Beyond the Populist Radical Right: Centre Right Party Electoral Success on Immigration in the 21st Century

Much has been written lately in regard to the electoral ‘rise’ of the populist radical right across European politics. Whilst it is true that the populist radical right has gained considerably in recent national parliamentary elections that span the refugee crisis (2015–2018) and outperformed centre left social democratic parties considerably. Much less attention has been paid in examining the electoral success of mainstream centre right parties and how they can capitalize from different stances on the immigrant issue in diverse economic timeframes.

The 2008–13 Economic Crisis Period

My recent article in Electoral Studies with Matthew Loveless (CeRSP, Italy) examined how opposition (‘challenger’) centre right parties can in certain cases, outperform the populist radical right on immigration during times of economic crisis (2008-13), not through adopting more hardline stances on immigration, but through simply emphasizing the immigration issue (issue salience voting model) and making it a salient one.

The 2015–2018 Refugee Crisis Period

Building on this study, we also show in a working paper for LSE EUROPP (currently under review in a major political science journal) that centre right parties adopted more hardline positions on immigration (issue positions voting model) and outperformed a number of populist radical right parties in the 2015–18 refugee crisis period at the aggregate level. In contrast to the 2008–13 economic crisis, different electoral strategies were adopted by the centre right.

Most significantly, the ‘type’ of centre right party that benefits the most from the refugee crisis context are ‘incumbent’ centre right parties who adopt more anti-immigrant positions on immigration and are in some cases able to outperform the populist radical right in national parliamentary elections. This pattern is most pronounced in a number of Western European countries across this electoral context. ‘Incumbent’ centre right parties may have been adopting this anti-immigrant strategy to achieve political survival in office and further consolidate their overall political power. Interestingly, centre right parties (particularly ‘incumbents’) that did not adopt anti-immigrant positions tended to lose out electorally to populist radical right parties.

Economic Good Times (1999–2006)

What about the outset of the twenty-first century in European politics? What strategies did centre right parties use to compete with populist radical right parties on the immigration issue and how electorally successful were such strategies in a period that was characterized by economic good times?

This article draws on the Chapel Hill Expert Survey (CHES) dataset from 1999–2006 which features 24 countries across the European Union (EU). This article deploys Pearson r correlations to first assess the empirical relationship between the emphasis placed on immigration and the varying electoral success for centre right and populist radical right parties in economic good times. Correlations are also provided for centre left parties and this provides a point of comparison with both party families during this economic context.

In Table 1, we can see a clear relationship (r=+0.31) between the emphasis placed on immigration by centre right parties and their electoral fortunes. Upon closer inspection of the dataset, a number of entrenched centre right parties across Europe that emphasized immigration in their electoral strategy performed well at the outset of the 21st century in national parliamentary elections (Union for a Popular Movement/UMP in France, the ÖVP/Austrian People’s Party, Fidesz in Hungary, the People’s Party in Spain, the Christian Democratic Union Party in Germany, the Moderate Party in Sweden, and the VVD in the Netherlands).

By comparison, the relationship between the emphasis placed on immigration and the electoral success of populist radical right parties (Table 1) is not only weak, it is negative (r=-0.55). The centre left correlation is positive, but weak (r=+0.06) and further shows the centre right parties performed better electorally during the economic crisis period, compared to all other ‘main’ party families.

 Table 1: Correlations between % Vote Share Change for Political Parties and the Salience of Immigration at the Outset of the 21st Century (19992006)

Party Ideology Salience of Immigration

(Pearson’s r correlation)

Observations (N)
Centre Left +0.06 108
Centre Right +0.31 142
Radical Right -0.55 58

Figures have been rounded up or down for presentational purposes. Radical Left Party figures omitted from the table.

Source: Author’s own figures

Note: CHES (1999–2006)

To explore these empirical relationships more fully and with the inclusion of control variables, the article builds OLS multivariate regression models to examine centre right party electoral success on immigration, compared to populist radical right and centre left parties in this electoral period.

A regression coefficient plot with 95% confidence intervals is included below in Figure 1. This allows us to visualize the magnitude of the electoral effect for centre right, populist radical right and left-wing parties when emphasizing immigration, whilst including the main independent and control variables from the OLS regression models in the context of economic good times. Figure 1 depicts a particularly strong pattern for centre right parties, showing that emphasizing immigration is a more electorally successful party strategy in comparison to populist radical right parties and to a lesser extent, centre left parties.

The confidence intervals are also narrow, further underlining the statistically significant effect for mainstream centre right parties during this electoral period. The multiple coefficient plot in Figure 1 shows the opposite effect for populist radical right parties. In contrast to centre right parties, the confidence intervals are much wider compared to centre right parties and further underline the weak effect that emphasizing immigration had for this party family in this economic context.

Key Election Cases

Investigating the dataset further shows that three key election cases that underpin centre right party electoral success on immigration at the outset of the 21st century in European politics. The 2002 Austrian Legislative election, the French 2002 (Legislative) and 2007 (Presidential elections) show how centre right parties can emphasize the immigration issue to voters and reap electoral rewards from such a strategy in more economic good times. Centre right parties are also further aided by positive incumbency effects (in government) during this electoral period.

Figure 1: Regression Coefficient Plot (Inclusion of Control Variables)

Source: CHES (1999–2006)

Dependent Variable: % Change in Vote Shares (By Party Family)

Centre Right Party Electoral Success?

Therefore, the empirical evidence presented here suggests that emphasizing the immigration issue corresponded to a substantial percentage increase in the aggregate vote share of centre right parties in national parliamentary elections. The central theoretical explanation of centre right party electoral success offered here is simply that centre right parties are able to trigger and emphasize the right issue during this electoral period through a mechanism of ‘strategic emphasis’ and also benefit from an incumbency advantage in this economic context.

In contrast to the two other timeframes, economic good times (1999-2006) yield a context that is underlined by ‘stable’ patterns of party competition, with the threat from populist radical right parties less severe for mainstream centre right parties. ‘Incumbent’ centre right parties appear to be the main beneficiaries of this electoral context, when they emphasize the immigration issue (issue salience voting model) and at the same time adopt ‘moderate’ positions (issue positions voting model) on immigration.

This is thought-provoking as these empirical findings show that centre right parties adopt differing strategies in diverse economic contexts that span the first twenty years of the 21st century in European politics. This has important implications for contemporary party politics and the strategies that ‘mainstream’ parties can adopt to counteract the electoral threat of ‘insurgent’ populist parties on the right-wing of the political spectrum.

Dr James F. Downes is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Lecturer in Comparative Politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (SAR, China). His profile can be found here:

© James F. 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).

[1] The author is currently in the process of turning the findings of his recent PhD Dissertation (defended in 2017 at the University of Kent) into a book with co-author Matthew Loveless (CeRSP, Italy).