Jobbik's extremists won over 10 percent in electionsImage: AP
Populism in Europe
April 12, 2010
In recent months, extreme right-wing and populist parties have won significant gains in regional and parliamentary elections in Europe. For them, times of crisis are a boon.
As Europe grows together, expanding its visa-free zone toward Iceland and the Ukrainian border, many citizens are beginning to see themselves firstly as Europeans rather than as citizens of their individual countries.
But not everyone supports the breaking down of national barriers. In recent months, xenophobic and right-wing parties have made spectacular political gains across Europe.
In Hungary on Sunday, the far-right Jobbik party won well over 16 percent of votes in parliamentary elections. With the country hard-hit by recession, Jobbik capitalized on rising nationalism and a resurgence of anti-Semitism and anti-Gypsy sentiment to win votes.
Jobbik's rise echoes that of France's right-wing Front National party, Italy's xenophobic Northern League and the Netherland's conservative Party for Freedom, which all saw dramatic gains in recent elections.
Although right-wing ideology takes different forms across Europe, it shares a common strategy: exploiting the fears of voters in times of crisis. Right-wing populists focus on their followers' discontent, says Wolfgang Kapust of German public broadcaster WDR.
"They offer easy answers to complicated problems: the economic situation, unemployment or social insecurity," said Kapust. "Above all, they want to get rid of, deport or 'send home' foreigners and 'the others.' "
But because right-wing movements define themselves through separation from that which is "alien," it is difficult for them to pool forces beyond their nation states. That's reflected in the European Union.
"Right-wing extremists and populists are opposed to a supra-national political institution like the European Union," says Kapust. "They want a Europe made of nativist countries. They want to maintain the identity of their own countries."
In the European Parliament, right-wing attempts to merge into one group have been unsuccessful.
"The differences are too large between the national movements," says Kapust. Right-wing parties remain protest parties, incapable of joining coalitions.
However, exclusion from coalitions does not mean that far-right parties are without influence. Often, nationalist parties succeed in exerting pressure on the conservative parties of the center, which fear they could lose potential voters to the far right.
This was seen in regional elections in France in February. The right-wing Front National, whose 81-year-old leader, Jean-Marie le Pen, has advocated sending African immigrants back to the continent, registered strong gains at the expense of French President Nicholas Sarkozy's conservative UMP.
The regional elections offered conservative voters a chance to show Sarkozy that they didn't approve of his policies since taking office, says Elisabeth Cadot, French expert at Deutsche Welle.
"Many who were disappointed by Sarkozy's national politics voted Front National again," said Cadot.
Immune to scandal
While non-established and extremist smaller protest parties often disappear quickly from view, the more moderate right-wing populist parties tend to survive. Many observers were surprised when the results of Italian regional elections in March showed that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had survived his numerous public scandals, including a corruption trial.
Berlusconi managed to stay in power due mainly to his skilful coalition building with other right-wing populists, said Stefan Koeppl, an expert on Italy at the Academy for Political Education in Tutzing. He pointed out that Berlusconi's own party came in rather weak.
"The winners are not his political opponents, but his allies, such as the far-right Northern League," said Koeppl.
Moreover, added Koeppl, Berlusconi's brushes with the law were nothing new - he has been known for his affairs, scandals and slip-ups since he came to power.
"Anyone who has forgiven him for the past 15 years is not likely to be put off by recent allegations," said Koeppl.
A special case
Dutch politician Geert Wilders, whose Party for Freedom made major gains during municipal elections in March, has sought to distance himself from traditional far-right platforms such as anti-Semitism.
Instead, Wilders has taken pains to present himself as a defender of democracy, while sharply criticizing the growth of Islam in Europe. Wilders has called the Koran a "fascist book" and argued that "there is no such thing as a 'moderate Islam.' "
Still, Kapust sees parallels between Wilders' party and other movements that show less fear of contact with the far right end of the political spectrum: "The development in the Netherlands is clearly connected to the minaret ban in Switzerland and the 'pro' movements in Germany," he said.
Swiss voters decided in November to amend the country's constitution to ban the construction of minarets. That step was lauded by pro-Koeln and pro-NRW movements in Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia. The linked groups, which hold seats on local councils, campaign on an anti-Muslim platform, decrying what they describe as the "Islamicization" of society.
Political scientists label the activities of such groups "anti-Islamic racism."