Explain the rise and success of the contemporary extreme-right parties in Western Europe

Nassir Hassan, March 2012


The past two decade saw the rise of extreme-right parties across Western Europe; it also saw a growing electoral success for them at all political levels in the continent.These parties have been making progress in number of European countries since 1990s; their rise is attributed to dissatisfaction with the perceived failures of mainstream parties, particularly left-wing parties, and the growing anxiety over immigration in wider Europe. This political phenomenon has therefore, shocked the mainstream political parties in the continent and has,‘caught many politicians and opinion leaders by surprise’(Jackman and Volpert’, 1996: 501). It also challenged well-known scholarly claims about the end of ideology’ (ibid).However, the rise and the success of extreme-right parties across Europe are more subtle than thought. Although their popularity and success are evident in some countries, there are other places where they are hardly gained any success (ibid).

In recent years Europe’s extreme-right political discourse has attracted many voters and gained a large electoral support, and in some countries this allowed them to enter into coalition government with mainstream parties. For example, in 1994 Gianfranco Fini’s “post-fascist” National Alliance entered a coalition government with Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia in Italy(Poggiolini, 2002: 238). And 1998 the then leader of National Front of France Jean Marie Le Pen gained enough votes in the first round of the French Presidential election(Berezin, 2009: 9). Unlike previous extremist parties, these contemporary extreme-right parties tend to operate within the constitutional framework of liberal democracy(Norris, 2005: 2). Having said that, they are clearly anti-immigrants, Islamophobic, racist, and highly critical of their respective authorities(Esposito and Kalin, 2011: xxviii).Despite being referred to as extreme right, far right or radical right, these groups cannot be easily placed according to Western European’s mainstream political classification(Demos, 2011). Because these groups tend to have deep rooted common anxiety about immigrants, particularly none European immigration, they also have concern about multiculturalism and thus advocate maintaining European identity.

This essay has two main objectives, to identify the key factors that could explain the rise of the contemporary extreme right parties in Western Europe, and to identify factors that led their success particularly their electoral success in many parts of Western Europe.

The extreme right parties have established well in a ‘diverse array’ of established democracies and even joined coalition government in both liberal and conservative nations in Western Europe. There are many factors that explain the rise of far right groups in Western Europe, for example, it’s widely agreed that there seems to be a link between the rise of the extreme right, and socio-economic changes we have seen since the end of the bipolarity between the West and Soviet Union in Europe(Guibernau, 2010).However, it’s can be misleading to argue that these process alone can explain the rise of extreme right in Western Europe, although the socio-economic changes primarily high unemployment has taken place all of Western Europe, only some states ‘have seen a major extreme right movements’, while others hardly experienced any(Eatwell, 2000: 418). Furthermore, there is, a weak connection between high unemployment and the support of extreme right within Western Europe, for instance, as unemployment ‘rose dramatically in Britain during the early 1980s extreme right support collapsed’(ibid). Similarly, in this period, Spain which had experienced high rate of unemployment has seen slight extreme right movements (ibid) on the other hand; ‘the recent success of the extreme right in Austria and Switzerland has taken place in countries with relatively low unemployment rates’ (ibid).Therefore, while socio-economic changes certainly contributed the rise of extreme right in Western Europe, it is not the only factor.

Therefore, when one thinks of conditions behind the rise of the extreme right, one would often point out immigration issue in the first instance. No doubt immigration is a significant concern amongst these groups; however, ‘they have wide-ranging ideological programmes even if within the extent of their propaganda, immigration emerges as the dominant theme’(Copsey, 2004: 155)

Nevertheless, the most common explanatory reasons put forward for the rise of the extreme right groups are ‘immigration and the presence of immigrants’, particularly none white immigrants(Schain, Artiside and Hossay, 2002: 12). Many experts have linked the rise of these groups to the ‘changing numbers, density, composition, or character of immigrants’ (ibid). However as Schain et al., (2002) argued, ‘it appears that even though attitudinal opposition to immigrants is related to the support for the extreme right, the rise and the support for these groups is also strong in areas with no or little immigration’(ibid) and equally, ‘support for these groups is not always strong in areas with high immigrant population’(ibd).Furthermore, there are scholarly arguments which suggest that there is the likelihood that underprivileged social groups would vote for extreme right parties (Kitschelt, 1995, Lubbers et al., 2002).

The reason scholars gave is that underprivileged groups see themselves to be vulnerable to the presence of immigrants and their culture;the extreme right parties therefore would appeal to these groups by arguing that immigration possess threat not only totheir livelihood but to their European culture.(Lubbers, Gijsberts and Scheepers, 2002)Further, Ignazi(1992) argues that the xenophobic attitude the extreme right hold towards immigrants is a major cause for the rise and the success of these parties(Ignazi, 1992)Therefore immigration is an important factor in explaining the rise of extreme rights in Western Europe.

Nevertheless, the extreme right parties tend to arise when mainstream parties ‘converge toward the median voter’ But the rise of these parties depend on the rhetoric and strategy employed by their political leaders(Kitschelt and McGann, 1997). By explaining the rise of extreme right, PieroIgnazi and other scholars gave emphasis to the rise of charismatic leaders in the extreme right, “well-knit with the growing personalization of politics”(Ignazi, 2006),(Guardian, 2011). Similarly, others would argue that “success should be attributed above all, to the characteristics of the extreme right-wing parties themselves”(Lubbers, Gijsberts and Scheepers, 2002: 345).A good example would be in the Netherlands, whereby Geert Wilder’s right wing party has attracted a lot of controversy such as inciting ‘hatred against Muslims’but along with these, he gained publicity and popularity among the Dutch public. Despite his controversy he was ‘voted politician of the year in 2007 by the Dutch political press’(BBC, 2011a)

Moreover,the former leader of the French National Front, Jean-Marie le Pen, has regularly linked the number of immigrants in France to the number of unemployed, his policies to expel immigrants and give ‘French citizens preference in the job market were a major factor for his party’s political success’(Givens, 2005: 68). However, Jens Rydgen (2003) has shown that such attitudes in France have no influence on the likelihood to vote for the Front National, but anti-immigration sentiments do matter(Rydgren, 2005: 15). Similarly, in Austria, the Freedom Party (FPO) policies appealed many; this is because of its tough immigration control policy (ibid).Furthermore, anonline survey carried out by British think tank, Demos using social networks such as Facebook asked 10,000 people in 11 European counties about their top three concerns in their countries, they put immigration on top of their list(Demos, 2011).The problems of immigration have therefore created a favourable atmosphere for the extreme right groups and paved the way for the birth of contemporary post-war extreme right parties.

Furthermore, the collapsed of communism and the Balkan war might also influence the rise of extreme right groups, for example Germany with ‘its liberal refugee policy’ received more refugees than Canada and Australia combined(McLaren, 1999: 167). This as Klaus Bade, argues‘put stress on the social and economic system of the country’ (Bade, 1994: 106), it also fuelled racism and xenophobic attitudes against refugees. And as the former president of the European Parliament, Enrique Crespo, argues, “both racism and xenophobia are rooted in the fear and insecurity of the individual facing the future” Bade (1994) further, he argues that “they found nourishment in unemployment and poverty” therefore it appears that the rise of extreme right must at least in part, stem from feelings of threat from refugees, cultural anxiety and the effect refugees could have their country’s economy (ibid)

However, although not acknowledged by respondents of the Demos online Survey, economic instability and job concerns are other factorsthat contributed to the rise of radical right groups in Western Europe.The rise of the extreme right partly reflects the insecurity and instability brought about by extraordinary economic and social changes that have occurred in Western Europe as result of the collapse of the Soviet Union(McLaren, 1999: 167). For example, the changes that have taken place in Germany during this period may have contributed to the rise of extreme right in this country. This is because ‘German reunification meant that citizen in the east were under pressure to adapt to a new economic and political system and in the process were forced to give up the economic security of the communist system’ on the other hand, those from the West Germany were anxious the effect the reunification could have on them in terms of ‘raised taxes and job security’ (McLaren, 1999: 167). Thus, both the East and West Germans appeared to have ‘suddenly face once again, with the questions about German identity and cultural anxiety that they felt had not been adequately addressed since their World War II defeat’.(Ibid)

The question as to why Europe’s far right parties are gaining ground in some countries, while not doing well in others has often been raised by historian and Politian alike(Lubbers, Gijsberts and Scheepers, 2002). Nevertheless extreme right wing parties in many Western Europe countries have seen a dramatic rise in electoral success from since 1980s. One of the most successful of such parties include the France’s National Front (FN) which saw its electoral success reach 10 per cent in both 1986 and 1988 legislative election, and again 2002 the party’s leader Jean-Marie Le Pen shocked many in Western Europe by making it through to the second presidential election, only to be defeated by Jacques Chirac.Similarly, in Austria, the FreiheitlicheParteiÖsterreichs, (FPÖ) won ‘10 per cent of the vote in 1986, and then saw its electoral success reach 16.6 per cent in 1990, and to massive 26.9 per cent in 1999’.(Carter, 2005: 1).

But the picture of Western Europe’s extreme right is more subtle than thought. Whereas radical parties have seen success in terms of electoral gain in those countries during the period mention above, there are a number of other radical parties that have rarely gained any electoral success in other parts of Western Europe. ‘The German extreme parties, for example have remained electorally unsuccessful over this period and the British National Party (BNP) has never recorded more than 0.2 per cent of the national vote’(Carter, 2005: 2). Various factors have been mentioned as to why the extreme right parties are gaining electoral success. Carter (2005) suggest that ‘the nature of the messages and policies that they put forward’ considerably contributed to their electoral triumph. And also, there is an agreement among extreme right historians that one of the most important contributing factors for their success is ‘Party organization and internal leadership’ (ibid). Nonetheless, while the percentage of the all votes gained by extreme right parties since 1980 has been considerably small in number, ‘these parties have been far more successful at generating electoral support than many observers had anticipated’(Jackman and Volpert’, 1996: 502). However, little agreement seems to have been reached as to why some extreme right parties have been more successful in some countries than others(Lubbers, Gijsberts and Scheepers, 2002).

Although there is no single explanation as to why extreme parties are so successful in terms of electoral gain, a number of events need to be look at. There is the notion that the electoral system in place in most of Western European states is one of the factors that allows or denies success for these parties.In the United Kingdom for example, extreme parties have struggled and fail to enter mainstream British politics. Even though the British National Party (BNP) advocated anti-immigration policies for decades(Gallagher, Laver and Mair, 2011: 226-7), and despite their gaining 1.9% of the votes in 2010 general election, the UK’s first past the post system (FPTP) has meant that they were unable to get seats in the British Parliament.(BBC, 2010). On the other hand the Netherlands which has recently seen strong gains for the far right uses Proportional Representative Systems (PR) this system is generally believed to be more advantageous to smaller parties.The PR system therefore, makes coalition government more likely, which Arts (2011) claims helps the extreme right parties(Art, 2011: 16).

However, other scholars would argue thatneither majoritarian nor PR systems would affect the electoral success of the extreme right. Whereas BNP is disadvantaged by FPTP system in the UK ‘France’s majoritarian systems has clearly not prevented the FN from winning a significant percentage of votes’(Art, 2011: 16). ‘Indeeda number of studies have found that there is no statistically significant relationship between the type of electoral system and vote share for the extreme right in Western Europe’(Carter, 2005; Norris, 2005; Art, 2011, p.16).Neto and Cox, (1997), however, Neto and Cox argue that its incorrect to link the success and the failure of extreme parties ‘down to the electoral systems in place’ in Western Europe (Neto and Cox, 1997: 149-74).

There are also other important events that have taken place in Western Europe which could explain the success of extreme right in this region. The September 11 events in US for instance may have contributed to the electoral triumph of extreme right in some of Western European countries. Some scholars would argue that 9/11 events is generally seen to be a major factor for the support and success of extreme right in Western Europe(Art, 2011)(Geaves, 2005).

9/11 events saw significant gains for The Danish People’s Party (DK) a far right party in Denmark’s 2001 general elections. Geaves claims “The main political thrust of the election was one based on an anti-Muslim/anti-immigration campaign culminating with those right-wing parties… seeing a significant percentage of the national vote shifting towards them”(Geaves, 2005: 133-34). Similarly, in Holland the assassination of Pim Fortuyn List leader (LPF) Pim Fortuyn in 2002 seemed to help the party’s success in the election that followed. Like Geert Wilder, Fortuyn was stanch anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant, but as Geaves points out ‘his anti-immigration viewpoint, and his emphasis upon protecting the values of Dutch liberalism… was one that tapped into the fears, beliefs and attitudes of a post-9/11 Dutch society (Geaves, 2005: 134).

Whereas events such as 9/11 and terrorist attacks in Madrid and London mayhave contributed to the success of extreme right in those counties, the same cannot be said about other Western European countries. For example, even though the British National Party saw some success in local elections and got few seats in European Parliament, they fail to get any seats in the British Parliament and therefore did not experienced similar success as their Dutch or Danish counterparts.

With many extreme right parties campaigning anti-integration policy, it’s likely that Euro scepticism is another factor in explaining extreme right success in Western Europe. Elisabeth Ivarsflaten’scase study on the populist right showed that ‘euro-scepticism is an important factor for far right political preferences, next to exclusionism and political disillusionment’ quoted in(Lubbers and Scheepers, 2007). Van der Brug and et al,(2005) also claimed that, at least in France, anti-EU discourse encourages voting for the extreme right parties(Brug, Fennema and Tillie, 2005). In 2004 European Elections, a number of Eurosceptic anti-integration parties gained electoral success. For example, the UK’s independent party (UKIP) received 16.8 per cent of the votes. In the Netherlandsanti-EU rhetoric gave Paul van Buit

enen 7.3 per cent of the vote (ibid). Further, evidence suggest that Eurosceptic and anti-integration discourse does not affect support for the extreme right, that is why the Maastricht Treaty in 1990s and 2005 European Constitution have allowed the extreme right to ‘become part of the winning side’ because of their opposition to such treaties (Brug et al., 2005, Hainsworth, 2008, p.85).It’s therefore possible that anti-EU discourse is a factor in explaining extreme right success in Western Europe.

In conclusion this essay has argued that the rise of Western European contemporary extreme right is attributed to dissatisfaction with the perceived failures of mainstream parties. The economic and social changes that have occurred in Western Europe following the collapse of Soviet Union are also some of the factors that this essay has argued could explain their rise. But most importantly explanations put forward is immigration and the presence of none white immigrants. The essay has also argued that the most important contributing factors for extreme right success in Western Europe are ‘Party organization and internal leadership’. While anti-immigrants rhetoric seemed to help win elections for these groups.Event such as 9/11 and Madrid and London 2004 and 2007 terrorist attacks, and the growing Euro-scepticism significantly contributed to the success of extreme right in Western Europe.


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