said Ennser-Jedenastik. “If you have cast your vote for the Freedom Party, it may not be difficult to do so a second time.”
Marine Le Pen, the president of the National Front, has made huge gains in the polls for the French presidential race. The National Front is a right, socially conservative party of France that believes in economic protectionism, a zero-tolerance approach to law and order, and opposition to mass immigration. Le Pen gained popularity after promising to cut immigration; however, her odds of winning skyrocketed from 15 percent to 50 percent after Trump won the election in the United States. Her biggest policy proposal is to leave the European Union in order to focus on France’s sovereignty, and she has promised to build a better France to fix the policies of the last thirty years. While it is almost certain that Le Pen’s name will be on the run-off ballot on May 7th, both left and right leaning French citizens may cast ballots in the final round to create a “republican front” to defeat Le Pen.
Although Le Pen’s success has been tied to the success of President-elect Donald Trump, nationalist and populist movements are not on the rise because of Brexit or Trump. Both were the precursors that revealed the depth of the rise of the far right. That said, the election of Donald Trump validated the efforts of populist European politicians. Far-right politicians across Europe lauded the U.S. presidential election, and began using stronger rhetoric for their causes in response.
Other populist movements were on the rise long before movements in the United States and the United Kingdom. The Austrian election itself “made visible many of the transformations that have been on the rise in Austrian politics for thirty years now,” said Ennser-Jedenastik. Far right movements in the Netherlands gained traction in the ‘90s, and Marine Le Pen’s father and former National Front leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, had stunning success in the presidential election of 2002. In Italy, the populist Five Star Movement began gaining seats in 2012, and although its momentum was temporarily slowed in 2014, in June 2016 M5S candidate Virginia Ragii became the mayor of Rome. The nationalist and populist movements themselves are building on each other. “We are just starting to learn to what degree are these developments coordinated… It is clear that people are learning from one another across countries. A political approach that worked in one place is tried somewhere else,” said Bonikowski.
Future of European Politics
The astounding success of the far right over the past year, along with that of nationalist and populist movements, has been exacerbated by the combination of many factors that are causing bottomless insecurity: the economy, the cultural conflict over the refugee crisis, and political uncertainty. Whether the far right changes the political climate for the worse or the better, the fact remains that people are losing faith in their governments and are desperately seeking change. Many Europeans are disillusioned with the European Union and the conflict plays out between regions. As Bonikowski has found in his own research, the economic core is experiencing ethno-nationalist populism while in the southern countries, left-wing populism is on the rise. There are sentiments in both regions against each other, and “there is massive polarization among the political elites. That polarization is not going to decline in the coming years.” The core no longer wants to pay for the economic problems in the south, and southern European countries feel the core is enforcing austere policies upon them.
In reality, far right, nationalist, and populist politics are not new to the European political scene. Although the political order across Europe is being challenged, and questions remain regarding the European Union’s stability, as Bonikowski puts it, “the fortunes of the far right have come and gone over time. In principle, you can say it will blow over, but in the meantime, it is changing democratic discourse, which can have far reaching implications for the future.”
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