Far-Right Parties on the March Across Europe

(CN) — “Merkel exit. Macron weak. Salvini strong. Brexit. The destruction of the EU is unfolding.” Done. Send. In 13 words on Twitter, Geert Wilders, the far-right anti-Islamic Dutch party leader living under police protection due to threats, summed up the reasons for a jubilant mood among Europe’s far-right nationalists.

With fewer than seven months to go before Europeans elect a new European Parliament at the end of May, far-right nationalists like Wilders have reason to be optimistic: It appears the recent success of Europe’s far-right parties is not going to abate.

“Radical right parties that poll between 10 and 25 percent are now a fact of political life in most West European countries,” said Kai Arzheimer, a political scientist at the University of Mainz in Germany who studies the radical right.

He, like other political analysts, believes the far right will do well in the upcoming European elections. Partly this is because many EU citizens do not take the bloc’s parliamentary elections to heart. Turnout is low and has fallen, and this has allowed far-right anti-EU parties to prosper.

More generally, European politics are veering to the right — and many say dangerously to the far right. An increasing, though still modest, number of voters are supporting anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic, nationalist, climate-change-skeptical and anti-EU political parties that advocate law-and-order politics. Critics say these populist far-right parties threaten to undermine liberal democracy.

“I wish I could say they will burn out, but I cannot make that assumption,” said Jan Rovny, a political scientist at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, in a telephone interview.

He said Europe, like so other places in the world, is in the grip of a new era in politics defined by identity, not by economic issues.

Parties considered to have far-right leanings are in high positions of power in six European nations: Italy, Austria, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria and Slovakia — not to mention the United States. By comparison, only one European government, that of Greece’s Syriza party, has a far-left party in power.

More broadly, 19 of the EU’s 28 national governments are conservative-leaning, nine centrist and five on the left, according to a Courthouse News survey based on a University of Bremen database.

Wilders’ Twitter post, then, is a good view of the chessboard as seen from the far-right perspective — the side aiming to bring down the massive and consolidated EU bureaucracy and re-establish national boundaries and national currencies.

The opponent’s queen has been cornered: German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe’s leading politician and supporter of a strong EU and advocate for helping refugees, has suffered electoral defeat inside Germany and she’s stepping aside as her party’s chair. She will not seek re-election as chancellor.

The opponent’s king is on the run: French President Emmanuel Macron’s popularity at home has plummeted and his bold vision of an even more integrated EU in economics, culture and military has run aground.

The lead knight is on the attack and doing serious damage to the opposition: Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right League party, is challenging the EU and growing in popularity at home by depicting immigrants from Asia and Africa as uncivilized, violent and stealing work from Italians.

All the while, the center of the chess board is collapsing: Great Britain, a major economy inside Europe, is leaving the bloc next March in keeping with the Brexit referendum of 2016, an event seen by the far right as a breakthrough in the effort to take power away from the EU.

Here’s a partial look at where the larger far-right parties advocating nationalist views stand in Europe. Simultaneously, there is a myriad of smaller –— and often more extreme — far-right groups across Europe, such as Italy’s Fratelli d’Italia and Forza Nuova, the Pegida movement in Germany and Finland’s Blue Reform.

This year Italy, a founding nation of the EU and its fourth most populous nation, became the most prominent example of the rise of the far right. In March, Salvini’s party — founded in the 1980s with the goal to make Northern Italy a separate country – won about 18 percent of the vote and then joined the maverick Five-Star Movement to form a government. Since taking office in June, Salvini has become Italy’s most visible political leader. In September, his rise — and nationalist and anti-immigrant politics — made the cover of Time magazine.

In Austria, the far-right Freedom Party has been the junior partner in a coalition government with the conservative People’s Party since December 2017. Its members have been accused of holding anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi and anti-Islamic views, according to the Mauthausen Committee, an Austrian group that monitors extremist groups.

In Hungary, nationalists find one of their most cherished figures: Viktor Orban, a strongman president and leader of the Fidesz Party. He won a third term in April on a campaign filled with anti-immigrant rhetoric and billboards targeting George Soros, a Hungarian-born billionaire philanthropist who supports liberal causes.

Orban advocates the need to defend Hungarian heritage and national identity and sees himself as a defender of Christianity. Under his leadership, Hungary installed fences along its southern border to stop immigrants, many of them Muslim. The European Parliament opened sanctions proceedings against Hungary in September, charging that Orban’s rule has become authoritarian.

Rovny, the political scientist, said Orban has undermined Hungary’s constitution. Orban’s government has been criticized for eroding the independence of its courts and media.

“I don’t think of Hungary as a functioning democracy anymore,” Rovny said.

Besides Orban’s Fidesz, there’s another far-right party: Jobbik, or the Movement for a Better Hungary. It has 26 seats in parliament.

In Poland, too, a hard-right nationalist party is in power — the Law and Justice Party. It too has been accused of authoritarianism and undermining the rule of law by efforts to stamp out an independent judiciary and crushing opposition while supporting nationalist causes.

Bulgaria also has far-right nationalists — who coalesced as the United Patriots party — as part of its ruling government since 2017. One deputy prime minister, Valeri Simeonov of the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria, has spoken of putting Roma, or gypsies, on reservations.

Nearby Slovakia also has what some political scientists consider a party with far-right leanings in a coalition government: the Slovak National Party. Its party leader, Andrej Danko, is the parliament speaker. It has anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic views and Danko has said he would like to follow the Orban model.

The Czech Republic has a populist president with far-right views in Miloš Zeman, a 74-year-old politician serving his second term as president, a position with limited powers. Zeman sought to get a far-right nationalist party with 22 seats in parliament, the Movement of Freedom and Direct Democracy, to become part of a coalition government.

In other countries, far-right parties are not in power but have grown in popularity.

That’s certainly the case in Germany, with the steady rise of the Alternative for Germany, an anti-immigrant party led by an openly gay woman, Alice Weidel. It performed well in recent state elections in Bavaria and Hesse, and now has members in each German state legislature. It won 13 percent of the vote in 2017 national elections and is now the third-largest party, with 94 seats in the Bundestag. It is credited with pushing Germany’s mainstream conservatives farther to the right.

In France, there’s Marine Le Pen and her National Rally. In 2017, Le Pen made it into a runoff in the presidential race against Macron — and lost. Her party has eight seats in the national parliament and 14 in the European Parliament. A recent poll showed her doing better among voters than Macron for the first time.

In the Netherlands, the Party for Freedom, led by Wilders, has 20 seats in parliament and four in the European parliament.

In Greece, the Golden Dawn, a party known for neo-Nazi sympathies, has been making gains too. It has 18 seats in parliament and two in the European Parliament.

In Sweden, too, the far right has gained support in the form of the Sweden Democrats. They won about 17.6 percent of the vote in recent general elections, a much better showing than previous elections.

Denmark has its far-right party: the Danish People’s Party. In the most recent national election in 2015, it won nearly 21 percent of the vote, gaining 37 seats in parliament as Denmark’s second-largest party.

Similarly, Estonia is seeing support for the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia on the rise. In 2015, the party, known as EKRE, took about 8 percent of the vote. Now, about 20 percent of Estonians tell pollsters they would vote for the party, whose leaders espouse the usual far-right anti-immigrant and anti-EU rhetoric.

In Spain, where far-right politics has long been absent, there’s Vox, a nascent nationalist party that narrowly missed winning a seat in parliament in recent elections.

Arzheimer, the political scientist, attributed the rise of the far right to “the slow but steady decline of the longstanding ties between large social groups such as workers, farmers, or religious groups on the one hand and traditional parties on the other.”

He said this has made voters “available for new parties including, but not limited to, the radical right.”

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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