Friday, December 9, 2022
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Belén Fernández-Garcia

​Radical right-wing populism in Europe, a threat to democracy?

Researcher and professor (FPU) in the Political Science Department of the University of Granada

In 2004, the political scientist Cas Mudde defined populism as the spirit of the time in Europe (The Populist Zeitgeist). A spirit that is additionally accompanied by strong nationalist, xenophobic and authoritarian sentiments. Focusing on Western Europe, the last elections have in effect confirmed that radical right-wing populism is consolidating itself, not only as a parliamentary force, but also as a real option of government. In October 2017, Austrian legislative elections put an end to the grand coalition formed by conservatives and social democrats, giving way to a coalition government between the conservatives and the Radical Right, the Freedom Party (FPÖ).

Marine le pen

In the presidential elections of the previous year, the FPÖ candidate Norbert Hofer was came a few tenths of a percentage point of being elected President of the Republic. In September 2017, the populist spirit also appeared in Germany: Alternative for Germany (AfD) managed to enter the federal legislature with 94 seats and 12.6% of the votes. In Norway, the September elections gave rise to a republication right-wing coalition that began in 2013 and which includes as a government member the radical right, the Progress Party (FrP).

In May, Marine Le Pen passed into the second round of the presidential elections in France, being the second most voted candidate. In the June legislative elections, the National Front dropped some tenths of a percentage point with respect to the previous ones in 2012, but it managed to increase its parliamentary representation from two to eight seats. The June elections in the United Kingdom showed that the majority electoral system continues to act as an effective barrier against the Radical Right, keeping the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) out of Parliament (with the exception of the seat it won in 2015). However, institutional barriers have not prevented the UKIP from achieving the purpose that gave rise to its formation: the country's exit from the European Union.


In March, the Freedom Party (PVV) consolidated itself as the second parliamentary force in the highly-fragmented Parliament of the Netherlands. In Switzerland, the federal elections of 2015 situated the Swiss People's Party (SVP) as the first parliamentary force, a position it has held since 2003 and which ensures two seats in the country's collegiate executive.

In Finland, the True Finns (PS) joined the executive after the 2015 elections, occupying such significant positions as Deputy Prime Minister, Foreign Affairs, Defence, Justice and Employment, Social Affairs and Health.

In Denmark, the Danish People's Party (DF) is the current second parliamentary force and leading party of the right-wing bloc in votes, acting as a parliamentary support for conservative governments. Sweden, meanwhile, ceased to be the Scandinavian exception in 2010 when the Swedish Democrats (SD) managed to enter Parliament with 20 seats, rising to 49 in 2014. Currently, the SD is the third parliamentary force in the country, but exclusion barrier that has extended the rest of the parties keeps them out of any government coalition. In Belgium, the same "exclusion barrier" practice has kept the Flemish interest (VB) away from the executive for years, which, together with the emergence of a Flemish nationalist force (NVA), has encouraged its electoral decline (although polls predict a strong recovery for it in the next elections).

Finally, and despite the unstable evolution of the Northern League (LN), the party has managed to maintain considerable parliamentary representation since its founding in the early 90s. The League has been a member of the Berlusconi governments and everything points to the coalition of the Right being reinstated in the next elections. As we can see, the Radical Right has consolidated itself in most Western European countries, with the exception of Spain, Portugal and Ireland where the great recession has given impetus to left-wing populism. 

In Greece, populism has also appeared on the Left, given that, in the case of Golden Dawn, they would be a better fit as the old Far Right.

To understand why radical right-wing populism has consolidated itself as an increasingly viable alternative government in European party systems, it is worth mentioning, first of all, the effort to adapt these political formations to contemporary democracies. In this way, and before the development of democracies in the continent after The Second World War, the anti-democratic and Far-Right forces linked to fascism and Nazism were totally delegitimized as regards public opinion and, consequently were without the real possibility to access political power. Since then, the Radical Right's new formations have made an effort to present a more respectable profile, stripping themselves of any extremist and anti-democratic features that would identify them as a threat to democracy (which in some countries might even be illegal).


Specifically, the radical right-wing formations have tried to leave behind the postulates of biologicist racism (which affirms the superiority of some races over others) and the frontal opposition to democracy, evolving into a cultural or differentialist racism (which affirms the irreducibility of cultural differences) and a plebiscitary policy. In this way, the success of the contemporary Radical Right resides in the adoption of a more "friendly" face that combines populism, nativism (a mixture of nationalism and xenophobia) and a certain authoritarianism vis-à-vis the old openly anti-democratic Far Right, racist and linked to fascist and Nazi organisations.

Swedish Democrats serve as a recent example of a formation that has tried to free itself from the stigma of extremist inclination to move towards a populist and nativist one, following the classic example of the National Front. 

The Swedish formation, founded in 1988, has its roots in Swedish fascism, with something of an overlap between the party and some Nazi and fascist groups. Thus, and until 2010, this extremist stigma had prevented them from surpassing the 4% electoral barrier, making Sweden the Scandinavian exception. This is why the party has tried to find a more respectable profile gradually: in 1996, the management prohibited the use of military uniforms by its members; in 1999, they explicitly condemned Nazism after the murder of some police officers and a trade unionist at the hands of criminals linked to Nazi movements; in 2003, they pronounced that the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights would be a cornerstone in their policies; and in 2005, they changed the party logo, going from a burning torch to a nice blue daisy. Since then, they have enjoyed an increasing electoral trend, to become the third parliamentary force in the country.

Secondly, the success of these formations is also due to the structural changes that western societies have undergone in the previous decades and that have generated a demand in the electorate favourable to populist ideas in general, and in particular, to the populist ideas of the Radical Right. On one hand, the post-industrialization process has brought about great changes in the electorate's attitudes, such as the decline of the class vote and party identification that has translated into greater volatility, greater distrust towards the traditional parties and a more critical attitude towards them.

On the other hand, the processes linked to globalisation, and in our case, European integration, have opened a new fracture in the electorate that has greatly favoured the Radical Right populisms. This fracture of demarcation vs. integration (in terms of Kriesi) or of protectionism vs. cosmopolitanism, has given strength to the cultural dimension of politics, putting at the centre of the debate questions such as the protection of the national culture and the defence of the nation against elements considered threatening, such as immigration and multiculturalism. However, we could say that these structural changes are shared by western democracies, which a priori would not explain the electoral differences between countries.


This is where the national characteristics that make up different structures of political opportunities for the new political forces come into play. Institutional aspects such as the proportionality of electoral systems or the possibility of participation through mechanisms of direct democracy, on one hand; and aspects of party competition, such as the convergence in the ideological centre of the majority parties or the formation of large coalitions, on the other; they form more favourable structures for this type of formations. 

Periods of crisis, whether economic, national security, or migratory (to cite only a few), have proven to be fertile ground for populist discourses.

Finally, the question in a million we have to ask ourselves: do these formations that have adopted nice margaritas as a logo pose a real threat to democracy? Yes and no. Let's start with the no. A priori, they do not constitute a threat to democracy if we reduce it to a simple decision-making mechanism by the majority. On the contrary, if we understand it as a more complex regime that combines majority government with mechanisms of power limitation and the protection of the rights and freedoms of individuals and minorities -democracy in its liberal and constitutional interpretation-, without a doubt radical Right populisms signify a threat to it.

To understand in what sense they pose a threat, we need to mention at least briefly the ideological aspects of these formations. Accordingly, we could summarize the central ideology in three Radical Right populist elements: nativism (a combination of nationalism and xenophobia), authoritarianism (maximum respect for the authorities and prioritising security over freedom) and populism (elitism and radicalization of popular sovereignty). The first two elements are the ones that would differentiate the Radical Right (exclusionary ) populisms from the left (inclusionary) populisms.


Starting with their own home-grown elements, nativism combined with authoritarianism is a frontal challenge to the liberal character of European democracies, particularly as regards the protection minorities' rights (they would place the welfare of the nation above those of minority groups) and of individuals (they would place national security before certain freedoms and individual rights). The populist element, which in its most extreme forms defends the supremacy of popular power over even the law and constitutional frameworks, is a frontal challenge to the idea of limiting power, a limitation that inspired the design of our democracies. In other words, these formations would combine these three elements to legitimize democratically ("if the majority wants it..".) their exclusive and authoritarian positions.

An example of how a radical right-wing populist party operates in practice would be the Swiss People's Party (SVP). In its electoral programmes it affirms openly that the will of the Swiss people expressed by any mechanism of direct democracy cannot be limited or modified by the law or by the Constitution. This argument allows them to attack fiercely -and on the people's behalf- whatever judges, parties or any other institution, which tries to limit or not implement the measures approved by referendum (such as, for example, the prohibition of minarets or the establishment of quotas of immigrants that contravene bilateral agreements with the European Union).

As such, they defend a democratic model that understands the principle of majority in its most extreme form, one that puts security before freedom, and that has to be constituted exclusively by the elements (people and ideas) native to the nation.



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