Thirty years ago in February, a relatively unknown French politician by the name of Jean-Marie Le Pen was invited onto a popular television programme named The Hour of Truth. The event, which introduced Le Pen’s beliefs to French voters, became a pivotal moment in the history of his party, the Front National. Shortly afterwards it took 2.2 million votes at the 1984 European elections and over the next three decades became a major political force.
Three decades on from Le Pen’s debut, Europe is braced for the next set of EU elections, which many are predicting will hand fresh gains to the far-right. This includes Marine Le Pen (Jean-Marie’s daughter) who recently finished first in a poll of how the French intend to vote at the elections in May. Alongside unemployment, austerity and rising inequality, today’s far-right is also likely to benefit from a collapse of public trust in established politics. Consider this: since the crisis the percentage of voters across Europe who trust the EU has fallen from almost 60% to barely 30%. And as I write this today, only one in four say they trust their national leaders. In short, it could be argued that Europe’s far-right has never had it so good.
So what do the next 12 months hold for the far-right? Attention will understandably focus on the European elections which are an ‘easy hit’ for populist outsiders. As academics have shown, unlike national contests they tend to be characterised by low turnout, indifference among voters and stronger protest sentiment against national politicians, all of which fuels the far-right. While headlines will most likely focus on the new alliance between Le Pen and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, 2013 also saw the return of the Austrian Freedom Party, formerly led by (the now deceased) Jörg Haider. The party recovered from a downturn to win 20% of the national vote and 40 seats in parliament, a reversal of fortunes that was especially striking in Haider’s old stronghold of Carinthia, where its vote jumped from 7% to 17%.
But such gains should also be set alongside cases of failure. The far-right has prospered amidst crisis in countries like Austria, France and the Netherlands but has stalled or fallen back in places like Belgium, Germany, Italy, Poland, Portugal and Spain. The top of the German far-right is in disarray following the resignation of one of its leaders. Despite record youth unemployment, the far-right in Spain is insignificant outside of a few local areas, while the collapse of the British National Party amidst recession and austerity, and then the English Defence League, underscores the point that the far-right’s fortunes do not depend simply on the presence of a crisis.
In fact, evidence-based predictions of what will happen over the next 12 months paint a very different picture from the conventional wisdom that tells us the far-right is running riot across the continent. Based on results at the most recent election, the academic Cas Mudde estimates that only 12 of 28 states in the EU will see far-right parties enter the European Parliament. It is estimated they will take around 34 seats –or between 4% and 6.5% of all seats. Even if we add on all the other non-far-right but still anti-EU populist parties –like the True Finns in Finland, the Alternative for Germany, the UK Independence Party and even Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy- we are still left with a highly diverse collection of parties that are unlikely to win more than 15-20% of all seats, and even less likely to build a cohesive force. A record result, notes Mudde, but hardly a serious hindrance.
In many respects, the more interesting predictions concern elections away from the EU. The next year will see important local elections in France, where Marine Le Pen hopes to win “hundreds, maybe a thousand” local seats. Her party’s grassroots machine has an impressive track record, having won a local by-election in October that saw her candidate take 53% of the vote. Le Pen’s ‘detox strategy’ is increasing her party’s appeal within French society, and the local elections are the next step in building a major breakthrough. There are also local elections in the Netherlands, where 2013 saw Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom recover from a difficult start to emerge as the most popular. Nationally, Wilders and the PVV are currently predicted to win more national seats than any other party, and are also set for a strong 2014.
Three other contests should also be watched closely. First, around the same time as the European elections are local elections in Greece across over 300 municipalities as well as a highly symbolic Mayoral election in Athens that Golden Dawn plans to contest. In 2013, support for the neo-Nazi party peaked at an average of over 12% in the polls (although some put this higher). While support then slumped following the murder of an anti-fascist rapper, it later rebounded. In December 2013, Golden Dawn averaged 11% in the polls – 4 points higher than their result in the 2012 national election. Some Greeks have simply not been put off by public sympathies for Nazism, involvement with murder and the beating of migrants. Assuming this support holds steady, and Golden Dawn is not forcibly disbanded by the state, then in 2014 Europe faces the very real prospect of Golden Dawn representatives in the European Parliament, local councils and enjoying a strong result in Athens.
Second, a national election in Hungary scheduled for the spring is likely to see a decent result for the virulently anti-Roma and anti-Semitic Jobbik movement, which has links to the BNP. Jobbik entered the Hungarian parliament for the first time in 2010 after receiving over 800,000 votes, or over 16% of the national vote. While support then dropped, Jobbik has continued to average around 13% among decided voters (although a large number of Hungarians remain undecided). There is little reason why this movement that is closely linked to paramilitary groups will not entrench its position as a significant force in Hungarian politics, and retain or increase its three seats in the European Parliament. Then, in September, a national election in Sweden will see the Sweden Democrats -a party rooted in neo-Nazism – attempt to build on its result in 2010 when it attracted 5.7% of the vote and entered parliament for the first time with 20 seats. The most recent polls put them on around 10% and predict 30 seats.
Overall, then, Europe’s far-right will remain very much in the news throughout 2014. But it is also important to recognise that while some of the more established movements look set to enjoy the next year, others are likely to remain firmly on the fringe – and despite the crisis. If the last few years have taught us anything about this toxic force in European politics, it is that while economic hardship may help certain parties at certain points, it is by no means the full story as to why some on the far-right are on their way to the mainstream while others have been left on the margins.
Matthew Goodwin is Associate Professor at the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham, and Associate Fellow at Chatham House. He tweets @GoodwinMJ