The Rise of the Political Right

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The Rise of the Political Right

| Updated: April 19, 2024 15:25

Right wing leaders and parties around the world have different origins and impulses, but share one thing in common; they have no desire to cede power

The rise of the Right is not entirely new; it dates from Euroscepticism in the 1980s, but its new manifestation is its presence in governments on its own such as in Italy, Hungary and Slovakia, or in coalitions. In the several European presidential, legislative and Euro-parliament elections scheduled this year, the Right is expected to fare well and the rise of European far right political formations is of importance to the future of the European Union (EU) and its policies. At present, the Right does not wish to leave the EU but remains profoundly Eurosceptic. The British experience with Brexit is a negative precedent, and since advocating leaving the EU loses votes, the exit policy is now replaced by the target to restore powers from the Union to member states and ensure priority to laws passed by national legislatures. 

The main causes for the rise of the Right are attributed to issues of economy and identity. Free movement of goods and services, capital and – to a more limited extent – humans, enabled hundreds of millions to escape poverty. But resistance to globalisation and resort to autarky arose because as inequalities increased and rapid technological change and automation made skill-sets obsolete, as production moved to venues that were more efficient and cost-effective, the result was rising unemployment and discontent in western developed countries. Globalisation led to ‘rust belts’ in USA and Europe and those who lost out on globalisation turned to the political right and policies of in-sourcing and on-shoring. Together with this is the cultural and identity factor, comprising anti-multiculturalism, anti-immigration and anti-woke malcontents who do not feel their children will be able to afford or enjoy a better future.  

And yet the received wisdom of immigration and economy causing the rise of the Right did not universally hold good; in Portugal, from 2000 to 2010, there was no dominant far right party despite the country suffering the Eurozone crisis, and in Greece, the far right Golden Dawn Party had only a brief emergence although the country was hit by the double blow of immigration and the Eurozone crisis. But those were exceptions; the norm in Europe has been otherwise over the past decade; the governments of Hungary, Slovakia, Italy, Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands are, or contain, right-wing formations. Besides those, the German Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), the French Rassemblement Nationale (RN) of Marine le Pen, the Austrian Freedom Party, Portugal’s Chaga, Spain’s Vox, Poland’s Law and Justice, Belgium’s Vlaams Belang and and the Estonian Ekre, are capable of forming the government, or being part of a ruling coalition in their countries. There will be elections in June 2024 for the European parliament when the right-wing alliance of AfD, RN, and other right wing parties in Europe hopes to build a bloc that will challenge the equally anti-immigrant, anti-woke, but far left movement of the German politician Sahra Wagenknecht.

The prospect of the RN taking the next French presidency in 2027 is real as Le Pen has softened the formerly strident appeal of her party. Although the German AfD lost a local election in Thuringia this year, which it was expected to win, it is expected to secure about 20 per cent of the vote in federal elections, making it the second-largest voting bloc in Germany. This prediction is despite the AfD’s meeting near Potsdam last November with other elements of the far right, which discussed radical plans for the reordering of German society, such as deporting millions of those with immigrant backgrounds, including those with German passports. 

Immigration issue

Immigration is a highly emotive issue, seen as a threat to local jobs and, in the case of AfD, as diluting the German character as traditionally racially white and Christian. While the influx of over six million Ukrainian refugees was endured by Poland and the rest of Europe (excluding Hungary) because they are white Christians, the integration of one million Arab refugees into German society was Europe’s lowest point according to the AfD. The Brexit vote in Britain to abandon the European Union was, to a large extent, due to anti-immigrants. The UK parliament is now involved in an acrimonious debate about the Conservative government’s controversial proposal to send illegal refugees, mainly Syrian, to Rwanda against payment to the Kigali government, and similar discussions have been held in Germany and Denmark. The prospect of one billion more restive Africans in 25 years, with the lack of resources and employment opportunities in that continent, places the challenges and political reactions of the Europeans in perspective.

Earlier, political orientation by category and class was predictable and traditional in Europe: farmers voted conservative, the educated middle class and youth backed liberals, the workers voted social democrat. This mould is now broken and mainstream parties are weaker and struggle to counter the Right’s narrative. As space opened up on the political right and left, mainstream parties were left behind the curve and far right parties emerged, though the vacuum enabled a leader like French President Macron to be elected without any traditional party base. 

The right wing European electorate now feels disempowered, not properly represented by the traditional elites; it wishes to challenge authority. The mainstream media is fragmented, and the far right enjoyed no media support, so turned to Internet-related social media. This in turn generated polarisation and ended the compact between techno-bureaucrats and political parties, best seen in bodies like the European Commission, and the balance between Brussels and the member states was thus disrupted by social media. In the European Union, the far right seeks to block EU policies and break the presumed solidarity for the public good. If Hungary is joined by other far right governments, there could arise a centrifugal reaction that would severely weaken the EU. But if that does not happen, parties may revert to centrist and solidarist policies. This has happened, for example, in the case of Italy under far right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, whose presence in the European Council has resulted in a sober and centrifying Italian attitude. On the other hand, if American presidential candidate Donald Trump is elected for the second time, his influence will be far-reaching, and the European far right will be motivated to be more openly confrontational.   

Mainstream parties

The EU is a liberal project and mainstream parties that survive the assault from the far right will have to protect basic policies like the single market, common defence and foreign policy approaches, climate change, shared rules, enlargement and cooperative working. In any future coalitions with the far right, the mainstream parties will need to set guard-rails, as Netherlands and Finland are doing, against abandoning EU doctrines. But it is difficult to be optimistic about the outcome and this year, with its multiple presidential, legislative and Euro-Parliament elections, will prove critical.

The rise of the Right is seen in democratic nations other than Europe – the United States and Brazil with former Presidents Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, Argentina with President Javier Milei, Turkey with President Recep Erdogan, Israel with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and India with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. These leaders and parties have different origins and impulses, but share one thing in common; they have no desire to cede power.    

This article was first published on The Wire on April 19, 2024.

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