Much has been written on the reasons for the rise and fall or right-wing populist parties in Western Europe, as the French Front National (FN) or the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). However, most of these commentaries are not based on empirical research. In taking the German case and the currently rising right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) as example, the presented overview highlights the seven factors which comparative research defines as decisive for the electoral fortunes of right-wing populist parties in Western Europe.
All right wing populist parties in Western Europe differentiate themselves from other parties along clear programmatic lines. The international research sector have developed four central program points of right wing populist parties, that are only to be found in this distinct combination in parties from this party family: they are the conception of themselves as a democratic ‘protest party’, a rather weak focus on economic and welfare policy, and instead a strong emphasis on conservative social policy (with particularly conservative positions in relation to integration and migration policy), along with a clear rejection of the alignment with the West, the USA and the European integrationist project. The recently forming Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has this exact profile, which confirms their position as an integral part of the right-wing populist party family in Europe.
There are also programmatic overlaps with other parties, which explain why it is currently more difficult for political discourse to accurately define parties such as the AfD. Respectively, this also explains why it is occasionally simple for representatives of right-wing populist movements to embellish themselves with other notions – often in an attempt to draw connections to conservative and liberal parties, amongst other movements. In fact, right-wing populists share only their conservative position on social politics with conservative parties (for example, the German CDU/CSU), including their policies on issues such as integration and migration. With liberal parties (for example, the German FDP) no thematic crossover points are present. It gives many more programmatic similarities with extreme-right parties, such as the NPD in the German case: in the party families which right-wing populist and extreme-right parties belong to, one finds an equally limited focus on economic questions and a strong opposition to transatlantic partnerships with the USA and European integration. However, the principal difference between the AfD and the NPD (to stick with the German example) is that the AfD understands itself to be a protest party on the democratic spectrum, with concerns that will be well cared for by the parliamentary system. What they reject however, are the elites of the other parties, but they do not reject the democratic system per se. On the other hand, extreme-right parties of the caliber of the NPD want to abolish the democratic system as a whole, and wish to replace it with an authoritarian and totalitarian form of government. It is therefore to be noted that right-wing populist parties in Western Europe represent a clearly definable and distinguishable party family, to which the AfD also belongs.
The unifying substantive feature of right-wing populists is nostalgic nationalism
In keeping with the demarcation between extreme-right parties and right-wing populist parties is the fact that the electoral platforms of right-wing populists are not openly racist, and instead work hard to dress up nationalistic positions as though they are conservative, to make them seem more acceptable. The extreme-right NPD brandish placards stating ‘Muslims out’, while Marine Le Pen’s markedly right-wing populist Front National concern themselves with ‘protecting’ the separation between church and state (Laïcité), which they see as threatened by the immigration of Muslim citizens. At first glance, right-wing populist rhetoric is seemingly less aggressive, as they seldom emphasize who does not belong to the national community, and instead underline what constitutes their supposed core – and in this way operate a similar mechanism of exclusion.
The main programmatic of such parties consists ergo of a ‘nationalism light’, which defines itself primarily against alleged intruders from the outside. In this way it is possible to discursively construct a supposedly protected national community, which many Europeans crave in a hyper-complex and globalized world.
Local ties and nostalgia are stressed through a rejection of all symbols that are associated with the loss of “the good old days”: changing values, globalization (symbolized by the EU) and, above all, immigration, that has changed the social fabric of European societies. All three stand for the social change of the last 30 years, from which the right-wing populist parties offer a supposed way out: a nationalistic nostalgia that positions itself as aggressively opposed to these symbols of social change.
Right-wing populist rhetoric understands itself decidedly as an answer and reaction to a media-savvy, left-liberal discourse, which, amongst other things, is based on demands for individualism, tolerance, multiculturalism and internationalization. These will be understood by substantial parts of the electorate as elements of unsettling sociopolitical change, which are perceived as ‘uncontrollable’. Right-wing populists use this uneasiness to their advantage, in that they exploit immigration, multiculturalism and the EU’s influence as scapegoats for the significant individual uncertainty of many Europeans. Following this logic, they promise citizens a return to a supposedly culturally homogenous nation that offers the support and direction they had lost. The nation and, amongst others, the socially constructed cultural core must therefore “defend” themselves against any influence “from outside”.
Upholding a belief in local ties and rejecting social change may at first appear to be classical conservative positions, which would be well cared for by established, moderate Christian Democrats or Conservatives. It is therefore not surprising that party researchers like the Swedish professor Jens Rydgren, describe voters for right-wing populist parties as part of a “really classic conservative electorate“.
Those that vote for right-wing populist parties come from the middle of society
Given the assertions of party researcher Professor Jens Rydgren, it is not surprising that voters for right-wing populist parties by no means originate from lower income or less educated classes of society. On the contrary, the voter profile for right-wing populist parties is only marginally different from those of the other parties: men with lower levels of educational attainment are slightly overrepresented, yet their appeal reaches deep into all voter demographics, largely independent of income, educational level or age. The early electoral analysis from the state elections in East Germany, in which the AfD experienced significant growth, fits with the Europe wide electoral research: according to the voter profile, the AfD is on its way to becoming Germany’s Third People’s Party.
Right-wing populists are (at least) the third strongest political power in Europe
This status, as the third people’s party, has already been achieved by right-wing populist parties in most European states: recent opinion polls persuasively attest to how seriously right-wing populist parties should be taken. A comparison of numbers concerning Western European shows that right-wing populists could receive anywhere between 20% and 30% of votes. In some countries (for example, Switzerland) they are the strongest power, and in many other countries that compete on the same level as social democrats and conservatives (for example in Denmark, France, Italy, Netherlands and Austria).
Right-wing populists make it into Parliament in good economic good times
In blatant contradiction to an oft repeated argument, scientific studies prove unanimously that right-wing populist parties can rely on substantial electoral success in good economic times. This is for two main reasons: on the one hand, it is because in economically good times established conservative parties are inclined to lean towards liberal social policies, which opens up a niche for right-wing populist parties, and secondly, the voters themselves give priority to socio-political topics (such as migration and integration) in economically good times.
This explains why right-wing populists in the economically prosperous alpine republics, Scandinavia and the Netherlands persistently achieve great electoral successes. Even though the current economic hardships in Italy and France, which is occurring simultaneously with the growth of right-wing populists parties in these countries, appears to challenge this theory, ultimately they in fact confirm it, since the first clear electoral successes of the Front National and the Lega Nord occurred around 1990, in the heyday of the Italian and French economies. The fact that right-wing populists have had no chance in countries that were hit hard by the economic crisis, such as Spain, Portugal and Ireland, is a further indication of the verity of the theory. It is therefore no surprise that Germany, that from 1992 until the end of the 2000s was battling enormous economic problems, is only now, after a long phase of relative economic prosperity, confronted with the ascent of a right-wing populist party. Voters search for parties with strongly developed social policy profiles in bad economic times. That simply cannot be provided by right-wing populist parties like the AfD.
The Establishment of a right-wing populist party leads to a rightward shift
The entry into Parliament of right-wing populist parties triggers a complex set of political dynamics, which due to space constrains can only be briefly explored. In summary, it must be noted that electoral successes of right-wing populists have three clear consequences: firstly, a distinct intensification of integration, asylum, migration legislation, a clear subsidence of political demands for more European integration, and thirdly a significant strengthening of the strategic options of the conservative bourgeois parties. The first and second consequences take place less due to direct governmental participation by right-wing populist parties, but due to the fact that almost all the moderate factions incorporate key elements of right-wing populist migration and European policy in their manifestos in order to avoid losing even more voters. Thus, for example, liberalization of asylum and migration legislation, against an established right-wing populist party is almost impossible. Similarly, an aggressively pro-European party discourse is significantly complicated by the presence of right-wing populist parties. The best examples of this re-nationalization of migration and European policy are Italy, France, the Netherlands and Switzerland – countries that are characterized by numerous right-wing populist electoral successes.
The enormous strengthening of the bourgeois parties is based, however, on two political processes: firstly, the fact that social democratic parties lose almost their whole conservative electorate to right-wing populists after a few years; secondly, that only mid-right parties are capable of forming coalitions with right-wing populist parties. Both processes weaken the strength of the social democrats enormously. A social democrat led government is almost impossible when faced with an established right-wing populist party. The structural weaknesses of social democratic parties in Western Europe since the end of the 1990s provides useful evidence, along with the recent events in Sweden, which clearly show that the biggest winner of the rise of right-wing populists is the bourgeois camp.
The further advancement of the AfD is almost entirely dependent on the SPD and the CDU/CSU
The reasons for the strengthening, as well as the failure, of right-wing populist parties is very closely linked to the behavior of the established parties. The media access and the organizational structure of the right-wing parties do play a roll, however the latest studies by Antonis Ellinas at Princeton university suggest that the first successes of right-wing populist parties are almost only dependent on the behavior of established political powers. A large research project at the University of Zürich, under the leadership of Hans-Peter Kriesi, further shows that the ability to establish itself after the first electoral successes in the party system, is also strongly influenced by the conduct of the established conservative and social democratic parties.
Right-wing populist parties always celebrate successes when major debates on national symbols are lacking a clear conservative position from an established party. These national symbols always appear in the political sphere when a nation is opposing change, and is “from outside” redefined; the two decisive topics are therefore the European Union and issues of immigration and integration.
One can already notice this in the case of Germany: the only time when questions of immigration policy were highly controversially discussed, with liberal positions related by all the established parties, was in the late 1980s, when der Republikaner emerged. That the CDU/CSU, and also the SPD, in the two major integration policy debates of the Berlin Republic – the asylum debate 1992/93 and the Leitkultur Debate 2000/2001 – held clear conservative positions in relation to the topic, no right-wing populist party could establish itself to the right of the CDU/CSU; the two German major parties ensured that conservative voters were regained.
However, Europe questions were never part of a substantial political debate, so all German parties were largely united in their pro-European course. This changed for the first time in recent years: Angela Merkel made the first departure of the CDU/CSU from a pro-European course and represented in recent years relatively national conservative viewpoints. Once these were once again visibly relativized, and given the insistence of the SPD on European solidarity, an electoral niche was formed for the AfD.
The conservative-nationalistic spirits that are now collected by the AfD, were in some way called forth by Angela Merkel herself; however, this will not be permanent if she holds on to the national-conservative agenda of the CDU / CSU.
Whether or not the established parties can lure back a substantial amount of potential AfD voters will mainly be dependent upon the European and immigration-related debates of the coming years. If both the CDU/CSU and the SPD hold fast to a conservative profile, they will rob the AfD of their decisive program point: the conservative position in debates over German national symbols, which, above all, will be relevant to crucial discussions over the European Union, immigration and integration.