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The European Electorate Continues to Shift Right

Giovanni Capoccia

5 mins - 15 de Junio de 2023, 21:24

The year 2022 started badly for right-wing populists. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February forced many European radical right parties to significant rhetorical acrobatics to distance themselves from the Russian autocrat, whom they had traditionally supported. In April, Emmanuel Macron defeated Marine Le Pen in the French Presidential elections, with fewer percentage points difference than five years earlier but still quite clearly. In the fall of the same year, Bolsonaro’s defeat in Brazil, the continuing qualms of Boris Johnson and the disastrous Premiership of Liz Truss in the UK, and the disappointing showing of the Republicans in the US mid-term elections reinforced the impression that right-wing populism had peaked. 

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That initial optimism was soon shown to be premature. In Italy, a coalition led by Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia, a party with neo-fascist roots, won the parliamentary elections last September, as well as the administrative elections eight months later. Although Silvio Berlusconi’s recent passing opens a phase of uncertainty for the government coalition, Meloni’s party has constantly polled at around 30% since the elections of September (where it obtained 26%) and faces a divided opposition. 

In France, Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National has emerged strengthened from the clashes over the government’s pension reform during the first few months of this year. Thanks to RN’s strategy of uncompromising opposition to the reform accompanied by a constant effort to present itself publicly as respectful of institutions and procedures (unlike the unruly radical left), RN has risen in the polls to about 25% (from 18.7% in last year’s legislative elections) and whatever was left of the old cordon sanitaire against it has now dissipated. More than one poll has credited Marine Le Pen with the possibility to win the next presidential elections. 

In Germany, extreme right Alternative für Deutschland has doubled his support in the polls from 10% to 20% over the last 12 months. Several polls give AfD as the second-largest German party, above Scholz’s Social Democrats. As usual, AfD commands very high levels of support in the relatively poorer Länder of the former East Germany. More strikingly, the party now constitutes the second-largest force in many districts of the affluent southern regions of Bayern and Baden-Württemberg.

Vox’s 7.2% in the recent Spanish local elections, and its 15+% in the polls for the snap parliamentary elections called for next July –numbers that make Vox a desirable coalition partner for Partido Popular in five regions and potentially at the national level too– should therefore be seen in a context in which the populist radical right continues to increase its support across the whole continent. 

The rightward tendency of European electorates is unlikely to die out soon and does not bode well for liberal democracy. A recent comparative survey study of the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation in eight European countries shows that electors of the radical right and abstentionists –two groups in constant rise over the last two decades –would not shy away from voting for parties and leaders who may erode liberal democratic institutions, provided they enact their preferred policies in terms of identity politics and redistribution. This is the playbook that Viktor Orban has followed in Hungary since 2010 and the Law and Justice-led government in Poland since 2015, putting their countries on a path to autocratization and destabilizing the EU –all the while being congratulated on their electoral victories by the leaders of Western European radical right parties. 

Indeed, the rise of the radical right across Europe threatens to change the political equilibrium not only within individual countries, but also in the EU institutions, where the current dominance of pro-integration forces is increasingly threatened by nationalist forces. For months now, the project of a coalition in the European Parliament between the moderate-right European Popular Party (EPP) and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ERC), which includes Vox as well as Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS), and is led by Meloni herself, has gained ground in European and national circles. 

As the Italian government coalition is said to provide a “model” for this alliance, a coalition between the Partido Popular and Vox at the regional and most of all the national level would further strengthen the prospects of a formal collaboration between the radical and the moderate right at the European level. To be sure, an EPP/ERC coalition is unlikely to command the majority of the European Parliament without compromising with the pro-integration liberal party Renew Europe. Yet, an EU where radical right parties influence the appointment of top officers, and where important member states are run by coalitions that include the radical right, it would be remarkably different from the EU as we now know it. Infringement procedures against Hungary and Poland for violations of the rule of law would likely stop; discussions on fiscal integration, common defense, and the extension of qualified majority voting, for example, would be unlikely to progress; the power of the European Commission would be significantly reduced in favor of the European Council, where national governments would call the shots; and the enemies of European integration, from Putin to Erdogan, the US Republicans, the UK Tories (just to mention a few), would cheer. Whether this comes to pass is ultimately in the hands of European electors in June of next year, in an election that promises to be much more politicized than any earlier ones. But in today’s interconnected European politics, national (and even regional) developments may have continent-wide repercussions. 

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