Considering Three Different Approaches to Populism in Europe

David Patterson

Marine Le Pen at a Front National rally. Photo: Blandine Le Cain.

Marine Le Pen at a Front National rally. Photo: Blandine Le Cain.

Populist radical right parties are nothing new in Europe. Since the Second World War, they have always emerged sporadically during times of economic hardship. These victories have always been short-lived as economic conditions improve and such populist anti-establishment parties fail to sustain their support.

Yet with an increasingly disillusioned electorate facing economic austerity and the effects of the ongoing refugee crisis, many have raised their concerns of whether we are faced with history repeating itself.

With immigration taking centre-stage as the dominant issue for radical right parties, it is time for more action by the mainstream parties.

There are three principal strategies that main parties tend to adopt in order to quell the growth of far-right parties: accommodationist, adversarial, or dismissive. Each tactic depends of the salience of immigration with the electorate which, for the time being, is generally quite high.

For instance, an accommodationist strategy is where a larger party adopts the policies of a smaller niche party. This can be seen in France’s most recent 2015 regional elections, where after a poor first round performance in the regional elections, Nicolas Sarkozy’s Republican Party adopted a hardline approach on immigration and national identity by attacking multiculturalist policy.

An adversarial stance is usually taken by the mainstream party who opposes the policies of the far-right: usually that of centre-left parties. This would be the logical choice for Francois Hollande’s Socialist Party, who wish to distance themselves for the rhetoric of Marine Le Pen’s nativist anti-immigration stance. Interestingly, this adversarial stance has been undertaken by Angela Merkel’s traditionally centre-right Christian Democrats. Yet if the results of recent German regional elections are anything to go by, it is clear that her choices have led to a haemorrhaging of support to far-right parties.

One explanation of this setback can be seen in her open-door refugee policy favoured by centre-left parties whilst continuing on the path of balanced budgets and other economically centre-right policies. Moral arguments of accepting refugees aside, it seems clear that the electoral success of centre-right parties is determined by their ability to accommodate some of the policies that ring a chord with an electorate disillusioned with the mainstream parties.

Alternatively, a dismissive strategy where a party simply does not change its position to either accommodate or oppose the threat of a far-right party has been shown to work in the most recent elections in Belgium. The largest centre-right party, the N-VA, adopted a dismissive strategy in 2014: with their immigration policy only changing from 7.9 to 7.6 from the 2010 to the 2014 elections (these positions are calculated using expert word scores found in content analysis: where 1.0 is far-left and 10.0 is far-right). The lack of any adoption of an accommodation strategy by any of the mainstream centre-right parties reflects the lack of success by the populist radical right parties. The far-right Vlaams Blok has seen a continued decline in electoral success in the two most recent elections (12 seats in 2010 and 3 in 2014). Similarly, since the anti-EU Parti Populaire’s first election in 2010 where it only gained one seat, it has failed to receive significant support despite holding onto this seat in 2014. This suggests that a dismissive strategy is largely successful in combatting any threat posed by either the Vlaams Blok or the Parti Popularie, as demonstrated by the electoral gains of all three centre-right parties who were able to form a minimal winning coalition with one another in 2014.

Ultimately the problem of either accommodating, dismissing or opposing far-right policy is subjective to circumstance and there is no ‘one size fits all.’ Yet I would suggest that whilst Belgium’s case gives some credence to the notion that major parties can simply ignore the sporadic growth of the far-right, it would seem that this approach places the ball firmly in their court. Therefore, the mainstream centre-right and centre-left parties must address the concerns of disillusioned voters by accommodating and opposing far-right rhetoric respective of each party. Through this they can hope to halt the rise of the far-right in Europe who continue to own the niche issues of immigration, opposition to the EU and a return to protectionist policy.

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