Disunity within the Ranks? Party Expulsions in the European Radical Right: 2000–2020

Drawing on an original database of party expulsions of radical right parties in Europe across twenty countries from 2000-2020, Felix Wiebrecht, James F. Downes, Edward Chan and Anna Kam devise a theoretical model that groups expulsions into two categories that comprise accountability mechanisms and political purges.

 They find empirically that within the modern far-right, expulsions primarily take place due to two key factors, namely (a) ideological party disputes and (b) varying forms of extremism. These findings highlight the importance of internal party disputes alongside party leadership within the modern radical right that pose significant barriers to their electoral success.

 Introduction

In July 2020, the Alternative for Germany’s (AfD) party tribunal upheld the expulsion of its leader in the East German state of Brandenburg, Andreas Kalbitz. The party leadership accused him of not having disclosed previous memberships in extreme right-wing organisations. Interestingly, Kalbitz held that he fell victim to conflicts within the party on its future direction. It is important to note the significance of this expulsion in European politics. Kalbitz was part of the ultra-right unofficial and now dissolved party group “Der Fluegel” (The Wing), that has been a thorn in the more moderate faction of the party around leader Jörg Meuthen.

Expulsions can be a double-edged sword for party leaders. On the one hand they can function as sanctioning and serve as accountability mechanisms to discharge members that damage the party’s reputation, for instance through extremist or inappropriate remarks. On the other hand, expulsions can also portray a party as chaotic and divided, especially if the expulsion is heavily debated and has to go through several instances as in the case of Kalbitz.

This can in turn easily lead to an electoral demise of the party or their own ‘self-sabotaging’. Both the radical right The Finns Party in Finland (Timo Soini) and in the Freedom Party of Austria (Heinz-Christian Strache) have experienced internal splits and scandals recently that led to a loss of voters’ trust in them.

Theoretical Model: Radical Right Parties

In order to explain different forms of party expulsions within the modern radical right, we’ve devised a theoretical framework. For one, expulsions can be accountability mechanisms to sanction genuine (or perceived) misconduct of members that can include the violation of formal party rules, corruption or other financial irregularities and being too extremist. On the other hand, expulsions can be the result of open criticism of the party leadership, ideological conflicts or personal feuds.

As noted above, we argue that the radical right parties’ ideologies as well as their central party leadership are decisive in explaining which kind of expulsions occur in radical right parties. Figure 1 below outlines our main theoretical model of radical right party expulsions.

Figure 1: Theoretical Model of Expulsions (Radical Right Parties)

 PRR v. ERW Parties: European Context

We draw on the scholarship of Cas Mudde in conceptualising the far right as an ‘umbrella’ term, with populist radical right parties (PRR) and extreme right wing (ERW) parties falling under the radical right party family label. The modern extreme right includes parties such as Golden Dawn (Greece), Jobbik (Hungary), the NPD (Germany) alongside Kotleba (Slovakia).

In regard to expulsions, ERW parties largely differ from PRR parties in the sense that they rarely need to moderate themselves ideologically. Whilst PRR appear to be more ideologically moderate and work under the confines of democracy (yet sceptical of ‘liberal’ democracy), ERW parties do not attempt to hide their ‘extreme’ positions and tend to be deeply sceptical of democracy overall. Thus, expulsions in ERW parties tend to fall into the second group of expulsions. This is also in line with their (even) more hierarchical leadership style, relative to PRR parties.

Importance of Party Leadership

The party leadership and underlying party organisation tends to be decisive in determining what ‘type’ of expulsions take place in radical right parties. It appears that strong party leaders are associated with the second type of expulsions (i.e. political purges).

Strong party leaders seek to strengthen their position by pre-empting potential challenges for the party leadership and have thus, exploited their position to expel other influential party members. Important leaders include Jörg Haider and Heinz-Christian Strache (both FPÖ), Jean-Marie Le Pen (Front National), Marine Le Pen (previously Front National/now National Rally) Pim Fortuyn (Pim Fortuyn List), Carl I. Hagen (Norwegian Progress Party) and Jarosław Kaczyński (PiS).

Original Database: Party Expulsions

Selection Criteria

Past party expulsions from radical right parties in Europe reveal that the Andreas Kalbitz AfD case is not a unique one and is part of a broader and significant set of party expulsions within the modern radical right. We have collected a unique database of more than 200 past expulsions of radical party members in Europe, from 2000 until 2020. We define expulsions as forceable and final ejections from a political party, for various indiscretions or misdemeanours. We find that we can group expulsions into two separate categories.

We collected a wide range of variables in our expulsions database. We included important variables such as the name of the expelled member, the reason for the expulsion, the position of the expelled member in the party, existing conflicts with radical right parties, the expulsion date, incumbency status, alongside the geographical location in Europe (West vs. East).

We expanded our database through collecting information in numerous European languages online, to enhance our overall sample size of cases. The database featured collecting information from (a) newspaper articles and (b) peer-reviewed academic publications of ‘party expulsions’ to enhance the overall sample size of party expulsions for radical right parties.

We have identified cases of expulsions in 20 different European countries that vary regionally (Western vs. Central-Eastern Europe). A large proportion of cases can be found in Western Europe, including Italy (Lega), Sweden (Swedish Democrats) and the United Kingdom (The United Kingdom Independence Party alongside the British National Party).

It is important to note that some radical right parties operate in complex political systems. In Switzerland, party membership is structured in a unique manner, with the level of cantons (the 26 member states) and regional differences exist between the national vs. subnational levels. For example, expulsions for the radical right Swiss People’s Party (SVP) in Switzerland can only take place at the (a) canton level, rather than (b) at the federal level. This is an important distinction and makes the case of the radical right in Switzerland particularly unique, compared to other Western European countries.

We then transformed our qualitative variable “Reason for Expulsion” into a categorical variable. This allowed our expulsions database to have a wide range of response options and a more fine-grained approach in classifying diverse cases of party expulsions. These reasons are not mutually exclusive and can overlap in some cases, as for instance in the Kalbitz case who was accused of breaking party rules but also deemed as being too extreme. The categorical variable was also cross-checked by all of the four researchers, in order to increase both (a) reliability and (b) inter-coder consistency for this the variable. We also cross-checked our empirical findings with a number of country experts in European politics, who we acknowledge at the end of the article.

Our preliminary empirical analysis in Table 1 (N=234 cases) demonstrated that party expulsions are wide ranging in their overall nature and highlights important patterns. The most common explanation of party expulsions within radical right parties was ideological disputes (N=78), followed by varying forms of ‘extremism’ (N=56), such as anti-Semitism, anti-Islam and racism. It is interesting to note that personal feuds (N=8) played a weak role overall in constituting cases of party expulsions for radical right parties.

Table 1: Summary of Party Expulsions (Radical Right Parties in Europe, 2000–2020)

 

Reason for Expulsion Frequency (N)
Breaking party internal rules/codes of conduct 37
Open criticism of party leadership 21
Ideological Disputes 78
Personal Feuds 8
Corruption/Scandals(Financial irregularities) 17
Extremism(Anti-Semitism/Anti-Islam/Racism) 56
Others (Unclassifiable) 11
Don’t Know 6
N= 234

 Implications

Our preliminary empirical research has highlighted a considerable number of expulsions that have taken place within the modern European radical right. Two key factors in the form of (a) ideological party disputes and (b) varying forms of extremism can be found in our overall database. Other reasons for expulsions such as internal party disputes and open criticism of the party leadership play a less important role, alongside personal feuds.

Though these finding are preliminary, they highlight important implications, in demonstrating that modern radical right parties in Europe are far from united and have a considerable number of ideological disputes and tensions amongst both the (a) party leadership and amongst (b) rank-and-file party members.

In particular, ideological disputes between the more ‘moderate’ populist radical right and the more ideologically ‘extreme’ factions of a party continue to cause negative electoral implications for a number of radical right parties in the European political context.

Our findings demonstrate important internal party disputes over ideology and ‘extremism’ that cause significant barriers for the modern radical right to unite and therefore succeed electorally in the long-term.

Authors:

Dr James F. Downes is a Senior Fellow & Head of the Populism Research Unit at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right. He is also a Lecturer in Comparative Politics & Head of Undergraduate Admissions in the Department of Government and Public Administration at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. His CARR profile can be found here.

Felix Wiebrecht is a PhD Candidate in Government and Public Administration at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. His research interests include Comparative Politics and Legislative Behaviour.

 Edward K.F. Chan read Politics and Law for his Undergraduate at The University of Hong Kong (HKU). He is now an incoming Master’s Student in Comparative Politics at University College London (UCL).

Anna Kam is an incoming Bachelor’s Student studying a Dual Law degree scheme at University College London (UCL) and The University of Hong Kong (HKU).

© James Downes, Felix Wiebrecht, Edward K.F. Chan & Anna Kam. 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).

Acknowledgements:

We would like to thank the following expert researchers for their expert advice on this project.

 Professor Hans-Georg Betz (Zurich/Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right)

Dr. Laurent Bernhard (FORS)

Professor Daphne Halikiopoulou (Reading)

Mr. Michael Cole (Tartu/ Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right)

Dr. Megi Kartsivadze (Free University of Tbilisi and the Agricultural University of Georgia)

Mr. Nicola Palma (Bocconi)

Dr. Mette Wiggen (Leeds/Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right)