The Far Right and the European Elections

“[N]either the far right nor the ‘anti-European populists’ are on track to win a
significant victory in the upcoming European Parliament elections.”
The Far Right and the European Elections
f we are to believe the international media,
this is going to be the year of the “far right
anti-European populists.” In the first three
days of 2014, The New York Times published
two opinion essays warning of the far right’s
rise, while The Economist focused its first issue
of the year on “Europe’s Tea Parties.” Before this
came months of public warnings of a “European
populist backlash” issued by prominent European
Union politicians, including the presidents of the
EU, the European Commission, and the European
Parliament (EP), and by national politicians, such
as Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta and Dutch
Deputy Prime Minister Lodewijk Asscher.
While the warnings have employed different
terms and point to somewhat different groups of
parties and politicians, they all share at least two
major messages: (1) The Great Recession has led
to the rise of the far right, and (2) the far right
is going to win big in the European elections of
May 2014. In fact, despite the broad consensus in
the media on these two points, which by now are
pieces of received wisdom, the first is incorrect
and the second is highly unlikely. As so often in
politics, these “truths” are based on a toxic mix of
conceptual stretching, faulty generalizations, and
professional opportunism.
It is true that the economic crisis has caused
an increase in public dissatisfaction with both
European and national elites, as well as electoral losses for most governing parties in most EU
member states. But there is no clear trend in the
electoral fortunes of far right parties. Overall, the
Great Recession has not produced a sharp rise in
support for far right parties, and neither the far
right nor the “anti-European populists” are on
track to win a significant victory in the upcoming
European Parliament elections.
Terminological confusion and conceptual
stretching have always muddied the debate about
the far right. A plethora of terms is used to
bring together a broad group of political parties. While most of the discussion, particularly
in public debates, still focuses on the “far right”
or “radical right,” even more ambiguous terms
like “right-wing populist” and the highly problematic “anti-European populist” are rapidly
gaining prominence. The latter category typically
includes a motley crew of parties, such as the
Dutch Socialist Party, Alternative for Germany,
the Finns Party, the Italian Five Star Movement,
and the United Kingdom Independence Party
Accepting that there will never be an academic,
let alone a public consensus on highly charged
terms like “far right” and “populism,” let me briefly discuss my understandings of the categories.
Simply stated, I use “far right” as an umbrella concept for both the extreme and radical right. The
main distinction between “extreme” and “radical” has to do with acceptance of the basic tenets
of democracy—that is, popular sovereignty and
majority rule. While extremism rejects democracy altogether, radicalism accepts democracy but
rejects liberal democracy—that is, pluralism and
minority rights. (The main distinction between
“left” and “right” is based on the propensity
toward egalitarianism: The right considers key
inequalities among people as natural and outside
the state’s purview.)
On the basis of this conceptual framework
we can distinguish the far right parties that currently have representation in the national legislatures of EU member states (see Table 1). The
CAS MUDDE is an associate professor at the University of
Georgia. This essay is adapted from the opening address he
delivered at a March 2014 conference in Bonn organized by
Germany’s Federal Agency for Civic Education. A slightly
different version will be published in German in Aus Politik
und Zeitgeschichte in March 2014.
The Far Right and the European Elections U 99
Table 1—Far Right Parties with Parliamentary Representation in EU Member States
Result (%)
Result (%)
Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ)
Flemish Interest (VB)
National Union Attack (NSA)
Croatian Rights Party (HSP)
Danish People’s Party (DF)
National Front (FN)
Golden Dawn (CA)
Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik)
Northern League (LN)
National Alliance (NA)
Party for Freedom (PVV)
Sweden Democrats (SD)
The results are percentages of the vote from elections for the lower houses of national parliaments. The third column refers to
the highest ever result in the period 1980–2013, the fourth to the most recent.
vast majority of these parties are best described
as populist radical right, combining an ideological core of nativism, authoritarianism, and
populism. Briefly put, nativism is a combination
of nationalism and xenophobia, holding that
a country should be exclusively inhabited by
members of the native group (“the nation”), and
that non-native elements (persons and ideas) are
fundamentally threatening to the homogeneous
nation-state. Authoritarianism is the belief in a
strictly ordered society, in which infringements of
authority are to be punished severely. Populism,
finally, is an ideology that considers society to be
ultimately separated into two homogeneous and
antagonistic groups, “the pure people” and “the
corrupt elite”; it argues that politics should be an
expression of the general will of the people.
The prototype of the populist radical right
party is the French National Front (FN), founded
in 1982, while more recent examples include the
Danish People’s Party (DF) and the Dutch Party
for Freedom (PVV). Some prominent populist
radical right parties, such as the Freedom Party of
Austria (FPÖ), started out as non-radical right parties, then radicalized as a consequence of internal
party politics. Given the cultural and legal context
of postwar Europe, few openly extreme right parties have achieved electoral relevance. In most
cases the externally oriented party literature (for
example, election manifestos) will include at least
nominal allegiance to democratic ideals, while
internally oriented party documents, as well as the
behavior of leading party members, will be more
ambiguous or openly antidemocratic.
The most prominent case of an extreme right
party is Greece’s Golden Dawn (CA), which is currently threatened with a public funding ban and
criminal investigations. More ambiguous cases are
the virtually bankrupt British National Party and
the National Democratic Party of Germany, as well
as the electorally significant Hungarian Jobbik,
which combines a nominally democratic party
front with a clearly antidemocratic paramilitary
wing, the (now outlawed) Hungarian Guard.
On some important borderline cases, even academic experts disagree. These parties exhibit various radical right features, particularly in electoral
campaigns, but have a core ideology that does
not seem to be radical right. The most disputed
borderline cases within the EU are the Finns Party
and UKIP, both of which share Euroskepticism,
populism, and xenophobia, but do not seem to
be fundamentally nationalist. A somewhat less
contested category is best described as neoliberal
populist, including parties like the Austrian Team
Stronach and the Italian Forza Italia, whose ideological core is based on economic liberalism rather
than cultural nationalism. Finally, there are parties
that are openly Euroskeptic and/or populist, but
clearly not radical right. This group includes par-
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ties like Alternative for Germany and Italy’s Five
Star Movement.
from 24 to 11 between 1920 and 1939, in only
one case did a democratically elected fascist party
abolish democracy. And even in that case, Weimar
Germany, the Nazis were only able to achieve this
The origins of the current economic crisis, genwith the tacit support of nominally democratic
erally referred to as the Great Recession, are by
now well known. What started out as the bursting
Just as the original crisis theory is based on the
of a housing bubble and the consequent subprime
exceptional case of Weimar Germany, so the curmortgage debacle in the United States in 2007
rent accounts are mostly supported by reference to
had developed into a full-fledged global economic
two specific but highly publicized cases: the FN in
France and the CA in Greece. Having replaced her
crisis by September 2008. The Great Recession is
father, party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine
the most severe economic crisis since the Great
Le Pen resurrected the FN like a phoenix from the
Depression of the 1930s. It has led to, among
ashes. After years of electoral decline, she delivother things, record levels of bankruptcies, finanered the party’s best ever results in the 2012 presicial losses, and unemployment. In Europe, the
dential election and the second best ever results in
crisis hit both individual states and the EU. While
individually many European countries were at
that year’s parliamentary elections.
first only marginally affected by the crisis, colEven more shocking were the two Greek parlectively, through massive intra-EU bailouts, all
liamentary elections in May and June 2012, which
nations have had to pay a steep price.
saw the entrance into the country’s parliament of
For many Europeans the bailouts were a shockthe neo-Nazi CA, a party that had been marginal
until then. While many radical right parties had
ing confrontation with the actual consequences
entered national legislatures since 1980, this was
of European integration and solidarity, creating
the first time that an openly
deep resentment throughextreme right party was able
out the union, among both
to do so. For most observ“payers” and “receivers.”
Only nine of the twenty-eight EU
ers, academic and nonacaFar right parties were at
member states have seen any gain
demic alike, these two cases
the forefront of the political
in support for far right parties.
are symptomatic of the rise
fight against the bailouts,
of the far right in contempothough they were far from
rary Europe, and are seen as
alone. But where most other
a predictable result of the Great Recession.
politicians mainly criticized the implementation
of the ideas of European integration and solidarNOT SO IMPRESSIVE
ity (notably the bailouts), many far right parties
An overview of the recent electoral results of
attacked the essence of the ideas. In several cases
far right parties in EU member states shows a
the Great Recession has even radicalized the
very different picture, however (see Figure 1).
Euroskepticism of far right parties to the point
If we compare the pre-crisis (2004–7) with the
that they have come to support an EU exit for their
countries: Both Marine Le Pen of the FN and Geert
crisis (2009–13) results in national parliamenWilders of the PVV suggested this in their 2012
tary elections, the striking lack of electoral sucelection campaigns.
cess stands out most. First of all, 10 of the 28 EU
member states have no far right party to speak of.
Nevertheless, the widespread idea that the Great
Interestingly, this includes four of the five “bailout
Recession has fueled a resurgence of far right parcountries” (Cyprus, Ireland, Portugal, Spain)—
ties is based on both a historical and a contempoGreece being the only exception. Second, among
rary misunderstanding. The received wisdom that
the eighteen countries with (somewhat) relevant
economic crisis leads to far right success, and the
far right parties, the electoral results are evenly
consequent elimination of democracy, is based on
split: Nine such parties have seen an increase in
the historical example of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party
electoral support between 2005 and 2013, and
in Weimar Germany. While the predominance of
nine have not. Third, of the nine countries with
the Weimar case is not surprising, Germany was
rising far right support, only four saw more or
the (terrible) exception rather than the rule in the
less sizable increases exceeding 5 percent of the
interwar period. Although the number of (more
national vote. That is the same number of counor less) democratic regimes in Europe decreased
The Far Right and the European Elections U 101
tries that saw a decrease of more than 5 percent
The purest case of the economic crisis theory
(Belgium, Italy, Romania, and Slovakia).
seems to be, oddly enough, the tiny and little
The four EU countries that have experienced a
noticed Baltic country of Latvia, which was parsubstantial increase in far right electoral support
ticularly hard hit by the crisis. Indeed, the econoare Austria (+8.9 percent), France (+9.1 percent),
mist Paul Krugman referred to Latvia as “the new
Hungary (+14.5 percent), and Latvia (+5.4 perArgentina” in one of his New York Times blog
cent). (Greece comes close—with a gain of 4.7
posts. Following the Weimar scenario, the far
percent, the far right almost doubled its support.)
right National Alliance (NA) not only significantly
increased its representation in parliament between
The two West European countries, France and
2006 and 2011; it also became a junior coalition
Austria, have suffered rather moderate economic
partner in the Latvian government. The puzdistress, unlike the two East European countries
zling aspect of this is that the NA’s rise took place
(Hungary and Latvia). And while there is no
between 2010 and 2011, after the peak of the ecodoubt that the parties have profited from politinomic crisis in Latvia.
cal dissatisfaction
While the economy
related to the ecoFigure 1—Change in Far Right Electoral Results
nosedived in 2008–9,
nomic crisis, both the
Between Pre-Crisis (2004–7) and Crisis (2009–13)
FN and the FPÖ are
it stabilized in 2010,
established populist
and showed real GDP
growth of 5.5 percent
radical right parties,
in 2011.
which achieved simiBelgium
In short, the numlar electoral results
bers do not add up.
well before the crisis
Despite all the talk of
started (in 1997 and
a far right insurgence
1999, respectively).
as a consequence of
This leaves Hungary
the Great Recession,
and Latvia, two of the
United Kingdom
the sober fact is
hardest-hit countries
that only nine of
in the East, which
the twenty-eight EU
as a region has not
member states have
borne the brunt of the
seen any gain in supGreat Recession.
port for far right parThe rise of Jobbik
ties, with substantial
in Hungary has
increases in a mere
four countries. As in
academic and pub- -15
the case of the Great
lic attention, though
Change in percentage of the vote between the last national parliamentary election in the
Depression, a handit sometimes takes
pre-crisis period and the last national parliamentary election in the crisis period.
ful of high-profile
a backseat to Prime
cases (France and Greece today) obscure the fact
Minister Viktor Orbán, whose nationalist conserthat the vast majority of EU countries have had
vative government has significantly limited space
electorally and politically marginal far right parfor political opposition. Jobbik garnered the bigties both before and during the Great Recession.
gest far right gains within the EU, winning a staggering 16.7 percent of the vote in its first elections
At the end of 2013, only twelve EU member
states had far right parties in their national parin 2010, and replacing the marginal Hungarian
liaments, and in only two were such parties in
Justice and Life Party as the country’s premier far
the national governments—in Latvia as a junior
right party. Yet, although Hungary has been hit
partner, and in Bulgaria as a supporting party of
extremely hard by the economic crisis, and has
the minority government.
been flirting with a bailout, the 2010 elections
The fact is that, contrary to the received wiswere not really fought over the Great Recession.
dom, European far right parties have mostly
Both Orbán’s Fidesz-Hungarian Civic Alliance and
done well in affluent countries and regions durJobbik profited from widespread political dissatising periods of economic growth and stability. As
faction, but the causes were only partly related to
Ronald Inglehart argued in his 1977 book The
the economy.
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Great Recession, most notably the highly unpopular bailouts, have sharply increased the union’s
visibility, and have been the principal reason for a
continent-wide rise of Euroskepticism. However,
rising Euroskepticism is not only visible at the
mass level. More and more outsider, and even
insider, political parties are openly expressing soft
and hard Euroskeptic critiques. Consequently, the
far right has a growing group of national competitors for the (soft) Euroskeptic vote.
I have calculated the predicted numbers of seats
for far right parties in the next EP on the basis of
There are three main reasons that commenthe most recent results in national parliamentary
tators expect particularly striking results for
elections. (In all cases the last parliamentary elecfar right parties in the May 2014 EP elections:
tion came during the economic crisis, and in most
(1) the economic crisis; (2) the second-order
countries it was in the past two years.) While spenature of European elections; and (3) the rise of
cific electoral systems differ by EU member state,
almost all states (including France and the United
Kingdom) use some form of proportional repreAs the analysis above demonstrates, the crisentation in European elections, often combined
sis theory does not hold true, at least not for
with an electoral threshold (of 4 or 5 percent
national parliamentary elections. However, politinormally). The number of contested seats ranges
cal scientists argue that European elections are
from 6 (for example, Luxembourg and Malta)
so-called second-order elections, which are charto 97 (Germany). Conacterized by lower overall
sequently, in countries
turnout and higher scores
with fewer than 20 seats
for nonestablishment parThe idea that the Great Recession
the European threshold
ties. While this is often
has fueled a resurgence of far right
is (much) higher than
interpreted to mean that
parties is based on a misunderstanding.
5 percent, which means
protest parties, and the
that fewer parties make
far right in particular, do
it into the EP than into
very well in second-order
national parliaments.
elections, that is not fully correct. The timing of
Based on this analysis, far right parties from 12
second-order elections, in relation to the firstof the 28 EU member states would make it into
order election cycle, has an important effect on
the EP. The far right would win a total of 34 seats,
voting patterns.
which is just 4.4 percent of all seats, and 3 seats
In general, established parties perform worst
less than they hold in the current European body.
when second-order elections are held midterm
The situation would not change fundamentally
between first-order elections, when citizens use
if UKIP were included, since recent polls give the
their votes to send a protest signal to the national
party roughly the same level of support (about
elites. However, protest parties tend to perform
15–20 percent) as it actually achieved in the 2009
poorly when second-order elections are held
European elections. Even if we base our predicshortly after first-order elections, when people
tions not on national election results but on more
mostly turn out to support their party. Given very
favorable recent opinion polls, the results change
different national election cycles, the effects can
little. With the FN at about 24 percent and the
largely balance each other out at the EU level.
There is also a question as to whether European
Dutch PVV at 15 percent, the total of far right seats
elections can still be considered second-order
would go up to 44, or 5.7 percent of all seats in
in 2014. The German political scientist Herman
the EP. This would be an increase of just 7 seats
compared to 2009.
Schmitt observed even after the 2004 elections that
“the second-order nature of EP elections is slowly
heading toward a change,” and he expected this
This rather poor projected result is mostly
to continue, as a consequence of the EU’s growing visibility. The profound EU dimensions of the
a consequence of three factors. First, far right
Silent Revolution, it is under these conditions that
sociocultural issues will trump socioeconomic
issues for certain voter groups. Like the Greens on
the left, the far right is mostly a post-materialist
phenomenon. For some voters during periods of
economic and political stability, fears about crime
and immigration crowd out concerns over the
economic situation, inflation, and unemployment,
and their party preference changes from the mainstream to the far right.
The Far Right and the European Elections U 103
parties are only relevant in roughly half of EU
member states. As Table 1 shows, only 12 of the
28 states have a far right party in their national
parliaments. Second, even in the countries where
far right parties are relevant, they are generally a
rather modest electoral factor. In the most recent
national elections, far right parties topped 10
percent of the vote in just six of the twenty-eight
member states, and surpassed 20 percent in only
one (Austria). Third, of the six countries with a
far right party over 10 percent, only one (France)
is a large EU state with many EP seats.
Finally, it is important to note that even if
far right parties do gain 44 seats, this does not
mean that there will be a 44-seat-strong far
right parliamentary group in the next EP. Recent
agreements concerning electoral and political
collaboration between Marine Le Pen (FN) and
Geert Wilders (PVV) practically guarantee that
the far right will be able to form an officially recognized group in the next EP, possibly under the
banner of the European Alliance for Freedom, as
this requires just 25 members from at least seven
states. However, as in the past, this group will be
strongly dominated by the FN, which will probably provide about 20 of the required minimum
25 seats.
History has shown that far right parties seldom
work effectively together within the European
arena, and that the FN’s leading role has often
been both crucial and highly divisive. Over the
various legislative periods the far right has had
either no official group in the EP or a group that
fell apart amid (often petty) internal strife. In all
cases the far right has been divided among different parliamentary groups, while various far
right members of the EP have remained outside
of any group. When it comes to their impact on
the functioning of the EP, there is much bark but
little bite. A recent report by the British think tank
Counterpoint concluded that “the populist radical
right focuses its role on gaining publicity rather
than participating in policy-making activities in
the European Parliament.”
The fact that the Great Recession has not
led to a significant increase in far right support
should not really come as a surprise. Economic
crises have seldom led to far right electoral success in Europe: not the Great Depression of the
1930s, not the oil crisis of the 1970s, and not the
transition from socialist dictatorship to capitalist
democracy in Eastern Europe in the 1990s.
This is not to say that economic crises do not
lead to political dissatisfaction or electoral defeats
of governing parties. But in most cases protest is
expressed in a variety of ways, from non-voting
to voting for the establishment opposition or a
plethora of old and new protest parties. This will
undoubtedly also be the case in the upcoming
European elections, in which the overall far right
presence will probably only grow by around 10
seats or less (from 37 to 44) and the overall “antiEuropean populist” vote by some 30 seats (from
92 to 122), or roughly 15 percent of all EP seats.
The reason for the counterintuitive relationship
between economic crises and far right voting was
laid out, implicitly, in Inglehart’s “post-materialism”
thesis. During an economic crisis the political
debate is dominated by socioeconomic issues, on
which far right parties put little emphasis and have
little credible expertise. Once the Great Recession
finally ends and the economic situation has stabilized, many potential far right voters will return to
prioritizing sociocultural issues relating to national
identity and security. It is then that the dissatisfaction with national and European elites, which
has grown to new dimensions during the Great
Recession, could be most visible, on the far right
and in other corners of antiestablishment protest.
Whether that happens, however, depends at least
as much on the actions of the mainstream parties
as on the strategies of the far right.
From Current History’s archives…
John Lukacs “The Resurgent Fascists,” April 1951
“But it would be unduly superficial to disregard the importance of the literature
and the propagandized war views of the Neo-Fascists because of the structural
weaknesses of their writings. The democracies have often ridiculously underestimated the irrational factor in history....”