Voting Radical Right in Western Europe “Rules of the Game”


My study of the radical right in my book Voting Radical Right in Western Europe focused on the institutions that determine the “rules of the game” – in particular, electoral systems and the difference between proportional representation and first-past-the-post systems. I argued that electoral systems need to be taken into account when comparing party systems and the differences in the level of success of particular parties in different countries.  The results of my analysis indicated that electoral rules and party systems play an important role in the development and success of new parties.  Voters and parties are not automatons that respond reflexively to societal conditions; instead, they pursue strategies to achieve their goals.  Strategies employed by parties are difficult to understand unless the rules and party systems under which they operate are included in the analysis.  In general, the comparative study of political parties can benefit from the consideration of electoral institutions.

Changes in the rules of the game can have a dramatic impact on party development and favorable election outcomes.  This is highlighted by the example of France, where electoral rules were changed in 1986.  Under the proportional representation system adopted for that year only, the far right National Front (FN) managed to win seats.  When the system was returned to the SMDB system, the FN’s newfound electoral success evaporated.  The French case also highlights the role of cooperation among mainstream parties to keep the radical right from a share of power.  The mainstream right in France was willing to follow a moral consensus with the “Republican Front” strategy, but this consensus broke down when the parties found that the strategy was hurting the right’s electoral chances.  The mainstream right did, however, execute a strategy of excluding the radical right, to the point of sanctioning regional politicians who worked with the FN.  The mainstream right paid the price in the short term, but in the long term the strategy was successful.

In the cases I examined, electoral institutions had the effect of keeping the German NPD and Republikaner from winning seats in the German Bundestag and, in France, of keeping the FN from winning more than one seat in the legislature, with the exception of the 1986 election described above.  The electoral systems in Germany and France have provided the mainstream parties with a means to maintain their control of the legislature, and one would expect that they would avoid changes to these rules that might help to change the balance of power.

The Austrian and Danish cases suggest that PR systems may make it difficult for larger parties to keep small parties from gaining vote shares.  However, PR systems alone are not enough to ensure the participation of small parties in a share of power.  The Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), for instance, could not have been successful without a change in economic conditions and rising immigration, as well as the long-term presence of the grand coalition that appears to have sparked their success.  The Danish People’s Party (DPP) may not have had the success that they did without the indication from the conservatives that DPP support would be accepted by a minority government.

It is the combination of favorable conditions, including socioeconomic factors and electoral institutions, which creates an environment in which radical right parties can flourish. Analysis of such conditions, as well as changes in the conditions, bears consideration in any analysis of party success.  A party’s constituency can change with time, and an analysis that only considers a short time period may come to false conclusions by missing the long-term trends.  In terms of economic conditions, rising and falling levels of prosperity, as the case may be, can affect the corresponding level of success of a particular party.  Increases in unemployment, for example, did have an impact on the vote for the radical right in countries where they were successful. This analysis also looked specifically at the impact of immigrants in a region.  The combination of economic decline, and the presence of immigrants who are perceived to exacerbate that decline, can leave their mark on a party’s success.

Despite the relationships found in this analysis, only time will tell if the radical right will continue to be dependent on a country’s socioeconomic situation to expand its appeal.  Immigration is one socioeconomic factor that has traditionally worked to the advantage of the radical right. For the mainstream parties, trying to address issues related to immigration will not make the radical right disappear.  This is a lesson that has certainly been learned in France.  Despite the government’s attempts to control immigration, the FN continued to perform well in both local and national elections, mainly at the expense of both sides of the party spectrum.

So how does this analysis from 2005 hold up in 2018? First, it is clear that the discourses that were principally the domain of the radical right in the 1990s have shifted to the mainstream. As analysts like Cas Mudde have noted, there has been a “normalization” of radical right rhetoric and players in mainstream politics. The “cordon sanitaire” is no longer a guarantee and has certainly not kept far right politicians from winning elections at all levels across Europe. The political climate has changed greatly in the last 15 years and much of it is explained in my book Legislating Equality, which I will discuss in my next blog post.


Professor Terri E. Givens is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Political Scientist and consultant, focusing on European politics, radical right populism, immigration politics, and anti-discrimination policy. See her profile here.


© Terri Givens. 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).