The Rightward March of Europe
What had long been considered nothing more than a fringe element, the European far-right has risen to unprecedented heights. For decades, far-right parties and politicians had been relegated to the sidelines, considered nothing more than a mere nuisance by the mainstream center-left and center-right. Managing to elect even only a few members to a country’s parliament would be deemed a triumphant victory. Leaders would declare that a message has been sent to the country’s political establishment to not ignore its people’s discontent with the status quo. Now that it has become clear these warnings have not been heeded, the far-right is poised to become a major player in European politics, a role it has long sought.
On December 4, Austrians will head to the polls to elect their new president. The first round of the election was held this past spring with Alexander Van der Bellen, a member of the Green Party officially running as an independent, and Norbert Hofer, a member of the far-right Freedom Party, making it to the second round. This alone was notable, as this would be the first time since World War II that the President of Austria would not be from one of the country’s two main political parties, the center-left Social Democratic Party and the center-right Austrian People’s Party. The candidates of these parties finished in fourth and fifth place, respectively.
A critical difference between the two candidates is in regards to the European Union and Austria’s place in it. Van der Bellen is a staunch supporter of the organization and is in favor of European federalism. Hofer, on the other hand, seeks the holding of a referendum on Austrian membership and advocates for the country’s withdrawal from the organization. With the United Kingdom voting to leave the European Union this past June, this issue has come to the forefront in practically all member states.
The second round was later held with Van der Bellen defeating Hofer by a razor-thin margin of 50.35% to 49.65%. However, due to voting irregularities, the Constitutional Court of Austria annulled these results and ordered a re-vote. Opinion polls predict a close race similar to the annulled results.
It should be noted that the role of the President of Austria is more ceremonial than administrative and is not at all akin to the role of the President of the United States. Rather, the Chancellor of Austria effectively serves as the country’s head of state as well as its head of government. Nevertheless, a victory for Hofer would most certainly embolden the Freedom Party ahead of Austria’s next legislative election to be held by 2018. The Freedom Party has been leading in most opinion polls conducted since the previous election in 2013. A first place finish would allow for the ascension of a Freedom Party Chancellor in party leader Heinz-Christian Strache.
These potential shocks to the political establishment would indeed be felt in neighboring countries.
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s approval ratings have fallen miserably and her party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), have endured a severe slump in opinion polls ahead of the country’s next federal election to be held in 2017. Merkel’s unpopular open-door policy toward Syrian refugees is widely considered to be the chief cause of her sinking numbers. In fact, after the CDU’s loss in Berlin’s recent state election, Merkel herself admitted that her migrant policy is to blame.
Those German voters unhappy with Merkel have largely come to support a different party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), a right-wing populist party similar in ideology to the Freedom Party of Austria and established in 2013. The AfD contested the previous federal election in 2013, but was shut out of parliament after just failing to reach the 5% threshold necessary to win any seats. Opinion polls for the next federal election to be held next year show an AfD quickly increasing in popularity at the expense of the CDU. While still ways away from achieving power, there is no question that the AfD is quickly becoming a political force with which to be reckoned in Germany.
In the Netherlands, the right-wing populist Party for Freedom has been fairly consistently leading in the polls ahead of the country’s next legislative election for about a year now. The party’s leader, the controversial Geert Wilders, could seem himself Prime Minister in less than a year’s time if these numbers hold.
In France, Marine Le Pen of the right-wing National Front has been fairly consistently leading in the polls ahead of the country’s presidential election next year. Since its inception in 1972, the National Front has never polled so strongly heading into a presidential election. And unlike Austria as stated before, the President of France is not merely a figurehead, instead having similar roles and duties to the President of the United States.
The list goes on as parties of the right, most with a markedly populist bent, all over Europe are finally being considered viable political forces in their respective countries. The popular discontent with the mainstream political parties has grown like never before, as many European citizens feel often ignored by their leaders who seem to govern from places insulated from the concerns of ordinary people.
Yet some express concern with this recent trend in European politics. These right-wing political parties and politicians have often been branded as authoritarian, neo-fascist, xenophobic, and as a threat to liberal democracy as a whole. Populists of the left, while also disgruntled with mainstream politics, have to sought to counter the growing influence of the right by presenting themselves as a better alternative. While figures like Jeremy Corbyn and Alexis Tsipras have shown promise as left-wing populist leaders, a Europe-wide leftist political revolution does not yet appear to be in the cards.
Perhaps the age of post-war consensus democracy, with power always held by either the center-right or center-left, is coming to an end. Old guard politicians are facing extinction as a new political order is beginning to emerge in Europe.