Europe's Far Right Won't Keep Winning If It Can't Govern

(Bloomberg View) -- From Liechtenstein and Bulgaria to Norway and the Czech Republic, it was a good year for far-right parties in Europe. While none of the strong election results were sufficient for a full takeover, it was enough to allow most of them to become a full-fledged part of government. So are they leaping at this opportunity? And if not, why not?

It's not such a crazy thing to expect. Even in Germany, extreme parties have become an accepted part of the political landscape. Die Linke, the successor of the East German Communists, was shunned for years; now it's part of ruling coalitions in three German states and a potential coalition partner on the federal level if center-left forces ever get enough votes to try to form a government. With almost 13 percent of the vote, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party became the first far-right force in German parliament since World War II. The next step would be toning down its rhetoric, kicking out its most odious members, and starting to help run the state.

Some hard-right parties have done it elsewhere in Europe. The Norwegian Progress Party, which won enough of the vote in its 2017 elections to remain part of the ruling coalition, is a great example. To get into government and push its economically liberal program, it has been firm but rather polite on immigration, making it possible for the center-right Conservatives to work with them. Something similar is happening in Bulgaria, where a nationalist bloc won 9 percent of the vote and joined the coalition government -- a first for a hard-right force. The nationalist deputy prime minister has worked reasonably well with his center-right boss.

More recently, Heinz-Christian Strache's Austrian Freedom Party went down the same road after it came in third with 20 percent of the vote. It is showing a friendly face to the nation and to center-right People's Party leader Sebastian Kurz, who has preferred Strache as a coalition partner to a revival of an uneasy alliance with the Social Democrats. Just six weeks after the election, talks are almost over, with compromises already reached on education reform, the minimum wage, environmental goals, and the thorny issue of refugees, for whom the partners have agreed to reduce social guarantees and make citizenship accessible only after 10 years. The outlines of their joint plan for governing are well within the political mainstream. Austria is not sliding into fascism or setting unattainable populist goals.

The AfD, however, doesn't appear to be tempted by these examples. During a party conference last weekend, the membership dealt the relative moderates in its ranks a defeat, denying co-leadership to Berlin regional chief Georg Pazderski, a well-known proponent of preparing the party for government. Instead, the AfD elected Joerg Meuthen and Alexander Gauland -- both representatives of the nationalist far-right wing of the party -- as co-leaders, handing a moral victory to that wing's informal key figure, Bjoern Hoecke, who has called for a stop to expressions of German guilt over the Nazi past. At the conference, the party's top members felt free to say that Islam didn't belong in Germany, that the country was a victim of a hostile cultural invasion, and that Germans were in danger of "losing the country." That kind of rhetoric makes it necessary for the AfD to win an election outright in order to get into government -- something that's not likely to happen anytime soon. The seeming hopelessness of such radicalism was what prompted former AfD leader Frauke Petry to quit the party immediately after the September election. She is now working on building a rival party with a softer, more mainstream version of the AfD program.

By taking a radical stand, the AfD is following in the footsteps of Wilders in the Netherlands, who relishes his opposition role and loves presenting mainstream parties as a bungling cartel without any real convictions. In a recent post for the anti-immigrant Gatestone Institute, Wilders called for Europe to "drain the swamp":

Our democracies have become fake democracies. They are multi-party dictatorships, ruled by groups of establishment parties. They wheel and deal, often selling away the principles for which they have been elected. The establishment parties control everything, not just the politicians in their pay, but also the top brass of the civil service, the mainstream media, even the courts. Parties such as mine are excluded from coalition talks. They call us "populists" because we stand for what the people want. 

The exclusion is voluntary, however. Rutte talked to Wilders in 2010, when he headed a minority cabinet, and even secured the PVV's support in parliament -- only to see Wilders defect and topple the government.

Europe's parliamentary democracies give everyone a chance to try their hand at government as long as they're willing to be reasonable. Far-right politicians are no exception, so their relative electoral successes don't have to be tragedies. When they are loudly uncooperative, it just means they aren't ready for the responsibility of governing. Essentially, they are hoping things will get worse in the countries they profess to love, and that popular discontent will hand them clear victories. During an economic upswing, that's a risky strategy that's likely to marginalize these parties by the time the next elections are due.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

  1. —Liechtenstein: Populist Independents entered the parliament after winning 18 percent of the vote; 

    —The Netherlands: Geert Wilders' Freedom Party (PVV) came in second of 13 parliamentary parties with 13 percent of the vote; 

    —Bulgaria: A nationalist bloc won 9 percent and joined the coalition government -- a first for a hard-right force; France: National Front leader Marine Le Pen got into the second round of the presidential election and achieved the best result in the party's history; 

    —Norway: The Progress Party won 16.3 percent of the vote -- enough to remain part of the ruling coalition; 

    —Germany: The Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, with almost 13 percent of the vote, became the first far-right force in parliament since World War II; 

    —Austria: Heinz-Christian Strache's Freedom Party came in third with 20 percent of the vote; 

    —Czech Republic: Tomio Okamura's Freedom and Direct Democracy Party won 11 percent of the vote and gained 14 additional seats in the 200-member parliament.

  2. France, with its rare presidential model of government, is an exception: All Le Pen could expect after losing the election was a backlash. So last month, she was stripped of her parliamentary immunity for old tweets on Islamic State violence, and Societe Generale, one of France's top banks, told her it no longer wanted the National Front as a client. In President Emmanuel Macron's France, the winner has taken it all. Le Pen has no choice but to try to weather the storm and hold on to the protest vote for next time.

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