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Europe / Germany

The Collapse of European Far-Right Parties?

On September 24th, the 2017 German federal election took place as the people of Germany voted for their 19th Bundestag, the lower house of the German parliament, electing a Chancellor in the process. In the aftermath, Angela Merkel, after a hard-fought campaign, secured her fourth term as Chancellor. Nevertheless, her victory was bittersweet, overshadowed by the rise of Alternative für Deutschland, or AfD. The Eurosceptic, anti-immigration, far-right populist group obtained ninety-four seats and 12.6% of the total vote, becoming Germany’s third largest political party.

The results triggered consternation. For the first time since World War II, a far-right party has entered the German parliament. Never before have the two traditional parties, the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and center-left Social Democratic Party (SDP), lost so many seats. While the SDP has entered opposition, the CDU is struggling to keep an alliance intact with its more right-leaning Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). This has been the narrative propagated by global media, which is reminiscent of previous coverage of elections across Europe, from Britain to France to the Netherlands. It is worth noting, however, that the reporting ends there, and that these far-right parties have received little to no coverage post-election.

Germany: Alternative für Deutschland (AfD)

The AfD was founded in 2013 as a center-right party, advocating for a direct democracy while opposing the Eurozone and its bailouts. Over time, however, with leadership splits and the refugee crisis in Europe, the party was radicalized and became known for its anti-Islam, anti-immigration, ultra-nationalist ideology. AfD leaders have denounced Angela Merkel’s refugee policy, calling it an “Islamification of Germany,” and promised a “negative immigration rate” for the country. The party frequently repudiates national shame towards Nazism, instead promoting pride in “the German legacy.”

The AfD achieved unprecedented success in the last election. This victory, however, seems to mark the end of the party’s honeymoon period. Hours after the election, party co-chair Frauke Petry stepped down. This was followed shortly thereafter by the resignation of a newly-elected MP, as well as numerous state-level leaders. Since her departure, Petry has founded a new Blue Party, which is expected to chip away support from the AfD.

United Kingdom: the UK Independence Party (UKIP)

UKIP gained international attention for becoming the third most popular national party in the 2015 UK election, and for triggering the referendum that led to Britain’s future exit from the European Union, or Brexit. Since then, the party has faced near collapse, facing multiple resignations and leadership changes. After the referendum, the party’s leader, Nigel Farage, jumped ship, citing the fulfillment of his political ambitions with Brexit. In March of 2017, UKIP’s only Member of Parliament, Douglas Carswell, left the party to stand as an independent. With Brexit looming in the future, UKIP support has dwindled as previous supporters now look for a better voice to lead the negotiations with the EU. UKIP lost all but one seat in the 2017 local elections and received a mere 1.8% of the vote at the 2017 general election. Following the disastrous defeat, party leader Paul Nuttall resigned, and UKIP’s main donor, Aaron Banks, deemed it “finished as an electoral force.”

France: Front National (FN)

One of the oldest and most notorious far-right parties in Europe, Front National and its leader Marine Le Pen achieved historic results in the first round of the 2017 presidential election, only to be historically defeated in the second. After gaining merely eight parliamentary seats, the party witnessed a significant leadership split. Florian Philippot, Le Pen’s closest aide for years, resigned, citing irreconcilable differences with his old boss. Philippot, often credited for having “normalized” the FN, is expected to take away his more “liberal” allies within the party, and his departure may mark the reemergence of the FN’s radical elements.

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Many far-right parties across Europe have struggled to remain relevant. They have either lost popular support, suffered major splits, or became politically isolated. The trend of falling into obscurity after a meteoric rise is expected to continue for far-right parties in other European nations for the following reasons:

1. European far-right parties don’t have a clear or logical platform.

Most European far-right parties are revisionist by nature, seeking to change their nation’s current established order. Thus, they prey on times of socio-political instability to advance their agenda, often focusing on contemporary and controversial issues to garner public attention and support. In the early 2000s, these issues were the Middle Eastern-African refugee crises and the economic woes of the Eurozone.

While this strategy may temporarily work, in the long run it exposes each party’s lack of a cohesive ideology. Additionally, because of the radical nature of their campaigns, far-right parties have been caught lying on numerous occasions. During its Brexit campaign, UKIP proclaimed that the UK loses £350 million a week to the EU. That money, they argued, would be better spent on the National Health Service after UK departure from the EU. Mere hours after the referendum, however, Nigel Farage backtracked on the slogan, deeming it “untrue” and “a mistake.”

2. European far-right parties suffer from internal fractures.

Being revisionist and protest-oriented, European far-right parties are often a motley of various ideals and elements. Without a clear and unified platform, they lack a strong and solid support base, and are comprised of loose alliances between different interest groups. Over time, disagreements arise, resulting in the splintering of the parties’ leadership. Throughout its campaign, Front National suffered from disagreements between Philippot’s more moderate wing and supporters of former leader Jean-Marie Le Pen’s extremist ideals, which partially led to the former’s departure. In Germany, the feud within the AfD between Frauke Petry and her more radical colleagues also resulted in her resignation.

3. European far-right parties are shunned by the political establishment.

The system of government in most European nations is created to promote bipartisanship. The traditionally dominant parties resort to forming coalition governments to gain a majority vote in parliament. This is seen in the Netherlands’ new four-party government, and German’s expected “Jamaica alliance.” Thus, with the rise of the populist movement, these parties seek to isolate the radical voice in order to shut far-right parties out of the decision-making process. The recent winners of the French, Dutch and German elections, and even their main opposition parties, have publicly refused to cooperate with the far-right representatives in the government.

4. European traditional parties will re-attract their voters.

With their fear-mongering language and propaganda, far-right parties have garnered a significant number of new, often temporary, voters. Over time, these voters will undoubtedly swing back into supporting more moderate-leaning parties. There are two explanations for this: either voters will realize the weak platform of the far-right parties or, more importantly, traditional parties will accommodate the new voting trend. These parties will seek to isolate the far-right party in politics and even adopt certain elements propagated by the far-right into their platform. In the UK’s 2017 elections, most 2015 UKIP voters switched their vote to the conservative party. The Tories, a traditionally moderate-conservative group, chose to adopt aspects of their challenger’s policies, such as Brexit and immigration reform, to appease lost voters. After the German election, Angela Merkel and the CDU agreed to adopt a 200,000 per year cap on refugees, a move made both to maintain the CDU/CSU bloc and to attract support from AfD voters.

There are some, however, that would argue that there are certain parties that are able to counter the previously mentioned arguments. This is most applicable to the recent Austrian election on October 15, where the winning conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) is expected to form a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). Yet the FPÖ is an exception from other European far-right parties. Founded in 1956, it belongs to the Austrian political establishment. There was no meteoric rise for the party, as it has been part of coalition governments several times in the past, most notably in 1999 after it won 26.9% of votes. Tied down by Austria’s democratic institutions, FPÖ was forced to make compromises within the government, which caused support to dwindle down to 10.0% in the 2002 election. It remains in speculation how FPÖ will handle their return to power, especially as all other Austrian parties have taken a tough stance on refugee policy as a measure to invalidate the party’s main platform.

What will happen to Germany?

Talks of a new “Jamaica coalition,” an alliance between the CDU, the classical liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), and the Green Party, has been circulating since after the election. All parties have announced their willingness to meet, and three-way talks officially began on October 20. Significant differences will plague negotiation, especially among the FDP and the Green Party, long rivals on fundamental issues such as immigration, the economy, and environmental policy. Nevertheless, optimism remains high for a compromise, boosted by Merkel’s recent success in maintaining the CDU/CSU bloc, as well as the Netherlands’ creation of a four-party government. As for the AfD, despite being the third largest party, it will soon become the odd one out in the Bundestag. The party remains mere dissenters, alienated by the others and unable to push forth any legislation.

Far-right parties have significantly impacted the European political landscape. Their rapid rise overrode institutional safeguards, shocked political pundits, and reflected Europeans’ desire for change amidst crises. Whether these parties will adjust their policies and platform and try to fit into the new system remains in the realm of speculation. As it stands now, far-right parties in Europe will have to combat possible animosity from the traditional parties, splintering within their ranks, and possible alienation of their voters.