Is There a Secret Recipe for Preventing Far-Right Populism?

Portugal, Ireland, and Malta are Europe’s last countries without extreme nationalists in parliament. Here’s what they can teach others—and what they can’t.

Participants stand before signs stating "Racism is not an opinion, it is a crime" and “Racism Kills!" during the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in Lisbon on March 21.
Participants stand before signs stating "Racism is not an opinion, it is a crime" and “Racism Kills!" during the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in Lisbon on March 21. Horacio Villalobos/Corbis via Getty Images

Ireland, Portugal, and Malta might seem to have little in common, but they are members of an exclusive club—one that’s been getting smaller in recent years. Together with the small states of Iceland, Monaco, Lichtenstein, and Andorra, they are the only remaining European countries without far-right parties in their parliaments; nor does it seem these three countries will elect such parties in the European Parliament elections held from May 23 to 26.

As nationalism—often with xenophobic and authoritarian tones—surges almost everywhere across the continent, are there lessons to be learned from the small group of holdouts? Yes. Can those lessons be applied elsewhere? That’s more complicated.

The first similarity that Ireland, Portugal, and Malta share is that their citizens have generally favorable perceptions of their political systems. They also all share above-average confidence in the European Union. Malta and Ireland are first and second in the whole EU, with 93 percent and 91 percent, respectively, saying their country has benefited from EU membership, while Portugal finds itself seventh overall among the 28 EU countries at 78 percent. Nicholas Whyte, a Brussels-based political analyst for APCO Worldwide, a consulting firm, noted that the non-far-right club consists of relatively small countries, where national politics are less likely to breed the kind of alienation that larger, more remote systems can produce.

Their economies and societies have also all taken enormous strides in the last 30 or 40 years, which enabled them to overtake some of their nearest neighbors economically. “They are all conscious of profiting more than their neighbors from globalization,” Whyte said. And most of them place fairly high in the United Nations’ World Happiness Report, which ranks countries based on subjective well-being, as well as per capita GDP, social support, healthy life expectancy, social freedom, generosity, and the absence of corruption. Ireland is 16th in the world, with Malta at 22. While Portugal comes in at a less flattering 66, that’s a big jump from 77th last year.

Ultimately, understanding the political stability of these countries requires examining each one individually. That reveals specific conditions and historical circumstances that have allowed them to succeed—and will be difficult to replicate elsewhere.

Portugal: As a former colonial power country that languished under military dictatorship from 1926 to 1974, Portugal, a country of 10 million people, would seem a likely candidate for a cellar full of illiberal ideologies. But that’s not the case. Portugal’s current radical rightists, the 2000-founded National Renovator Party, fell flat yet again in the 2015 general election with just 0.5 percent of the vote. In Lisbon on April 25, the 45th anniversary of the far-right dictatorship’s overthrow, protesters across all demographics marched through the streets shouting “Fascism, never again!”

Part of the explanation lies in the fact that the Portuguese have, for the most part, prospered since joining the EU in 1986 while maintaining a strong social welfare state, which still bears the imprimatur of the socialists who reigned after the 1974 to 1975 Carnation Revolution. While Portugal implemented austerity measures imposed by the European Union, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund in the wake of the 2008 debt crisis, by 2015 it had suffered enough, argued the socialists, who clambered back into office and reversed many of the cuts that impacted working hours, education and training, holidays, and taxes. They hiked the minimum wage by 20 percent.

Unlike elsewhere on the continent, the idea of a united Europe is especially popular with younger Portuguese, who tend to engage in politics. The EU’s popularity took a deep dive during the hardest years of the financial crisis, but the union’s appeal rebounded when the economy did.

As for immigration, the influx is low and dominated by people from Portuguese-speaking countries, such as Brazil, Angola, and Cape Verde, who integrate easily, as well as many Europeans. “Portugal is a very racist society—however, immigration has tended to be white and well educated,” said Pedro Barata, a political scientist. Moreover, there are few Muslims in the Catholic country, and there has been no major Islamist terrorist attack, something that holds true for the other anomaly countries as well.

Perhaps most critically: No party in the Portuguese parliament takes anti-immigration stances like those of Germany’s Alternative for Germany or even the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. It’s leftist parties, like the Portuguese Communist Party and the Left Bloc, that take the EU most harshly to task, but from a standpoint of left-populism, not xenophobic racism.

Malta: The Mediterranean island country of about 460,000 people has earned itself a bad reputation of late: as a refugee refuser, tax haven, and outlet for EU passports. But a far-right party has never breached the threshold of the Parlament ta’ Malta, or even come close. Malta has two such competitors for the populist vote: the Moviment Patrijotti Maltin, a nostalgic pack of Islamophobes and cultural conservatives, and the more extreme Imperium Europa, whose frontman is an unapologetic admirer of Adolf Hitler. The best-ever result for a Maltese extreme-right party was in the 2014 European Parliament election, when Imperium Europa culled just 6,761 votes.

The explanation for this lies less in the natural benevolence of the Maltese populace than in the nature of the political system. Malta’s voting laws strongly reinforce the country’s two-party status quo, which is based on patronage and clientelism. This means, explained the Maltese political scientist Andre P. DeBattista, that elections are “not a battle of ideas but rather for resources. The personal fortunes of individuals become intertwined with the fortunes of individual politicians and parties. Loyalty is everything.” The two main political parties—the center-left Labour Party and the center-right Nationalist Party—encourage this duopoly through vast media empires. Third-party challenges have rarely managed to crack the nut, which could be reason enough for frustrated voters to cast a ballot for the hardcore rightists as protest against the system.

Ireland: Judging by the conditions that sprout radical rights elsewhere in Europe—rising immigration, increased income disparity, gaping cultural cleavages, and an electoral system open to small newcomers—by rights Ireland should have one, too. It doesn’t, though—and what’s more, all of the mainstream parties are openly pro-immigration. The reason for this, the Dublin City University political scientist Eoin O’Malley argues, is Ireland’s long history of emigration and the anti-colonial, pro-immigrant tenor of Irish nationalism. The nation’s history is rooted in the struggle against the discrimination of the Irish in and under Great Britain. (Irish still remember the signs on pub doors in England and Northern Ireland: “No Dogs, No Blacks, No Irish.”)

“The ‘story’ the Irish tell of our nationalism is ‘small guy’ nationalism, where we are the downtrodden MOPEs (most oppressed people ever). There is no great history to hark back to—or make great again,” O’Malley said. “Therefore, nationalist parties here can’t be anti-immigrant without contradicting the story we tell about ourselves. We can’t be MOPEs if we oppress others who are clearly in worse shape.”

Even the fiercest nationalist party, Sinn Fein, which has its authoritarian and populist leanings, touts a leftist pedigree. Sinn Fein attracts populist support through anti-system rhetoric, community activism, and alleged vigilantism, argues O’Malley, but not bigotry.

Nevertheless, Ireland’s innocence may be speeding to a close. In last year’s presidential vote, the businessman Peter Casey found himself dead last in a pack of six candidates with 2 percent of support until he began harping on Ireland’s Travellers, known elsewhere as Roma or disparagingly as Gypsies. The dark horse candidate then shot up swiftly, landing him second beyond Michael D. Higgins, Ireland’s incumbent president, with 23 percent of the vote. Running as an independent, the mild Euroskeptic and soft-pedaling supremacist, who says the state should limit the numbers of immigrants entering Ireland, has an outside shot at winning a European Parliament seat in the Midlands-North-West constituency this month.

Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist. His recent book is Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin (The New Press).

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