Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Waiting in the wings

Across Europe, far-right actors and their anti-politics cousins are regrouping, writes Michael McTernan

The eurozone crisis has prompted many dark predictions about the impending danger of populist far-right parties gaining significant footholds on Europe’s political map. At the same time, others have maintained that majorities of voters will opt for stability in straitened times, recognising that, however bad things are, returning reactionary populist forces to government would be worse.

In this regard, the recent elections in the Netherlands, widely assumed to be Europe’s ‘political laboratory’, represented a significant litmus test. Projections that Geert Wilders’ far-right Freedom party would again rock the established parties proved ill-founded with voters overwhelmingly returning the traditional centre-left and centre-right parties. After years of volatility, the electorate voted for mainstream stability, rejecting Wilders’ promise to eject the Netherlands from the EU, and prompting observations that the country may be entering a new post-populist phase.

In France, the gap between polling projections and the Front National’s eventual vote share in the 2012 presidential election suggests that voters are not likely to shift decisively to the far-right.

Nonetheless, mainstream politicians should not underestimate the threat. In the vacuum created on the centre-right, as the UMP party rebuilds after the departure of Nicolas Sarkozy, it is evident that the FN has been quietly consolidating. It is polling at 19.5 per cent, with the main drivers of support being its veiled commitment to ‘protecting the French way of life’ and tapping into political distrust and the ‘protest vote’. Marine Le Pen’s clever triangulation encompasses values such as secularism and feminism, as well as far-left ideological stances on capitalism, globalisation and the European Union.

Staying in this region, Belgium held local elections in October which were notable for the further decline of the far-right Vlaams Belang. In the strategically significant Flemish city of Antwerp the party dropped from 33.5 per cent to 10.2 per cent of the vote. In this case it has been argued that a cordon sanitaire – an agreement not to cooperate with the party under any political circumstances – long in place due to years of far-right success, led to a perception that a VB vote was a wasted one as they were essentially condemned to permanent opposition. At the same time other parties moved to occupy their territory by shifting to the right in relation to immigration, nationalism and political distrust.

In other recent elections, the True Finns scored 12.3 per cent of the vote in municipal elections held in October, down 6.7 per cent from their score in the 2011 general election. In the Finnish context of strict immigration policies and low numbers of immigrants it is important to point out that the party’s support rests more in its stance as an anti-establishment actor. Here the main issues it seeks to capitalise on are Europe and the euro which are used as conductors to rally against modernity, the Finnish political system and its elite.

Nearby in Sweden, however, the far-right Swedish Democrats hit their highest polling score ever in October, coming in third place with 8.5 per cent. The party has made an attempt to rid itself of overt racism, although its support remains driven by ethnic nationalism and opposition to immigration and multiculturalism.

Turning to Greece, the Golden Dawn far-right movement has also jumped to 14 per cent in the polls, putting them in third place. The severity of the Greek economic situation has meant that many have invariably declared an intention to vote in protest at the political elite while the ‘solidarity projects’ – ‘Food for Greeks only’, ‘Blood for Greeks only’, ‘Jobs for Greeks only’ – and attacks on foreigners bring home the darker forces that austerity and social marginalisation have uncovered.

Finally, in Italy the political system is shaking in the face of an onslaught of anti-political actors led by maverick comedian Beppe Grillo, who polls in second place with 19 per cent. Grillo is not of the far-right; rather his appeal lies in railing against the establishment. This highlights the potential of a drift from left-right competition to lines of battle drawn along a political-anti-political axis.

Returning to the Netherlands, the lesson might be that, in many countries, Europe’s mainstream political class now has some much-needed space to take the reins in the ongoing crisis and deliver on its mandate of stability. Failure could be devastating – with populist parties waiting in the wings.


Michael McTernan is editor and senior researcher at Policy Network


Photo: Philippa Willitts

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Michael McTernan

is editor and senior researcher at Policy Network

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