The Effect of Subnational Representation on Radical Right Parties

Alternative for Germany (AfD) elect candidates for the 2019 European Election, Nov.18,2018. Michael Kappeler/Press Association. All rights reserved.

Radical right parties seldom break into a national party system all of a sudden. Rather, they usually set foot in subnational parliaments first, but the enhancing effect of subnational representation for their electoral performance in national elections is less well-studied. In fact, subnational parliamentary representation can help leverage radical right parties to the national level, and their resulting impact on mass opinion once in national parliament.

Obtaining subnational parliamentary representation is crucial for radical right parties in three main ways. First, it is about material advantages. Entering a subnational parliament can provide a radical right party with more public funding for subsequent campaigning. At the same time, subnational parliamentary representation can increase its attractiveness for donors and garner more financial support. Both public and private financial support can make a huge difference to radical right parties as most are not backed by stable funding during the initial period.

Second, entering a subnational parliament can help a radical right party in terms of organizational building. As David Art argues, although radical right parties’ success or failure depends on the contextual environment they are embedded in, the importance of party leaders and activists should not be neglected. If a radical right party can enter a subnational parliament, its reputation is going to increase and can potentially attract more people to become members. Also, a subnational election success may provide incentives for opportunist elites to join the party, as they may expect that electoral growth and government participation are likely in the near future. The participation of opportunists can moderate the impact of extremists within the party and further groom the image of a radical right party. Lastly, one can conjecture that intra-party conflict is less frequent if the party can succeed in a subnational election, for it is less prone to internal finger pointing. These aspects of organizational development can help its electoral performance in a subsequent national election.

Third, it boosts voters’ perceptions about the viability of a radical right party and the signal it provides to the electorate. When a radical right party enters a subnational parliament, it can enjoy more media attention that outsider parties cannot receive. Also, the uncertainty about a party’s ideological profile can be reduced and the party brand becomes more salient to voters. Based on Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s research on public opinion in Spiral of Silence, successful electoral results in subnational elections can provide a signal to the electorate that a significant population in their social environment supports the radical right party as well. As such, voting for a radical right party is no longer regarded as a taboo. This kind of advantage can certainly foster a radical right party’s performance in a subsequent national general election.

The first two dimensions—financial support and organizational development—have  received much attention in the media and academia. However, in recent years, research on radical right parties have a revived interest in the last dimension—the change in mass opinion brought about by radical right representation. But the overwhelming focus of this research is mostly on the impact of representation of the radical right on the national level, instead of the subnational or regional level.

Lastly, how does radical right representation in parliament change social norms? Valentim considers how a radical right party entrance into parliament can destabilize previous social norms. Since a radical right party usually challenges established social norms, its supporters are unlikely to reveal their support to the party in public. But once it obtains parliamentary representation, this psychological hurdle is reduced as the party has acquired legitimacy. Similarly, Bischof and Wagner describe the legitimation effect of a radical right party when entering parliament. Yet, they also found that there is a backlash effect, meaning that left-wing supporters become more radicalized after a radical right party has entered parliament. This indicates that the parliamentary representation of a radical right party can give rise to polarizing effects.

From a normative point of view, it has long been argued that the presence of a radical right party in parliament is beneficial or detrimental to democracy. On the one hand, a radical right party is going to have more financial support, build a more cohesive organization and influence mass opinion. On the other hand, one cannot deny that a radical right party represents the opinion of a population, whose voice is not being heard by mainstream parties. Perhaps that is why the turnout rate has increased in the recent elections in different European countries, as the choices available to voters in the electoral system has increased. Indeed, the presence of a radical right party in the electoral arena has already been proven to mobilize previous non-voters.

Mr Ka Ming Chan is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and Doctoral candidate at Geschwister Scholl Institute of Political Science, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität. See his profile here.

© Ka Ming Chan. 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).