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Beware the Far-Right Bogeyman

Wednesday, 05 August 2020
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.

Emerging new parties and movements have as much chance to determine the future of Europe as the far right does.

Germany. France. Netherlands. Austria. Sweden. Italy. Norway. An ever growing list of countries whose far-right forces have upended the political establishment and brought the ugliest trends of the 20th century back to power.

An extremely troubling and alarming trend…if it were true, which it isn’t – contrary to the impression we have received from the media over the past 4 years.

Far-right forces have grown, yes; but so have liberal and green ones during the same time period. Indeed we are far from the doomsday scenario of a neo-fascist Europe that any clear-thinking observer would dread.

Nevertheless, since the 2016 populist twins of Trump and Brexit, the Euro-Atlantic political establishment has been obsessed with this impending ruin. But the existence of an unstoppable right-wing juggernaut has little empirical proof in which to believe.

For starters, consider the Netherlands in early 2017. Geert Wilders of the Party for Freedom (PVV), one of Europe’s most infamous anti-immigrant right-wing political leaders, was expected to trounce the competition and skyrocket from the 10.1% his party had received in the 2012 election. Polls showed the PVV as high as 30% in the months prior to the March 2017 election. But when the votes were counted, PVV ended up with a mere 13.1% of the vote, far less than the centre-right/liberal VVD of Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who earned 21.3%. For perspective, the other big winner of the 2017 Dutch election was the liberal D66 party, bumping from 8% to 12%. Their leadership team looks like a yacht-rock cover band, and yet they nearly matched Wilders’ score.

In the French Presidential election a month later, Emmanuel Macron led in the first round with 24%, followed by a tight 3-way battle to determine who would face him in the runoff. Far-right Marine Le Pen of the National Front (FN) edged out the centre-right and far-left candidates by just over a point, carrying 21.3% of the vote. In the second round, Le Pen did earn a solid third of the vote but Macron won handily. Granted, she doubled the score of her father, who faced Jacques Chirac in the presidential runoff some 15 years earlier, but the fact that the elder Le Pen could earn 17% in the first round in 2002, which his daughter increased by only 4 points over 15 years doesn’t exactly suggest a right-wing tidal wave inspired by Trump or Brexit.

In Germany several months after that, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) nearly matched the performance of the PVV with 12.6%, a big increase from the 4.7% they received in 2013. Given Germany’s history, a far-right party entering the Bundestag naturally inspires worry. But for perspective, the other big winner of the 2017 election was the liberal Free Democrats Party (FDP), which came back to the Bundestag with 10.6% of the vote after being embarrassingly eliminated from the national political scene in 2013.

The far-right Sweden Democrats did very well in 2018, but so did new center and left forces. The historic center-right and center-left parties were the big losers, just like in the EU parliamentary elections of last year, which showed voter dissatisfaction with the establishment and a growth in the liberal and green groups. Indeed, for the first time, the two biggest groups needed the liberal faction to reach a parliamentary majority. The Greens surged in Austria in 2019 as well, to the detriment of the far-right.

Election results elsewhere in Europe continue to tell the same story and directly address what is at stake; namely, populist leaders do not enjoy electoral support simply because the voters themselves are inherently racist or xenophobic. The far right only thrives when its leaders do a better job of making themselves relevant to frustrated voters than other, less extreme parties.

“It is therefore incumbent upon those who don’t want their countries veering too far to the right to campaign accordingly. As a political strategist, I know from experience that it takes hard work to win back the hearts and minds of these disappointed voters by convincing them that a more inclusive approach will “trump” a xenophobic one.

Emerging new parties and movements, be they liberal, or conservative, or green, or libertarian, or egalitarian, etc. have as much chance to determine the future of Europe as the far right does. If they project that with confidence and in intelligent campaigns, voters will oblige.

George Ajjan