January 16, 2018
Friday, May 12, 2017

Mainstream conservatives win in Europe thanks to far-right rise

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May smiles at a general election campaign event this week.
Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May smiles at a general election campaign event this week.
Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May smiles at a general election campaign event this week.
By Rick Noack
The Washington Post

Social democrats have been weakened by recent elections on the continent

LONDON — The defeat of French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has mainly been framed one of two ways: either as a win for liberal Europe over populism or as a worrying sign that support for Europe’s far right is growing. But neither of the two narratives captures the full story. The rise of far-right European parties may not necessarily lead to electoral victories, but the growing support for populist politicians is shaping the continent’s politics in different ways. So far, the successes of far-right movements have mainly benefitted mainstream conservative parties by weakening the social democrats who traditionally used to be their main contenders in Europe.

“For Europe’s social democrats, the rise of the far-right has been a catastrophe because both the far-right and the left appeal to similar groups of voters,” said Timo Lochocki, a political researcher with the German Marshall Fund, a US thinktank.

Across Europe, in countries such as Denmark, Austria or Britain, mainstream conservative parties have adapted to the rise of the far-right by co-opting some of their largest issues, particularly in regard to immigration. So far, that strategy has proven mostly successful.

Under Prime Minister Theresa May, Britain’s Conservative Party has become the leading proponent of Brexit, once the central issue of the right-wing populist UK Independence Party (UKIP). Subsequently, during regional elections this week, the Conservatives celebrated massive gains while UKIP lost nearly all its seats and the social-democratic Labour Party suffered major losses.

Unwilling to either shift toward more liberal positions or further to the right, the Labour Party has rapidly lost ground. One year ago, it polled neck-and-neck with the Conservative Party. Today, May’s government has almost twice as much support as Labour does.

“Many mainstream leftist parties are divided on the issue of immigration and have avoided discussing it,” said Tarik Abou-Chadi, a researcher at Humboldt University in Berlin. “The muted reaction from social democrats has limited their appeal to voters, many of whom have chosen to support either right-wing populist parties or simply switched to other, more outspoken parties on the left.”

The declining support has put social democrats in a tough position. If they embrace anti-immigration or protectionist positions to win back the predominantly working-class voters who have defected to the right, they will likely lose their remaining young and urban liberal supporters. But other liberal and left-wing parties, such as the Liberal Democrats in Britain or the Free Democrats in Germany, are already attracting a growing number of former social-democratic voters who do not believe they are represented there any longer. Denmark has undergone a similar transition since 2015, when their Social Democrats were ousted by a centre-right coalition headed by the mainstream Venstre party. After moving to the right ahead of the elections, Venstre soon made international headlines when its coalition government — which included the right-wing populist Danish People’s Party — passed a controversial law allowing authorities to seize valuables from refugees.

But political scientists caution that in other nations, what is perceived as a mainstream party turning to the right might mainly be for show. In Germany, for instance, Chancellor Angela Merkel adapted her rhetoric on immigration after the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party gained support in local elections over the past two years.

Her sceptical remarks, however, have not necessarily translated into harsher legislation. German immigration laws are still among the continent’s most liberal, and yet Merkel’s approval ratings are on the rise again.

So, why has Germany not gone down the path of Denmark or Britain? Political scientists say Merkel simply was not forced to embrace more radical positions, thanks both to scepticism of far-right parties and the weakness of Germany’s Social Democrats.

“Given her significant national lead over the Social Democrats, Merkel simply does not have to try to appeal to AfD voters on the right-wing side of the political spectrum to gain points in the polls,” Lochocki said.

That distinguishes the German conservatives from their counterparts in Britain, Denmark or Austria, who were head-to-head with centre-left parties in the polls when they began to shift to the right.

France has narrowly avoided falling into the same pattern. Only months ago, a victory of one of the mainstream conservative party candidates appeared inevitable. In François Fillon, the party had found a hard-line candidate willing to adopt some of the far-right’s positions. Like Le Pen, Fillon railed against the supposed decline of traditional French culture and was skeptical of the European Union. But his candidacy fell apart thanks to a corruption scandal, giving centrist Emmanuel Macron an opening.

What cost Fillon the presidency also likely prevented France from following Britain’s and Denmark’s turn to the right — at least for now.



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