The Far-Right Party Family in the 21st Century: A Guide

Ideological Diversity

 Contemporary Far Right parties in Europe are often grouped into two distinct ideological wings. It is first important to differentiate between populist radical right parties (PRR) and extreme right-wing parties (ERW). Drawing on key scholars such as Cas Mudde, there are three key features that characterize PRR parties. PRR parties have a nativist, authoritarian and largely populist ideology. Populism for PRR parties means that they portray themselves as the ‘outsiders’ in society and seek to overturn the existing political elite in society, through widespread anti-political establishment messages.

 Importantly, PRR parties seek to work under the democratic confines of democracy and do not seek to overturn democracy. They do however reject the ‘liberal’ component of democracy through their opposition and intolerance towards immigrants/ethnic out groups such as Muslims. Key examples include the AfD in Germany. In contrast, ERW parties tend to reject being democratically elected and many of these parties’ historical roots can be traced back to post-world war II neo-fascism. Golden Dawn in Greece is one such example of an ERW party in contemporary European politics.

 Key Drivers of Electoral Support

 Generally speaking, there are three key drivers that have driven support for PRR parties in the 21st century. The first driver is a protest vote, with ordinary voters voting against mainstream centre left and centre right parties and instead voting for PRR insurgent parties. Secondly, PRR parties’ emphasise an anti-immigration strategy and campaign to make immigration a salient issue. This is another key driver in explaining why voters have voted for PRR parties, most recently with the significant ‘rise’ of these parties in the 2015–18 refugee crisis across national parliamentary elections. Similarly, PRR parties have also prospered by adopting strong ‘Eurosceptic’ stances.

 A third factor is the type of electoral system. In the UK for example, where the First-Past-The-Post electoral system is adopted, UKIP have failed to translate their overall vote share into seat share. A direct example of this was at the 2015 UK General Election. However, at the 2014 European Parliament election, UKIP emerged as the biggest party in British Politics, primarily due to the Proportional Representation based electoral system that helps ‘smaller’ and more ‘minor’ parties such as UKIP and makes their overall vote share more proportional. Interestingly, the recent economic crisis (2008–13) did not lead to any significant increased for the PRR, primarily due to PRR parties focusing more on the (a) immigration and (b) Eurosceptic issues, largely ignoring the key issue of the economy and how to redress widespread unemployment and inequality at the macro-economic level. In a recent paper, in the journal Electoral Studies, myself and colleagues actually find that PRR parties did not gain significantly in this electoral period, with mainstream centre right parties benefiting more electorally than PRR and especially mainstream centre left/social democratic parties.

 An Electoral Winning Formula?

 There is no direct ‘electoral winning formula’ that can explain the electoral success of PRR parties in 21st century European politics. Considerable variations exist across Europe. For example, the Freedom Party of Austria performed well in economic good times (i.e. the 1999 coalition government with the centre right Austrian People’s Party) and similarly for the Flemish Interest Party in Belgium. What is clear however though, is that PRR Parties have clearly benefited from protest voting after (a) the 2008–13 economic crisis, (b) increased levels of Euroscepticism and (c) most significantly in the recent refugee crisis electoral period, where PRR party vote shares have increased at a drastic rate. Electoral success for PRR parties is also heavily dependent on the stances and strategies that mainstream centre right (i.e. conservative/Christian democratic parties) can adopt on the issue, alongside social democratic parties. The latter of which appear to be the main party family that is losing key voters, from the working classes to a number of PRR parties, particularly in the Western European region.

 Ideological Divisions: The Populist Radical Right v. The Extreme Right

 PRR parties – by and large – all tend to have the same ideological policies and strategies on immigration, in seeking to (a) protect the white, ethnic in-group and (b) reduce the number of immigrants coming in. In recent years, reducing immigration has been changed, to focusing more on reducing  Muslim migrants, alongside asylum seekers and refugees. This has been a key strategy of the AfD Party in Germany, to name one such example here. The main differences today are that PRR parties have widely different policies on socio-economic policy. For example, PRR parties such as the French Front National generally adopt socialist/state centric (i.e. nationalisation) policies towards the economy. In contrast, PRR parties in the Netherlands such as VVD and in Austria (FPO) have actually adopted neo-liberal economic policies (i.e. laissez-faire economic policies) in seeking to leave the economy alone and not become involved in this economic sphere in society.

 It is important to note that PRR parties are now more tolerated and accepted by mainstream political parties, in part because they now have a much larger percentage vote share than they used to and must now be taken seriously by mainstream PRR parties. In contrast, ERW parties such as Golden Dawn in Greece and Jobbik in Hungary tend not to be tolerated and accepted, as they do not seek to hide their racist policies towards ethnic out-groups (i.e. immigrants and refugees) and at the same time they have tended to hold violent street protests that are key in tarring them with the ‘extremist’ label.

Furthermore, the most electorally successful insurgent right-wing party family has been the PRR, performing considerably better electorally than ERW parties. Primarily, this is because they have ‘mainstreamed’ their parties and toned down their ideological rhetoric to become more ideologically palatable to a broader electorate across Europe. A key case study here would be Marine Le Pen’s National Rally Party in France, where the party has arguably become ‘mainstream’ and more attractive to a much wider section of the French electorate, in recent years. Marine Le Pen has also sought to distance her policies from her father Jean-Marie Le Pen.

 Radical Right Parties v. Radical Left Parties

 Euroscepticism can come in many different forms, for both PRR parties and for PRL Parties (Populist Radical Left Parties). PRR parties tend to focus much more on leaving the EU (‘hard Euroscepticism’) due to nationalistic factors such as sovereignty and controlling overall borders/territories. For the PRR, it is about defending sovereignty and the dominant ethnic in-group (i.e. nationalism). However, it is important to note that ‘Hard’ Euroscepticism (i.e. opposition to the EU and a rejection of the overall EU project) is manifested completely differently in both far left and far right parties. Though nationalism is the common denominator of both radical left and radical right Eurosceptism. The radical left tend to equate nation with class as they are against class exploitation. For the radical left, the EU is often portrayed as a sign of imperialism as they seek emancipation and independence from greater, transnational powers. However, tensions remain for radical left parties on the issue of nationalism and internationalism, which need reconciling.

Despite being labelled as Eurosceptic, the radical left’s strategy on Eurosceptism is ‘softer’ than the radical right and not in opposition to European integration outright. In contrast, populist radical right parties base their opposition to the EU project around identity politics and socio-cultural issues such as immigration, in opposing the core freedom of movement principle and at the same time outlining how the EU is undermining the nation-state and the ethnic make-up of countries. Thus, there are clear differences between far left and far right ‘Euroscepticism’ within both party families.

 The Far Right in the European Parliament

Returning to PRR parties, they are represented broadly in the Europe of Nations & Freedom Group (ENF) in the EU Parliament. However, they have often disagreed with one another on socio-economic positions and also have different national-level interests. This is often why there are severe ideological disagreements between PRR parties; both in the European Parliament and also at the domestic level. Take the FPÖ in Austria as a direct example of this, with (a) alleged corruption and (b) intra party fighting over key issues such as immigration. Whilst PRR parties appear to be surging in recent years across Western and Central-Eastern Europe, PRR parties often implode due to internal party disagreements, between the more ‘moderate’ PRR party wing and the more ‘extreme’ ERW party wings. This could yet happen again with the FPÖ and Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, in coming years.

Polarization of Politics?

In contrast to conventional wisdom, PRR parties did not gain significantly from the 2008-13 economic crisis. Whilst mainstream parties on the centre left and centre right did lose out electorally, it was the populist radical left that performed better electorally. However, fast forward to 2019 and we see record levels of support for PRR parties in the European Parliament Elections, with widespread fragmentation and greater voter volatility.

In particular, the PRR have profited electorally from the recent refugee crisis period. With their emphasis on anti-immigrant policy positions, their tough brand of identity politics and ‘hard’ Euroscepticism, the PRR is here to stay for the foreseeable future and is not a flash in the pan movement – with politics arguably becoming more polarized. As we’ve seen already, mainstream parties on the centre left and right alike will need to rebuild for the future in order to weather this electoral storm.

Dr James Downes is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Lecturer in Comparative Politics at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. His profile can be found here:

© James Downes. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).