Why has the populist radical right outperformed the populist radical left in Europe?

Twenty-first century European politics has been characterised by patterns of electoral volatility, alongside the recent economic crisis and ongoing crises over refugees. This has allowed ‘populist’ parties on both the right and left to capitalise on the electoral failure of mainstream centre left and right parties.

There has been a considerable amount of research on the recent rise of populist radical right and populist radical left parties. A number of studies have shown that during times of economic and political crisis, these parties have shaken up the political landscape in contemporary European politics. But surprisingly few studies have examined the electoral fortunes of radical right and left parties together.

Electoral gains

The figure below demonstrates that in the last two national parliamentary elections that fall across the recent refugee crisis period, the radical right made the largest electoral gains in EU countries. Mainstream centre left parties suffered the largest losses, underlining the electoral downfall of this party family in the post-economic crisis period, and wider anti-incumbency effects. Radical left parties performed well electorally, but their electoral gains were considerably lower than those of radical right parties.

Figure: Percentage vote share change for different types of political parties (last two national parliamentary elections amongst the EU28)
Figure: Percentage vote share change for different types of political parties (last two national parliamentary elections amongst the EU28) | Sceenshot: Authors’ own dataset (Downes, 2018)

The radical right has made considerable use of the refugee crisis to build its support. Two of the most striking examples are the 2017 Austrian legislative election which ultimately saw the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) entering into coalition with the centre right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), and the 2018 Italian legislative election, which saw the radical right League enter into a coalition with the Five Star Movement.

Those radical left parties which have made gains in recent national parliamentary elections include the Left Bloc (BE) in Portugal, which substantially increased its vote share in the 2015 Portuguese legislative election. Other parties, such as Syriza in Greece, and Podemos in Spain, have achieved notable electoral success over the last decade. It is important to note however that this success is not uniform, with some parties faring less well electorally and others facing challenges in maintaining their support.

The radical right’s winning formula

What factors can explain the electoral success of radical right parties in the post-economic crisis period? First, the party strategy of the radical right has tended to be simple and clear, with a focus on issues such as immigration and an attempt to link this directly to general discontent and dissatisfaction with the EU.

Second, the radical right has a much broader voter base to target with this narrative than radical left parties have. Recent research has shown that radical right parties have the ability to attract traditional working-class voters away from centre left parties, primarily due to their effective use of the immigration issue.

The simplicity and clarity of the radical right message has been a key part of their success. Powerful images of nationhood have combined with fears over issues such as immigration to drive this support. Capitalising on popular fears has been shown by previous authors to be a core element of the radical right narrative. And the ‘accessibility’ of this message is arguably one of the most important differences between the approach of the radical right and the radical left.

Left abstraction

In contrast, the radical left remains to some extent a platform for abstract intellectual ideas. Such narratives are far more difficult to translate into the slogans and messages which have proven successful in the digital age of politics.

The perceived inability of the radical left to form concrete policy responses to the global economic crisis has not helped their cause. The radical left has in many cases failed to weave together a clear and simple narrative on the economy which can rival the message of the radical right, while it has also been less willing to focus on the key issue of immigration which the radical right has used so effectively to attract support.

Radical right parties have ultimately been better placed to offer a clear ‘populist’ message on key issues such as immigration and the EU, thereby capitalising on the disaffection of voters. But understanding the reasons why the radical right, as opposed to the radical left, has proven particularly adept at winning support will be of obvious importance for European politics in the coming years as the electoral power of populism is unlikely to disappear in the short-term.

This pattern of populist radical right electoral success is likely to continue in the upcoming May 2019 European Parliament Elections, with smaller electoral gains for populist radical left parties.

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 and Joshua Townsley and Valerio A Bruno. 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).

This post was originally hosted by CARR’s media partner, Open Democracy. See the original post here.