Populist anti-immigrant parties across Europe have received considerable attention from the press and academics in recent years. At some point during this century such parties have held government positions as part of coalitions in Italy, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and Austria. Their counterparts in Switzerland, France and more recently in Sweden, Greece and Hungary have achieved electoral successes and boosts in national polls.
We can expect this interest to continue in 2014. In the elections to the European Parliament, scheduled for this summer, it has been estimated by academic Cas Mudde that twelve of the EU’s states will send ‘far right’ representatives to Brussels. This translates to around thirty-four seats, which equates to about 4% – 6.5% of the total number of seats in the Parliament. The announcement in November 2013 of a Eurosceptic alliance between the Dutch Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) and the French Marine Le Pen’s Front National (FN) ahead of the elections, will prove interesting as both are in a strong position in their respective countries yet hold some contrasting views, as discussed later in the post.
Hungarians and Swedes will also go to the polls for general elections this year. Both Hungary’s Jobbik and Sweden’s Sweden Democrats hope to make gains from 2010 when they both entered their national parliaments for the first time. The former, noted for its anti-Roma and anti-Jewish rhetoric received 800,000 (16%) of first preference votes last time around, whereas the Sweden Democrats claimed twenty seats under Sweden’s PR system.
Although there is often a common perception that extremism is, and has been, on the rise in Europe, fueled by immigration and bleak economic prospects, the estimated share of seats of these parties, post the June EU elections, remain small. These estimates are not guaranteed to be completely accurate, even in a contest characterised by lower turnouts and the fracturing of support for mainstream parties. National polls across various European countries hardly reveal that they have substantial support. To add to that, smaller, newer and less established parties often become mere ‘flash in the pan’ parties. They briefly win an increased share of the vote but this soon wanes and the party struggles to return to its former, fleeting period of glory and may even disband completely.
Despite their open hostility to immigration these parties are not uniform in their approach to this particular issue, leading to problems with the term ‘far right.’ Hungary’s Jobbik party wants to foster links with the Arab world whereas Wilders’ PVV is staunchly anti-Islamic. The French National Front is a socially conservative party and opposes same-sex marriage. The PVV, in contrast, has a markedly liberal social platform, supporting gay marriage, access to abortion and euthanasia. The late Pim Fortuyn, a controversial Dutch politician of the ‘far right’ held similarly anti-Islamic views, yet was openly gay and shared Wilders’ social liberalism. His party also had a black deputy. The economic platform of the British National Party (BNP) mirrors that of a socialist manifesto with its rejection of “laissez-faire capitalism and economic liberalism” and its call for nationalization of the railways and an increase to the state pension. Differences between countries persist as well, putting into question the apparent link between depressed economic times and increased support for anti-immigrant populist parties. Golden Dawn may have received a boost in Greece but its counterparts in Spain and Portugal have not been energised in recent times. On the other hand, the Norwegian Progress Party, the Swiss People’s Party and the Austrian Freedom Party have prospered in better performing economies than those in Southern Europe.
Whatever social, political and economic events occur during the rest of 2014, populist, anti-immigrant parties will continue to receive attention from news networks and commentators. It is doubtful just how successful they will be in electoral terms but their continued noticeable presence in a number of European countries may prove important. Whether as part of a coalition, like Norway’s Progress Party, or on the ‘outside’ they may be able to exercise some leverage on larger, mainstream parties, forcing them into making concessions to their demands for tighter immigration controls and influencing their attitudes towards European integration.