The Global Rise Of The Far-Right
“Today we see red-white-red — the flag of Austria — as a signal of hope and change,” so said Alexander Van der Bellen, the President of Austria, in his speech after defeating Norbert Hofer of the right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ). He had much reason to be upbeat: he had just defeated a surging anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic (anti-EU) party a second time, after FPÖ succeeded in annulling the initial results and forcing another election.
Mr. Van der Bellen’s optimism may be short lived. Buoyed by Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory in the US, right wing nationalist parties are gaining momentum and look to continue to build on their already unprecedented popularity in Europe this year. The presidential election in France next month, as well as parliamentary elections in the Netherlands (March 15th), Bulgaria (March 26th), Norway (September 11th), Germany (September 24th), the Czech Republic (October), and possibly Italy provide opportunities for parties espousing anti-immigrant, populist, and Eurosceptic platforms to emerge from the political fringes and into the mainstream. They hope to join right-wing parties in Hungary (Fidesz) and Poland (PiS, or Law and Justice Party) that are already in power, in addition to parties with outsize representation in traditionally tolerant countries such as Finland, Denmark, and Norway (see link to map below for a full breakdown of the amount of representation held by the far right in EU countries).
So far, right-wing parties are set to improve upon their political positions. Marine Le Pen, leader of the right-wing National Front (FN), is sitting in second place in the polls, almost ensured a chance to be among the finalists in the runoff. In the Netherlands, the Party for Freedom (PVV) — led by Geert Wilders, an Islam-bashing Eurosceptic who shares President Trump’s penchant for bigoted remarks and startling hairdos — has been slated to win the most seats in government for much of the election cycle. Bulgaria’s United Patriots are polling third, with a good chance to be included in a coalition government.
Far right sentiment has always existed in European post-war politics. One of the most well known iterations was the skinhead movements of the 1960’s through the 80’s. Though some right-wing parties — PVV, for example — are relatively recent arrivals on the political landscape, many others have much longer histories. Ms. Le Pen inherited the reins of the FN from her anti-Semite father, Jean-Marie — who was the party’s first leader when the FN was founded in 1972 — and remade its image as a party protecting French values. The neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party of Greece, though formed in the 1980’s, traces its ideology to nationalist dictator Ioannis Metaxas of the 1930’s. Despite their longevity, such parties had always remained in the political extreme fringes, until recently.
Several factors are driving the far right’s newfound popularity. First, slow growth in the eurozone after the Great Recession has increased inequality and unemployment, particularly among young people. This has led to a profound disenchantment with the status quo, particularly with mainstream parties who seem to offer few novel solutions. Globalization — in terms of the EU, free trade, and the free movement of people — is increasingly seen less as a source of peace and prosperity and more as a force of unfair competition and cultural destruction. The recent spate of terrorist attacks in several European countries stoked anger against Muslims in Europe, just as a scores of refugees and migrants from the Middle East and North Africa are coming into the continent. Far right parties draw their support from those who have benefited least from globalization: the old, the less educated, rural and industrial area dwellers. Such voters increasingly feel that their respective countries are changing for the worse, losing traditional values that need to be taken back.
Far right populists are capitalizing on this disenchantment. They are not the only parties to do so. Anti-establishment candidates such as France’s centrist Emanuel Macron, as well as parties like the Five Star Movement in Italy or the direct democracy Pirate Parties, are also riding the anti-establishment wave. But whereas such parties offer either a fresh face or simply a new voice in government, far right-wing parties offer a platform that keys in on people’s aforementioned fears by espousing tenets that are distinctly isolationist, nationalist, and xenophobic. Much of their platforms will be familiar to Trump watchers: putting one’s country first with tighter borders, fewer immigrants, restrictions on minorities, no free trade, and a renewal of domestic jobs. Right wing populists even share Trump’s chummy relationship with Russia: many of them- including the Fisdesz party of Hungary’s despotic president Victor Orban, as well Le Pen’s Front National receive overt support from the Kremlin.
However, these parties are also slightly differ lightly from Trumpism, and there are also differences among respective far-right platforms themselves. Most European nationalist parties are not exactly conservative in the American sense: they do not inherently support free markets and most favor expanding Europe’s more generous healthcare, welfare, and pension schemes (as long as they go to native populations). Only some ground themselves in religious values in the way the the Christian right does in the US (Poland’s ultra Catholic PiS, who won elections promising subsidies to mothers and increased pensions, while also favoring major restrictions on abortions, are a notable exception). Their stance on immigration and the EU is also varied. Eastern European nationalists don’t have many qualms about the aid the EU provides, or its tenet of freedom of movement when it concerns their compatriots emigrating to the west (and sending back much needed remittances). However, they are also among the most ardent supporters of bans on refugees. Others, such as Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, or the UK Independence Party’s (UKIP) Nigel Farage, harbor a deep resentment of the EU and champion its abandonment, while differing on the nature of immigration: Le Pen and Wilders, focuses much of their hatred towards Muslim migrants in particular, while their counterparts at UKIP would like less of all migrants, be they from Bangladesh or Bulgaria.
Though currently still on the fringes of politics, right wing parties have made an outsized mark on the political landscape. UKIP was a leading force in the Leave campaign that succeeded in getting Britain to vote for Brexit. Many parties’ stoking of anti-migrant sentiment has pushed ruling parties to adopt tougher stances of immigration and globalization than they would have otherwise. Even Angela Merkel, champion of the EU and arguably the most tolerant of European leaders, has pushed for things like burka bans to placate her constituents.
The rise of the far right has been most detrimental to the other side of the political spectrum, as center-left parties have been seeing diminished support across the eurozone. Though they have a long history of governing as the parties representing workers and the less fortunate, social democrats have been seeing reduced support due in part to voters perceiving them as acquiescing to the status quo. Some of this is due to ineffective leadership by figures such as President Francois Hollande (whose approval rating is so low he did not stand for re-election) and British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbin. Grand coalitions between left and right-of center parties, used in several countries to block out the far-right, have also hurt the social democrat’s brand.
To be sure, the far right’s ascent is far from certain. Already, they have been seeing some setbacks. Ms. Le Pen, though five points ahead, is slated to lose by a big margin to Mr. Macron in the second round. The Dutch PVV is also seeing a slide in support with just a week before the elections. The PVV has historically struggled with turning their poll ratings into corresponding electoral support, and are unlikely to be able to form a government, given that all other parties have pledged not to work with them. One reason for the far right’s recent popularity dip seems to be a reluctance to elect someone like President Trump, especially after his horrid start. This seems to be one of the chief reasons behind right-wing Alternative for Germany’s (AfD) declining ratings, which currently do not ensure they will gain the minimum threshold of support needed to enter the Bundestag.
It may be tempting to believe that the far right’s flame is already fizzling. But these parties are not giving up; after all, polls have been very wrong before.