Dr James F. Downes finds that across the span of the twenty-first century, mainstream centre-right parties have been able to benefit electorally from adopting different strategies on the immigration issue throughout three diverse contexts, such as in the economic crisis context (2008-2013), the refugee crisis context (2015-2018) and in more prosperous economic contexts (1999-2006). He argues that the European centre right in particular has been able to outperform the radical right and the mainstream centre left during diverse (a) macro-economic and (b) macro-political contexts that span the twenty-first century.
Mainstream Centre Right Party Electoral Success
Much has been written about the electoral ‘rise’ of the radical right across European politics. Whilst it is true that the 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. Less attention has been paid in examining the electoral success of mainstream centre-right parties and how they can capitalise from different stances on the immigration issue in three diverse timeframes that span the twenty-first century period.
- The Economic Crisis Context: Strategic Emphasis (2008–2013)
My co-authored article in Electoral Studies with Matthew Loveless examined how opposition (‘challenger’) centre-right parties can, in certain cases, outperform the radical right on immigration during times of economic crisis (2008-13). This is done not through adopting more hard-line stances on immigration, but through simply emphasising the immigration issue to voters (issue salience voting model) and making it a salient one. Examples include centre-right parties such as the New Flemish Alliance Party (N-VA) in Belgium and the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy in the Netherlands (VVD).
Several centre-right parties did not perform better during the economic crisis period. This happened particularly if (a) these centre right parties were incumbents and punished in line with theories of economic voting (Union for a Popular Movement/UMP in France), or if (b) they did not particularly emphasise the immigration issue (the National Coalition Party/KOK in Finland).
- The Refugee Crisis Context: Strategic Positioning (2015–2018)
Building on this study, we also show in a recent paper published in the Journal of Common Market Studies that centre-right parties adopting more hard-line positions on immigration (issue positions voting model) outperformed a number of radical-right parties in the 2015–18 refugee crisis period (i.e., macro-political crisis). 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 were incumbent centre-right parties who adopted more anti-immigrant positions on immigration and were in some cases able to outperform the radical right in national parliamentary elections. This pattern is most pronounced in several Western European countries across this electoral context, such as in The Netherlands (Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy/VVD) and Austria (The Austrian People’s Party/ÖVP).
We posit that incumbent centre right parties may have been adopting this anti-immigration strategy to achieve political survival in office and further consolidate their overall political power. Interestingly, centre-right parties that did not adopt anti-immigrant positions tended to lose out electorally to radical-right parties, such as in Germany.
We also identified an additional pattern in our analysis (‘a mainstreaming effect’) that has important implications for the future of liberal democracy across Europe. The ‘former’ traditional centre right Conservative Fidesz Party in Hungary has now arguably become a fully-fledged radical-right party, with their focus on anti-immigrant positions and democratic backsliding.
This same ideological transformation can also be seen recently in Poland, with the Law and Justice (PiS) Party. This pattern paints a more negative picture for the future of European politics, particularly in the context of Central–Eastern Europe and the rightwards shift of several political parties.
- Economic Good Times Context: Strategic Emphasis (1999–2006)
But what about the outset of the twenty-first century in European politics? What strategies did centre right parties use to compete with radical right parties on the immigration issue and how electorally successful were such strategies in a period that was characterised by economic good times? In a single authored paper, currently under review in a major political science journal, I explore the context of economic good times (i.e., economic prosperity) and its effects on right-wing party competition, between mainstream centre right and radical right parties.
This paper draws on the Chapel Hill Expert Survey (CHES) dataset from 1999–2006 (1999, 2002 and 2006 waves) which features 24 countries across the European Union (EU). 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 radical-right and centre-left parties in this electoral period.
An OLS multivariate regression coefficient plot with 95% confidence intervals is included below in Figure 1. This allows us to visualise the magnitude of the electoral effect for centre-right, radical-right, and left-wing parties when emphasising 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 emphasising immigration is a more electorally successful party strategy in comparison to 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 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 emphasising 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 twenty-first century in European politics. The 2002 Austrian Legislative election, the French 2002 (Legislative) and 2007 (Presidential elections) show how mainstream centre right parties can emphasise 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, in contrast to the 2008-13 economic crisis and the 2015-18 refugee crisis contexts.
FIGURE 1: OLS MULTIVARIATE REGRESSION COEFFICIENT PLOT (INCLUSION OF CONTROL VARIABLES)
Centre-Right Party Electoral Success on Immigration: Divergent Economic Contexts
The empirical evidence presented here suggests that emphasising the immigration issue corresponded to a substantial percentage increase in the aggregate vote share of centre-right parties in national parliamentary elections over time and during diverse economic contexts. The central theoretical explanation of centre-right party electoral success offered here is simply that centre-right parties are able to trigger and emphasise the right issue during this electoral period through a mechanism of ‘strategic emphasis’ and benefit from an incumbency advantage in this economic context.
In contrast to the two other timeframes, economic good times (e.g., 1999-2006) yield a context that is underlined by ‘stable’ patterns of party competition, with the threat from 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 emphasise 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 can adopt differing strategies in diverse contexts that span the first twenty years of thetwenty-first century in European politics. This has important implications for contemporary party politics and the strategies that ‘mainstream’ parties (particularly on the centre-right) 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 and Head of The Populism Research Unit (PRU) at CARR. James is also a Lecturer in Comparative Politics and Head of the Undergraduate Admissions Panel in the Department of Government and Publication Administration at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (SAR, China). He is also affiliated as a Research Fellow to the Global Europe Centre at the University of Kent/Brussels School of International Studies (UK/Belgium). 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).