The Importance Of The Immigration Issue
The European Refugee crisis, which began in 2015, has provided significant challenges for mainstream political parties in Europe, both on the center left, the center right of the political spectrum, as well as for the governance of the European Union (EU). The salience of immigration as a political issue has increased and also remained high on the list of issues the public says is important to them. This has created distinct electoral opportunities for the radical right to ramp up the immigration issue and capture disaffected voters.
These circumstances pose challenges for established mainstream parties on both the left and right. However, we find that center right parties are best able to counteract the electoral threat of the radical right, in the context of the 2015–2018 European Refugee crisis.
The 2008–2013 Economic Crisis: Theory Of Strategic Emphasis
Our paper published in the journal Electoral Studies demonstrated the electoral resilience of some center right parties. Through a theory of ‘strategic emphasis’ (issue salience), we demonstrated that electorally successful ‘challenger’ (non-incumbent) center right parties were able to emphasize the immigration issue and outperform the radical right on the immigration issue during the 2008–2013 economic crisis period.
The 2015–2018 Refugee Crisis: Theory Of Strategic Positioning
Building on our 2018 Electoral Studies paper, we examined the important crisis context of the European 2015–2018 European Refugee crisis. In the context of the 2015–2018 European Refugee crisis, we argue that some center right parties pragmatically adapt their strategies during this ‘crisis’ moment. Center right parties arguably recognized this opportune moment for radical right parties to make electoral gains and have responded by adopting hard-line positions (‘accommodationist’) on immigration. Arguably, this ‘strategic positioning’ (issue positions) has been carried out in a pragmatic fashion by some center right parties to ‘offset’ potential vote losses to the radical right.
Center Right Pragmatism During Crises?
In our recent paper in JCMS: The Journal of Common Market Studies, we proposed two core mechanisms as part of a theoretical framework. First, as part of their ‘strategic positioning’, electorally successful center right parties recognized the electoral threat posed by the radical right at the right time. In this case, the ongoing refugee crisis qualifies as a strategic ‘crisis’ moment for radical right parties to exploit public sentiment for electoral gain.
Second, in response, electorally successful center right parties reacted by adopting more restrictive positions on the immigration issue. The motivation for these parties is that if they were to maintain their more liberal and ‘open’ policies on immigration, they would cede political space to the radical right and suffer electorally, during this macro-political ‘crisis’ context.
Figure 1 demonstrates how center right parties (particularly Conservative parties) adopted more ‘restrictive’ positions on immigration during the wider context of the European Refugee crisis and can be seen as the closest ‘mainstream’ challengers (compared to the center left) to the radical right on the key issue of immigration.
Source: CHES (2014 & 2017) & Authors’ own Database
We tested our theory of strategic positioning using data on party competition in national parliamentary elections across 28 EU member states at the start of the refugee crisis via expert surveys from the Chapel Hill Expert Survey (CHES) Database. Through our multivariate regression models, we found that center right parties performed significantly better electorally than radical right parties in this electoral period. Center right parties also performed considerably better than center left parties, when adopting more restrictive and anti-immigrant positions.
Cases: Austria & The Netherlands
Our evidence was further supported by two main case studies from Western Europe that further demonstrated the electoral success of center right parties in the Refugee crisis period. Table 1 below provides a more detailed breakdown of the two key case studies.
First, in the case of Austria’s election in 2017, the center right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) adopted more restrictive positions on immigration, which arguably helped them electorally. The center right ÖVP then formed a coalition government with the radical right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) after the elections. The second case of the Netherlands’ 2017 election provides a more nuanced picture. Though the incumbent center right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) adopted tougher stances on immigration, they saw their vote share decrease and the radical right Party for Freedom (PVV) under Geert Wilders made electoral gains.
Although the VVD performed electorally worse, they still managed to form a coalition government after the election. Arguably, adopting tougher positions on immigration may have mitigated further electoral losses to the PVV. By adopting more restrictive positions on immigration, the center right in both countries have arguably been able to mitigate the electoral threat that the radical right poses in national parliamentary elections.
Ideological Transformations & ‘Democratic Backsliding’ In Central-Eastern Europe
We also point out an additional important pattern in our recent paper published in The Journal of Common Market Studies. This pattern paints a bleaker picture for the future of European politics, particularly in the context of Central–Eastern Europe and the ‘democratic backsliding’, witnessed most recently in Hungarian politics.
The ‘former’ traditional center right Conservative Fidesz Party in Hungary has now become a fully-fledged radical right party, with their anti-immigrant positions. This same ideological transformation can also be seen recently in Poland, with the Law and Justice (PiS) Party and shows how ‘mainstream’ center right parties can evolve from being ‘non-populist’ political establishment parties towards becoming fully-fledged populist radical right parties.
Notes: Immigration positions are measured on a 0–10 scale are in bold (CHES 2014 & 2017 Data are presented). Higher values indicate higher levels of anti-immigrant positions held by political parties.
Why do Center Right Parties perform better?
As center right parties are likely to become involved in internal party struggles, why have they often adopted hard-line positions on immigration? Scholars have noted that center right parties are often ideologically ‘pragmatic’, office-seeking parties that generally pursue electoral strategies to maintain and consolidate their political power.
The answer may be simply that the rationale for center right parties is one of political survival. Such ‘strategic positioning’ may ensure that the center right can remain in power as a governing party despite an opportune moment for challenger parties from the radical right to seek to increase their own electoral fortunes. For the duration of the refugee crisis, a number of center right parties across Europe have arguably been electorally resilient by adopting more restrictionist positions on immigration to outmaneuver the radical right on this issue.
Opening up a Pandora’s Box?
However, by shifting further right on immigration, center right parties may have opened up a ‘Pandora’s box’ and brought the ideology of the radical right into the political mainstream. We argue that this strategy is a double-edged sword for center right parties. This strategy may benefit the center right in the short-term, but conceivably it is likely to aid the radical right more in the long-term. This has worrying implications for the future of liberal democracy across Europe and also for the long-term future of the ‘mainstream’ center right party family, particularly in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
This blog post draws on the JCMS article, “The Looming Refugee Crisis in the EU: Right-Wing Party Competition and Strategic Positioning.”
This blog post was originally published by JCMS, “Center Right Party Electoral Success on Immigration.”
This blog post has also been adapted from a previous blog post that was published by LSE EUROPP, “Opening up Pandora’s box? How center-right parties can outperform the radical right on immigration.”
Co-Written By Dr. James F. Downes, Prof. Matthew Loveless & Andrew Lam
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 at the Department of Government & Public Administration at The Chinese University of Hong Kong and an Associate Research Fellow at the Center for Research & Social Progress (Italy).
© James F. Downes, Matthew Loveless and Andrew Lam. 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).
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