A right turn for European politics?

The envelope landed on the floor with a distinct slap. Postmarked with a ‘London Elects’ logo, my wodge of election material for this year’s Mayoral and Assembly elections had arrived. London has taken the sensible and environmentally sound approach of consolidating candidate mailshots into a single pamphlet. Each of the seven candidates gets two sides to spell out their message and doorsteps throughout the capital are otherwise unsullied with political bumf.

I opened the envelope, letting the hefty leaflet drop out. It fell to the floor open on the page for the British National Party. But this wasn’t the bad old British National Party – this was new BNP – a heart shaped union flag logo, a softer san-serif font and fronted by Carlos Cortiglia, a Uruguayan immigrant. Will this image makeover result in a electoral success for the BNP in the capital? They have quite a way to go – in 2008 Richard Barnbrook took 2.84% of the London vote.

The rise of the far-right is a Europe-wide issue that has taken centre stage with the success of Marine Le Pen in Sunday’s first round election for the French presidency and the trial of Anders Breivik in Norway. Although it hasn’t quite seized the UK’s front pages in quite the same way, far-right and populist and/or nationalist right-wing parties have, in the past two years, secured election breakthroughs in Switzerland, Hungary, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Poland.

Is this something for European democrats and liberals to be worried about? Or just another manifestation of a cycle of electoral success that sees far-right parties secure spectacular but temporary election successes? It is possible to examine the data and make a convincing argument for both sides of this argument.

Take France. Marine Le Pen has just secured the highest percentage showing for the Front National (National Front) in France’s presidential election history by taking 17.90% of the vote. But re-wind ten years and you see her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, secure 16.86% of the vote in the first round, beat the Socialist Party into third place and make it through to the second round run-off (Le Pen’s vote was 17.79% in the second round against Jacque Chirac’s 82.21). The Front National has been scoring well at various elections for three decades – in 1988 Jean-Marie Le Pen won 14.4% of the vote. It is a perennial protest party, and has not so far managed to fundamentally upset the workings of the Fifth Republic.

So is the latest success just a flash in the pan? There are some disturbing elements to the recent pan-European successes of far-right, populist and nationalist parties. The first notable trend is in the highly developed, wealthy  countries of Scandinavia, Switzerland and Austria. Here, far-right parties have broken through the traditional mould (or mold?) of the mainstream parties and brought about sweeping changes to governments, coalitions and party politics.

Austria’s Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (Freedom Party of Austria), headed by Jörg Haider, stormed the polls in 1999 taking 26.9% of the vote in the elections for the Nationalrat. The party subsequently split into the BZÖ – Liste Jörg Haider and the rump of the Freedom Party which, when taken together, won 28.24% of the vote in the 2008 elections.

This trend was followed a decade later in Scandinavia, where Perussuomalaiset (True Finns) took 19.05% of the vote in Finland’s 2011 election and the Fremskrittspartiet (Progress Party) took 22.9% in Norway’s 2009 election. Both of these parties are better described as populist right-wing parties rather than far-right parties. The same cannot be said for the Sverigedemokraterna (Sweden Democrats) who secured 5.7% of the vote in Sweden’s 2010 election and the Dansk Folkeparti (Danish People’s Party) who secured 14.8% of the vote in Denmark’s EU election in 2009.

The second disturbing trend has been the rise of right-wing parties in Eastern Europe. The UK’s Conservative Party received criticism for entering into a new European Parliamentary grouping along with Poland’s Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice) Party. Law and Justice have been perhaps the most successful right-wing political party within the EU, taking 32.11% of the vote in Poland’s 2007 election. In 2005, the party formed a minority government and took the country’s presidency.

Again, Law and Justice is more an extremely conservative right-wing party than a true far-right party. The same cannot be said of Jobbik (Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom – Movement for a Better Hungary), which has been branded fascist, neo-fascist, anti-Semitic, anti-Roma and homophobic by various commentators and opponents. This party’s 16.67% share of the vote in Hungary’s 2010 election is arguably the most disturbing of all the results outlined in this article.

On balance, there has been a clear and concerted rise in popularity, electoral success and influence of the true far-right parties in Europe. Britain’s BNP has secured parliamentary representation for the first time in its history (in 2009’s EU elections), the Front National remains a strong force in French politics and Jobbik’s Hungarian success is truly menacing.

It is, however, too easy to throw around the label ‘far-right’ and thereby decry or denounce the success of various right wing, populist and nationalist parties. They may have agendas and policies that are unappealing to liberals in the UK, but would they look out of place in the nuttier wing of the Conservative or Republican parties? Do they remain committed to democracy and human rights? Any move away from these fundamental principles would be worrying but, for the moment, and with an acknowledged need for vigilance, European democracy is not under a new or sustained threat.

Rise of the Right – high electoral watermarks for far-right and populist/nationalist right wing parties 

County Year Election Party Leader %
Austria 1999 Parliament Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs Jörg Haider 26.91
Belgium 2003 Parliament Vlaams Blok Frank Vanhecke 11.682
Denmark 2009 EU Dansk Folkeparti Pia Kjærsgaard 14.8
Finland 2011 Parliament Perussuomalaiset Timo Soini 19.05
France 2002 President Front National Jean-Marie Le Pen 17.793
France 2012 President Front National Marine Le Pen 17.90
Hungary 2010 Parliament Jobbik Gábor Vona 16.67
Netherlands 2002 Parliament Lijst Pim Fortuyn Pim Fortuyn4 17.0
Norway 2009 Parliament Fremskrittspartiet Siv Jensen 22.9
Poland 2007 Parliament Prawo i Sprawiedliwość Jarosław Kaczyński 32.11
Sweden 2010 Parliament Sverigedemokraterna Jimmie Åkesson 5.7
Switzerland 2007 Parliament Schweizerische Volkspartei Ueli Maurer 28.92
UK 2009 EU British National Party Nick Griffin 6.26

1 The FPÖ polled 27.5% in the 1996 EU elections in Austria

2 Vlaams Blok won 24.2% in the Flemish Parliamentary election in 2004. A better national comparison would be achieved by adding the Vlaams Blok vote to the Belgian Front National. In 2003 this would have given a far-right vote of 13.6%

3 Jean-Marie Le Pen received 16.86% in the first round, beating the Parti Socialiste’s candidate Lionel Jospin into third place with 16.18%

4 Pim Fortuyn was assassinated nine days before the general election. The List maintained Pim Fortuyn’s candidacy and did not choose a successor until after the election