The Wilson Quarterly

The rise of radical right-wing parties has been a particular concern for Europe over the last decade. Some commentators, perhaps overly pessimistic, are comparing the current political situation to that of Europe in the 1930s. The 2014 European parliamentary elections did indeed see a collection of ultra-conservative parties (which, ironically, would like to see the European Union dismantled) gain significant ground, with the most discussed parties being Marine Le Pen’s French Front National (FN), Geert Wilder’s Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV), and Nigel Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).

How can we explain the success in some countries and failure in others of radical right wing parties in Europe over the last twenty years? In a new article in Comparative Political Studies, Arizona State University Professor Lenka Bustikova proposes a unique theory that she believes may explain how radical right-wing parties — parties that are extremely nationalistic and socially conservative — gain and lose power, across very different countries and contexts. She argues that radical right parties are aggrieved by the political gains achieved by minority segments of their populations and mobilize to try to reverse those gains.

This explanation contrasts sharply with conventional academic explanations that give primacy to concerns about the stability of institutions and a loss of economic status for dominant groups. Bustikova explains, “Although adverse economic conditions can certainly create grievances that may later facilitate the rise of radical parties and contribute to their survival, grievances are too static to explain cross-national volatility over time.” Instead, she links the fortunes of radical right parties to the successes and failures of “ethnic and socially liberal parties on the left,” arguing that when these parties advance in social and political status, it polarizes the overall party system. This may seem like a subtle distinction, but it has important implications for the way radical right-wing parties are studied, perceived, and campaigned against.

On the opposite end of the political spectrum is what Bustikova terms “ethno-liberal” parties, which are very socially liberal and focus on advocating for ethnic minorities. She argues that “the presence and actions of a bilateral opposite polarizes the party system and increases issue salience.” Social issues and rigid ideologies tend to take center stage in such antithetical electoral contests. While parties can usually afford to take a more centrist approach to economic issues, “non-economic issues become salient when parties polarize; that is when politically organized minorities ascend to power and governments pursue pro-minority policies.”

By this definition, Europe’s right-wing parties are inherently reactionary, and form or mobilize to try to reverse gains already made by groups they oppose. Conversely, when there is a period of time in which the status quo is maintained and there are no major concessions to minority groups, radical right-wing parties tend to lose momentum.

In her examination of the fates of reactionaries in elections throughout European post-communist countries between 1990-2012, Bustikova found that out of 93 elections studied, radical right-wing parties won 43 times, with their electoral successes preceded mainstream/ethno-liberal governments in 37 of these cases. The political success of ethno-liberal parties often hinges on their involvement in coalitions with mainstream parties. Bustikova found that the “simple formation of a governing coalition between a mainstream party and an accommodation-seeking party increases the probability of the radical right’s success in the subsequent electoral cycle.” She also discovered that the more extreme the concessions, the more likely it is that the radical right-wing party will succeed in any given country.

One illustrative example is the violent ethnic conflicts that took place in Macedonia in 2002. Once the government had put a stop to outbreaks of violence, it expanded the rights of Albanians living in Macedonia, and made Albanian one of the country’s national languages. Reactionary right-wing parties mobilized and made significant gains in the following election cycle. Since then, they have recruited members based on rallying against “minorities with privileges.”

So how should Europe’s mainstream political groups combat the rise of the radical right? They can hardly abandon coalitions with ethnic minority political organizations, as a matter of both pragmatism and belief. There are dangers to almost any approach a mainstream party might take. For example, a mainstream party could itself veer slightly further right on the political spectrum to try to undercut the voter base of a radical right party. However, the results of such a tactic could differ dramatically from country to country. It has the potential to shut radical right parties out of politics completely, but it could also “make them martyrs of nationalist causes,” warns Bustikova.

Although this theory goes a long way in explaining the fortunes of radical right-wing political parties — possibly universally — it ultimately cannot provide a framework for combatting them. That is left to individual countries to decide, and will certainly be a domestic and international policy challenge in the years ahead in an increasingly globalized world.

On a more promising note for centrists and progressives, EU membership appears to affect the political trajectory of radical right parties. “EU membership mediates the effect of economic volatility on radical right voting,” writes Bustikova, “which suggests that the promise of EU membership has had a calming effect on the accession countries.”

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The Source: “Revenge of the Radical Right” by Lenka Bustikova, Comparative Political Studies, February 2014.

Photo courtesy of Jérémy Jännick  

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