The Global Rise Of The Far-Right Continues At A Startling Pace

In fall elections around the world, the far-right creeps into the mainstream
Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, head of Austrian People’s Party, speaks during the election party in Vienna, Austria, Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017, after the closing of the polling stations for the Austrian national elections. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, head of Austrian People’s Party, speaks during the election party in Vienna, Austria, Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017, after the closing of the polling stations for the Austrian national elections. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

November is usually election month in the US. This time around, Democratic gains in Virginia and New Jersey have leftists cheering and hopeful that this is a start of a reversal of fortunes and the beginnings of a country-wide repudiation of President Donald Trump come 2018 and 2020.

Elections in several countries this fall may give similar insight into global developments further down the road. Here’s a breakdown of each one, and what it means for each country:

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If France’s election of Emmanuel Macron earlier this year seemed to herald the beginning of the end for the far-right, Austria’s election on October 15th seems to herald the opposite. With 31.5% of the vote, the right-wing Austrian People’s Party (OVP) has won the most seats in parliament and will be negotiating a governing coalition. They will most likely form one with the Freedom Party (FPO), Austria’s far-right outfit whose roots date to Nazism, who came in third, less than one percentage point behind the centre-left Social Democrats.

The man behind OVP’s rise is 31-year old Sebastian Kurz, who had only assumed leadership of the party in July. His rise to power is meteoric. He joined OVP’s youth wing when he came out of high school, and became foreign minister at 27. Should coalition talks succeed, he will become the youngest leader in the world, while FPO will be the first neo-Nazi party to enter government since the end of World War II.

This rightfully worries Europeans the continent over. While his supporters see him as a charismatic, capable, and energetic leader, his critics worry that he will be spearheading a rightward shift of Austria, just as he did within his own party. Some already talk of Austria moving away from the Western liberal consensus towards Central European right-wing authoritarianism, joining Hungary, Poland, and increasingly the Czech Republic (more on them in a bit.) Mr. Kurz is keen to style himself as the pro-European, conservative version of Emmanuel Macron, but his credentials don’t offer much hope that he will defer to centrism.

As foreign minister, he took a hardline stance on immigration, corralling leaders in Balkan countries to close the migrant route to Germany that passed through his country. He has talked about integrating migrants, but also defends bans on Muslim veils and has questioned whether integration is possible from people who lived in “different systems.” He is also not shy about boosting a pro-Catholic agenda, including pro-life and anti-same sex marriage stances. His platform has been so right-wing, FPO’s campaign boos even accused him of “political plagiarism.”

After Mr. Kurz’s win, Titanic, a German satirical newspaper, aired the headline “Time travel in Austria: It’s finally possible to kill baby Hitler!”

Fewer liberal Europeans are laughing.


German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks in front of the national flag at the general party conference of the Christian Democratic Union, CDU, in Essen, Germany, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks in front of the national flag at the general party conference of the Christian Democratic Union, CDU, in Essen, Germany, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Right-wing parties also enjoyed a victory of sorts in Germany, where the nationalist, anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) entered the Bundestag by coming third in federal elections, with 12.6 % of the vote. Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union still won but lost 65 seats, and now needs to cobble together a coalition. The Social Democrats refused to enter into government again with Merkel, having also lost 40 seats this time around, and deeming it more fitting to remain in opposition. Ms. Merkel is, therefore, trying to bring together a government featuring smaller parties from opposite sides of the aisle: the FDP, a pro-business party, and the Green party.

As can be expected, this has not been an easy process and, as of Friday, the parties have not come to a consensus. A deadline for Thursday night has been pushed to Sunday. Immigration remains a thorny issue, as the Greens refuse to agree to limitations on the number of migrants accepted per year (currently set to 200,000), and want to ban coal as an energy source. The FDP, meanwhile, refuses to back a Franco-German initiative to create a euro fund to battle economic shocks.

Ms. Merkel does not have the luxury of the so-called “Jamaica” coalition (named so because colors of the parties match those of the Jamaican flag) not working out. If she is not able to form a government, then new elections may have to be called. That will play right into the hands of AfD; they are slated to make even bigger gains should another election occur.

Czech Republic

Czech elections on October 20th yielded similarly chaotic results, if not more so. The populist ANO party won nearly 30 percent of the vote, setting up billionaire Andrej Babis to be the next PM (we’ll let you make the Trump comparisons). This was a volatile, fragmented election, as nine parties succeeded in entering parliament. It featured a host of odd characters, including the eccentric Mr. Babis; half-Asian xenophobic party leader Tomio Okamura; and Ivan Bartos, the leader of the e-government proponent Pirate Party, who certainly looks the part:

Leftist parties again took big losses, with the Social Democrats and Communists losing 35 and 18 seats in the lower house respectively. However, the Social Democrats’ poor showing is particularly bewildering. They were not only the incumbents but had presided over a government that oversaw stable economic growth and the lowest unemployment in the EU.

Some of the losses stemmed from elderly voters switching to ANO or the far-right SPD-led by the aforementioned Okamura — over fears of EU imposition of migrants in the country. Another reason was a public perception of corruption, ironically caused in part by Mr. Babis himself. As finance minister in the last government, Mr. Babis’ company, Agrofert, was accused of misappropriation of EU subsidies. He was eventually removed from office, but it took the last PM, Buhoslav Subotka, nearly a year to do so.

The fact that Mr. Babis was able to not only skate by the allegations but capitalize on them, is truly an electoral feat. He achieved this, in part, with a Eurosceptic platform he is now trying to temper in search of coalition partners. He was also able to expertly portray himself as a new face, despite his role in the last government. In so doing, he was able to get credit for the government’s good performance, while getting no flack for his own conflicts of interest. Of course, the fact that he owns multiple media outlets certainly helped his cause.

Mr. Babis’ victory may be short-lived, however, as he has not been able to form a cohesive coalition. Most other parties campaigned vehemently against him, setting up wide divisions. If he is not able to form a government, there will need to be another election, the results of which would be truly unpredictable.

New Zealand

Jacinda Ardern gave fans of progressive politics a rare reason for hope when she assumed office as PM on October 26th. Her rise to the top is Netflix-series worthy. Having only been appointed as leader of the Labour Party in August, she was able to take the party out of the political wilderness through her charismatic charm and promises of change. Many who were weary of a decade of rule under the center-right National Party found her focus on issues such as climate change and income inequality refreshing. At 37, she is now the youngest female leader in the world.

Progressives should pause before crowning her the female Trudeau, however. Ms. Ardern’s Labour Party actually came second in elections and got into power by negotiating a coalition partnership with New Zealand First, a nationalist, anti-immigration party. It does not appear that New Zealand First will be peripheral partners either. Its leader, Winston Peters — a man whose numerous racist rantings include joking during a speech that “two wongs don’t make a white” — has been named Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister.

Ms. Ardern isn’t very pro-immigration herself. While in favor of expanding refugee quotas, she has come out in favor of reducing the number of migrants allowed in the country overall. Immigration is a hot-button issue for New Zealanders. The numbers of migrants, though only 70,000 in a country of 5 million, have nonetheless increased sixteen-fold over a decade. Many attribute New Zealand’s high housing prices to rich foreigners purchasing properties.

Ms. Ardern’s promise to tackle this and other issues with a measured pragmatism. Her plan to support and resettle 150 refugees from Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, despite opposition from an increasingly anti-refugee minded Australia, seems to indicate as much. However, it is not certain that she will not bow to populist pressure. Her eagerness to renegotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal President Trump famously exited from, hints at protectionist tendencies that New Zealand First will be keen to exploit. While she shows promise, Ms. Ardern needs to be careful, so as not to end up governing the living embodiment of Faye’s horseshoe theory.

What Does All This Mean?

First and foremost, these elections have signaled a yearning for a change of the status quo. In all four elections, voters favored candidates who they believed would shake things up. In the case of Austria and New Zealand, this meant going for a younger face, one unblemished by politics as usual.

While all mainstream parties have suffered losses in the West, center-left parties have fared worst of all. Ms. Ardern’s “win” aside, the only other major recent election in which a social democrat party increased their share of representation is in UK’s elections in June (led by Jeremy Corbyn, another “anti-establishment” figure.) In some cases, such as Germany’s SPD, leftist parties have lost some of their credibility by partnering with mainstream center-right parties. Such left-right coalitions have amplified the notion that mainstream parties are all the same. Overall, it seems that voters no longer trust leftist parties to act in the best interests of the little guy and to protect them from such forces as globalization and economic downturn.

Many voters have increasingly turned to far-right parties for this, meaning their rise continues. The gains made by such parties this fall — along with massive demonstrations like the 60,000 person nationalist march in Poland — indicate that the far-right has been able to penetrate the psyche of a major section of Western countries. Inequality is part of the reason, particularly in Central and Eastern European countries, where many believed they would see much more benefit from EU membership after 10–20 years than they are now. Fake news and misinformation, particularly the Russian-backed kind, has also boosted far-right outfits.

However, it is the migrant crisis that has been the biggest boon for such parties, evidenced by its prominence at the ballot box. The increased xenophobia that far-right parties have fomented may seem counter-intuitive to the otherwise egalitarian nature of European society, but it isn’t.

Whereas a country like the US has dealt with immigration (and xenophobes like Trump) for its entire history, this is a relatively new phenomenon in Europe. Some countries, such as the UK and France, have had robust immigrant populations for decades. But most others have been more or less ethnically homogeneous for centuries. A sudden influx of migrants, like the one in 2015, has therefore unsettled many, particularly the poorer and less educated. Such people see migrants as direct competition, be it for jobs, housing, or social welfare benefits. Repeated terrorist attacks do not help to allay such fears, however irrational. Most of all, migrants represent an existential threat to far-right proponents’ notion of identity, one they are already seeing eroded by mass media and globalization.

It is no longer enough for centrists to sit by and hope for this nationalist wave to pass by. Some posit that far-right parties will collapse under the weight of their populist contradictions once under pressure in government. Individuals like Mr. Kurz make this a risky bet.

Mr. Kurz succeeded not because he riled up a right-wing base with xenophobic and racist dog whistles. Rather, he presented something far more dangerous: legitimacy. Boasting good looks, charisma, and government experience, Mr. Kurz walked the walk and talked the talk of a credible European leader. By eschewing anti-EU talk and tempering his views on migrants, he effectively masked the nationalist undertones of his platform well enough to be deemed palatable.

Other nationalists will be taking notes. How mainstream parties respond to this renewed threat will determine whether Mr. Kurz is simply the only far-right winger in disguise, or just the first of many.

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Global Outlook // Elections / Politics / World