An ever growing list of countries whose far-right forces have upended the political establishment and brought the ugliest trends of the 20th century back to power.
It is an extremely troubling and alarming trend, if it were true, which it isn’t. And contrary to the impression we’ve received from the media over the past four years, it is true that far-right forces have grown, but so have liberal and green movements during the same time period.
Indeed, we are far from the doomsday scenario of a neo-fascist Europe that any clear-thinking observers dread. Nevertheless, since the 2016 populist twins of Donald Trump and Brexit, the Euro-Atlantic political establishment has been obsessed with its impending ruin. But the existence of an unstoppable right-wing juggernaut has little empirical proof in which to believe.
For starters, consider the Netherlands. In early 2017. Geert Wilders of the Party for Freedom (PVV), one of Europe’s most infamous anti-immigrant, right-wing political leaders, was expected to trounce the competition and see his electoral support skyrocket from the 10.1% his party received in the 2012 election. Early polls showed the PVV’s numbers as high as 30% in the months prior to the March 2017 election, but when the votes were counted the PVV ended up with a mere 13.1% of the vote. That was far less than the centre-right/liberal VVD, the party of Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who earned 21.3%.
For some perspective, the other big winner in the 2017 Dutch election was the liberal D66 party, which saw its support rise from 8% to 12%. Their leadership team looks like a rock cover band, and yet they nearly matched Wilders’ score.
In the French presidential election of 2017, which happened a month later after the Dutch vote, Emmanuel Macron led in the first round with 24%, followed by a tight 3-way battle to determine who would face him in the runoff. Far-right leader Marine Le Pen of the National Front (FN) edged out the centre-right and far-left candidates by just over a point, carrying 21.3% of the vote. In the second round, Le Pen did earn a solid one-third of the vote, but Macron won handily.
Granted, she doubled the score of her father, who faced Jacques Chirac in the presidential runoff some 15 years earlier, but the fact that the elder Le Pen could earn 17% in the first round in 2002, which his daughter increased by only 4 points over 15 years, doesn’t exactly suggest a right-wing tidal wave that has been inspired by Trump or Brexit.
In Germany, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) nearly matched the performance of the PVV in 2017 with 12.6%, a big increase from the 4.7% they received in 2013. Given Germany’s history, a far-right party entering the Bundestag naturally inspires worry. But for some perspective, the other big winner of the 2017 election was the liberal Free Democrats Party (FDP), which came back to the Bundestag with 10.6% of the vote after being embarrassingly eliminated from the national political scene in 2013.
The far-right Sweden Democrats did very well in 2018, but so did new centrist and leftist parties. The historic centre-right and centre-left parties were the big losers, just like in the EU parliamentary elections of last year, which showed voter dissatisfaction with the establishment and a growth of the liberal and green groups.
For the first time, the two biggest political groups needed the liberal faction to reach a parliamentary majority. In 2019, the Greens also surged in Austria to the detriment of the far-right.
Election results elsewhere in Europe continue to tell the same story and directly address what is at stake, namely that populist leaders do not enjoy electoral support simply because the voters themselves are inherently racist or xenophobic. The far right only thrives when its leaders do a better job of making themselves relevant to frustrated voters than other, less extreme parties.
It is therefore incumbent upon those who don’t want their countries veering too far to the right to campaign accordingly. It takes hard work to win back the hearts and minds of these disappointed voters by convincing them that a more inclusive approach will trump a xenophobic one.
Emerging new parties and movements, be they liberal, conservative, green, libertarian, or egalitarian, have as much chance to determine the future of Europe as the far right does. If they project that with confidence and intelligent campaigns, the voters will oblige.