Is Europe’s far-right surge overblown?
Austria’s anti-immigrant Freedom Party put in a strong showing in Vienna’s municipal elections yesterday, setting off a new round of media speculation about the apparent surge of the far right in Europe. Here’s the Wall Street Journal: The Freedom Party, which achieved international notoriety in the 1990s under its then-leader, Jörg Haider, won 27.1% of ...
Austria’s anti-immigrant Freedom Party put in a strong showing in Vienna’s municipal elections yesterday, setting off a new round of media speculation about the apparent surge of the far right in Europe. Here’s the Wall Street Journal:
The Freedom Party, which achieved international notoriety in the 1990s under its then-leader, Jörg Haider, won 27.1% of the votes in Vienna, up from 14.8% in 2005, according to a preliminary tally. That put it second only to the Social Democrats, who garnered 44.2%, down from 49.1%.
The election marks a seismic shift in the Alpine country’s political landscape. For decades, Vienna, Austria’s capital and largest city, has been referred to as das Rote Wien, or "red Vienna," a reference to the Social Democrats’ strong grip on the city. Sunday’s election was the worst result for the Social Democrats since 1996.
Across Europe, radical parties have scored major gains in recent elections from the Netherlands to Norway and Sweden. Their anti-foreigner message is resonating amid economic uncertainty and fears that Muslims and other minorities cause crime, terrorism and the erosion of national identity.
Though Mr. Haider’s popularity helped the Freedom Party into government at the national level in 2000, the party never enjoyed a similar breakthrough in Vienna. It won 27.9% of the vote in the city in 1996, but its support soon dissipated and the party has never been part of the government.
I’m not quite sure I understand why the fact that a party that’s been a fixture of Austrian politics for decades came close to equaling a 1996 election result constitutes a "seismic shift." Perhaps Vienna hasn’t actually been all that Rote for a while now. And on the national level, the Freedom Party had more success throughout the 1990s under Haider than it has in the post-9/11, post-Great Recession era.
There certainly seem to be a number of data points to support the narrative of a far-right surge in Europe, including the recent electoral successes in Scandinavia and the Netherlands. But the question should be whether these parties will have any more staying power than the last European anti-immigrant surge — the late 1990s early 2000s electoral successes of Haider, the Netherlands’ Pim Fortuyn and France’s Jean Marie Le Pen. It’s also possible that the movement draws its support from a constituency that has existed in Western European democracies for decades but hasn’t had much success at halting immigration or European integration in a meaningful way.
The fact that anti-immigrant sentiment increases during times of economic distress isn’t really shocking news, and it’s true that charismatic populists like Wilders have become savvier about courting this resentment while eschewing the crude, overtly fascist overtones of the old European far right. Moreover, the anti-immigrant right is helped by parliamentary system that encourages single-issue parties as well as center-left and center-right parties whose economic platforms have become increasingly indistinguishable.
But is the sentiment that drives these parties really something new? And is it strong enough and consistent enough to keep these parties going after figurehead leaders like Wilders and Austria’s Heinz-Christian Strache leave the scene? I think the jury’s still out.
Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy Twitter: @joshuakeating