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The Three Faces of Right-Wing Populism in Europe
Editor’s note: This is the second part of a survey of European populism by John B. Judis. The first part charted the rise and fall of Europe's left-wing populism.
Since the early 2000s, Europe has been beset by the rise of populist parties that challenged elites or the establishment on behalf of the people. While parties identified with the left like Spain's Podemos have faltered, those identified with the right have stuck around and, in some cases, have participated in or gained control of governments. In Italy, for instance, Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the Brothers of Italy, has become prime minister. France's National Rally (RN), the Sweden Democrats, Finland's Finns Party, the Norwegian Progress Party, and Germany's Alternativ fur Deutschland (AfD) have all gained ground recently. The only parties that have lagged are Denmark's Peoples' Party, Spain's Vox, and Austria's Freedom Party.
The basic reason for the rise of all the different populist groups has been the inability of the major center-left and center-right parties and the European Union bureaucracy to deal adequately with Islamist terrorism, waves of migrants and refugees from the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa, and a continuing slowdown in European economic growth dating to the Great Recession. Currently, populist parties have made hay by opposing expensive measures to combat climate change as well as the "woke" ideology on race and gender popular among the college-educated young. While populist parties on the left that focused on economic change found themselves straitjacketed by the eurozone, populist parties on the right have been able to profit from continuing rifts over social and environmental issues.
Some critics of these parties warn that they are harbingers of a reversion to Europe's darkest days. One commentator, citing advances by France's RN and the Brothers of Italy, has warned that “neo-fascist, far-right parties have made massive gains in elections across Europe.” But these fears are not yet warranted. They reflect a misunderstanding of the nature of populism.
The growth of populist parties is a sign of the breakdown of an old order rather than the consolidation of a new one. Populism is a politics of protest not (like social democracy or conservatism) a governing ideology. As these parties have won actual power, they have either suffered division, as their leaders contend with the responsibilities of governing, or they have moderated their views.
The same critics also uniformly label these parties "far-right," but they are very much a mixed bag. Some of the parties advocate the same economic and social welfare policies as liberal or even leftwing parties, while others espouse conventional pro-business conservative views that harken back to Britain's Margaret Thatcher or America's Ronald Reagan. Even the label "populist" can be used misleadingly. The governments in Hungary and Poland, often cited as "populist," are their country's establishments. They have used populist appeals opportunistically, but they are more accurately described as "nationalist" or "conservative" or "authoritarian."
The populists on the right can be put into the three different groups:
Hybrid populists, epitomized by France's National Rally, who combine social conservatism with an economic populism more associated with the left than the right.
Radical right populists, like the AfD or Spain's Vox who are economic conservatives and differentiate themselves from center-right parties by their radical stands on social issues.
Populists in power, like Hungary's Fidesz and now the Brothers of Italy, who use some populist appeals to maintain their popularity.
The National Rally (Rassamblement National, or RN) is the oldest of the European populist parties. It was founded in 1972 by Jean-Marie Le Pen, father of current party leader Marine Le Pen. It drew upon an unsavory amalgam of Vichy sympathizers and pieds-noirs who fled Algeria during its war of independence. It was a petit-bourgeois party based primarily in southeast France, but in the 1990s it began to gain working class adherents in northern towns suffering from deindustrialization due in part to its opposition to immigrants from North Africa and to the collapse of the Communist Party. It remained, however, a marginal protest party that was shunned by most French voters.
In 2011, Marine Le Pen took over the party and attempted to purge it of its Vichy and pieds-noirs associations—she even expelled her own father, a notorious Holocaust denier. She adopted a platform designed to appeal to working class voters. She retained the party's hostility to Muslim immigrants that it blamed for crime and terrorism. It continued to favor a ban of head scarves in public. But the party also promoted state subsidies to rebuild the deindustrialized north, progressive tax reform, support for the country's labor movement, increased funding for its healthcare system, and opposition to the euro and European Union, whose strictures some voters blamed for France's flagging economy. In the 2017 elections, with the Socialists and center-right Republicans in disarray, Le Pen made the runoff in the presidential election, but she won only 34 percent against Emmanuel Macron.
After the 2017 election, Le Pen set about moving the party closer to the center—a process dubbed "normalization." She dropped the party's opposition to the euro (which had scared off older voters) and changed the party's name from the Front National to "Rassemblement National," which recalled the name of Charles de Gaulle's anti-Vichy party. In her 2022 campaign, she stressed opposition to Macron's pro-business economics and won 42 percent of the vote—an increase of 2.6 million votes from 2017. In legislative elections that summer, the RN won 88 seats—an increase of 81 seats from 2017. That result made the RN France’s second largest political party and demonstrated that the party had finally overcome the obstacle of France's run-off system of voting. (In 1988, the major parties had replaced proportional representation with a run-off system to prevent the National Front from winning seats)
As the RN's stock has risen, the Socialist Party and the center-right parties have continued to flounder. The RN's main opponents are Macron's jerry-built Renaissance Party, which may not outlive him when he has to step down in 2027, and Jean-Luc Melenchon's left-wing La France Insoumise, which is also a one-man gang and is plagued by its leaders’ disruptive demonstrations and its support for open borders and opposition to NATO. Last spring, Le Pen benefited from public disapproval of Macron's executive order to bypass the legislature and raise the age for social security eligibility. In polls matching Le Pen with Macron, Le Pen came out ahead. Le Pen also benefitted from her party’s condemnation of the riots that arose in response to the police killing of a teenager of North African descent. In a poll afterwards, the French public approved her reaction over that of Macron, Melenchon, and other French politicians.
The RN's prospects for 2027 look good. A runoff system meant to disqualify the party may actually benefit it by preventing its older base, put off by Le Pen’s attempt to move the party to the center, from defecting to another candidate in the final vote. In the 2022 election, a radical right candidate helped Le Pen in the first round by making her look more moderate and responsible. The main threat to Le Pen in 2027 would come either from a revival of either the Republicans or the Socialists or from a consolidation of Macron's Renaissance into a genuine party.
When, in contrast to what has happened in France, the major center-left and center-right parties remain viable, right-wing populists are threatened. Just look at the fate of Europe’s other main hybrid populist party, the Danish People's Party (DF). The party dates from the 1980s when a Lutheran pastor protested the influx of Muslim refugees from the Iran-Iraq war. It has taken a harsh stand against immigrants and asylum seekers from the Muslim-majority Middle East and North Africa, but on economics it is closer to Denmark’s Social Democrats rather than to its center-right Liberals.
In the 2015 election, the DF won 21 percent of the vote—making it the second largest party behind the Social Democrats. But it refused to join a government led by the center-right Liberals because it opposed the Liberals' plan to cut taxes for the wealthy. As a party spokesman explained to me in February 2016, the People's Party's main difference with the Social Democrats was over the Social Democrats' softer line on refugees. They shared similar economic priorities and would work together on issues in parliament during the Liberal-led government.
In 2016, the Social Democrats chose Mette Frederiksen as their new leader. Determined to win back the working-class voters who had migrated to the People's Party, she adopted a tough line on immigrants and asylum seekers. In 2018, it joined the People's Party in opposing a government initiative to integrate new immigrants into the labor market. Instead, the Social Democrats advocated spending money on training unskilled or unemployed Danes. Leading up to the 2019 elections, they adopted a platform calling for repatriation, if possible, of those granted asylum and the creation of a third country waystation outside the EU for asylum seekers.
The Social Democrats effectively coopted the People's Party signature issue, and the results showed in the 2019 elections. They received the highest vote count, while the People's Party fell to 8.7 percent and a nugatory 16 (of 179) seats in the Danish Parliament. In office, the Social Democrats made good on their election promises on immigration and introduced new measures aimed at curbing urban crime among immigrants. In the 2023, the Danish People's Party got 2.63 percent of the vote and lost 11 of its 16 seats. Thanks to the Social Democrats taking their signature issue, the People's Party had completely ceased to be a major party. There is a clear lesson here for Europe’s other Socialist and Social Democratic parties that face challenges from populist parties on the issues of immigration, crime, and terrorism.
Radical Right Populists
Radical right populists share the social and cultural outlooks of the hybrid populists, but they espouse more conventional right-wing economic views. These parties include the AfD, the Sweden Democrats, Austria’s Freedom Party, Norway's Progress Party, Spain's Vox, and (in its current incarnation) Finland's Finns, and they make their mark with more extreme positions than their country's center-right parties on non-economic issues. Their viability depends on the extreme stands they take being politically salient and popular.
Germany's AfD, for instance, originated as an economists' anti-tax party. But in early 2015, it changed its leadership and its focus to oppose immigration and refugees. It initially tanked in the polls at three percent, less than the five percent requirement for representation in the Bundestag. In the summer of 2015, however, German Chancellor Angela Merkel opened Germany's borders to refugees from Iraq and Syria; about 1.2 million would come. Merkel’s initiative was initially popular, but on New Year’s Eve 2015, migrant men went on a rampage in German cities. At least 24 women were raped amidst an estimated 1200 violent incidents. These sexual assaults were followed by a succession of terrorist attacks by Muslim immigrants and asylum seekers in Hanover, Ansbach, Wurzburg, and Berlin.
The AfD was transformed into a major party overnight: in three state elections that spring, the AfD got a quarter of the vote. In the 2017 federal elections, it received 12.6 percent and became the major opposition party in the Bundestag when the center-left Social Democrats and center-right Christian Democrats formed another grand coalition. In the 2021 elections, with the public furor over crime and refugees dissipated, the AfD lost 11 seats and dropped to 10.3 percent—making it only the fifth largest party.
But as refugee numbers rose again, the AfD has regained support. It may have benefited even more from its opposition to measures aiming to slow climate change—notably, a government proposal from the Green Party (a member of the current Social Democrat-led coalition) to require the purchase of expensive new home heating systems to replace those using fossil fuels. This year, the AfD elected its first district administrator—in Thuringia, in the former East Germany. In August polls, the AfD's support is running at 21 percent, second only to the Christian Democrats and ahead of the Social Democrats.
Spain's Vox, on the other hand, is a radical party that lost ground over the past year. It was formed in 2013 by discontented members of the center-right People's Party (PP). They advocated a harsher repudiation of Spain's secessionist movements and called for "recentralization"—amending Spain's constitution to abolish regional parliaments. Vox also proposed to deport illegal immigrants, ban abortion, forbid same-sex marriage, and reject measures to slow climate change, all while taking conventionally conservative stands on taxes and business regulation. It was initially seen as a fringe party, but in the November 2019 election held in wake of bitter conflict over Catalan independence, it won 15 percent of the vote and 52 seats in Spain's legislature. It also joined the PP in a regional government. The party was poised to become the PP's junior partner in a coalition government that would oust Spain's ruling Socialist Party (PSOE).
But in this July’s parliamentary election, Vox's vote fell rather than rose: the party won only 12 percent in the national vote and lost 19 seats in the legislature. Vox clearly suffered because its signature issue of Catalan independence was no longer on voters' minds. But it also bled support because its opposition to abortion and gay rights—in the regional government where it held sway, it had banned a film that showed two women kissing—proved to be too extreme for Spain's voters, as well as for some of PP's politicians. And its rejection of climate change regulation came in the midst of a ferocious heat wave.
In response to the inconclusive election, the PP was rumored to be considering dropping Vox as a coalition partner. Vox, too, experienced division, with a prominent leader resigning from the party over its hardline social views, while the party’s spokesman and de facto second-in-command quit his post for undisclosed reasons.
Many of Europe's radical right populists remain as protest parties committed to extreme stands on signature issues, and some like Germany's AfD have not overcome unsavory associations. Their support is limited and ebbs and flows with changes in national policies. They are vulnerable to co-optation. Germany's Christian Democrats have joined the opposition to the government home heating bill, and the Christian Democrat-led European People's Party in the EU parliament has hardened its stance on asylum, migrants and crime, and climate proposals that threaten industrial growth.
These radical right parties won’t disappear, but as currently constituted they do not foreshadow a European turn back to fascism. They could become politically viable if, like France's RN or the Brothers of Italy, they sand off their rough ends and turn toward the center. But that, too, poses dangers: if they join governments as junior partners and accept the policies of their center-right superiors, they are likely to suffer splits within their leadership and base. That's what happened to Austria's Freedom Party, Italy's Lega, and Finland's Finns.
Populists in Power
The governments in Hungary and Poland are often described by liberal commentators as "populist," but neither began as populist. They displaced neoliberal, post-Communist parties that had embraced austerity in response to the Great Recession. Viktor Orban's Fidesz and Lech and Jarosław Kaczyński's Law and Justice were a blend of nationalism (both countries had suffered a millennium of having their sovereignty violated), Catholic social morality, and Christian Democrat social market policies that combined pro-business support for free enterprise with support for social welfare policies. That has remained their underlying political identity.
In the European parliament, Fidesz was until recently a member of the Christian Democrat People's Party Group (it quit over complaints it was violating democratic norms), and Law and Justice (along with the Brothers of Italy) is a member of the "center-right" European Conservatives and Reformers. Both parties have advanced policies that would curtail democratic checks and balances and would keep them in power, but in doing so, they weren't echoing fascism, but a long history of authoritarian rule. In Hungary's case, Orban's approach to government most clearly recalls Janos Kadar's comparatively benign one-party Communist dictatorship of the 1980s.
Hungary's first forays into populism came in 2014, four years after it had taken power and faced re-election. When European Union officials in Brussels criticized Orban for curtailing the independence of Hungary's watchdog agencies and judiciary, he attacked Brussels and its "left corner." The next year, he attacked both Brussels and ex-pat Hungarian financier George Soros for supposedly encouraging the migration of Middle Eastern Muslims to Hungary. Orban framed the conflict in populist terms as being between the Hungarian people and Brussels. Poland’s Law and Justice followed suit in its conflicts with the EU bureaucracy, but for both parties, populism was primarily a political tool for maintaining political power and fending off EU complaints about the government's authoritarian direction—all while continuing to receive substantial EU funding.
The Brothers of Italy followed a different trajectory. The party descends from the post-World War II pro-fascist Italian Social Movement, which Meloni joined as a teenager. The Brothers of Italy (a phrase taken from Italy's national anthem) was founded in 2012. The party subsequently rejected its neo-fascist ancestry and mounted a populist challenge to the Italian political establishment. It advocated restricting immigration, including imposing a naval blockade on boats bringing illegal immigrants from North Africa. It wanted to shrink the EU's role. It was militantly Catholic, with the Brothers opposing abortion and same-sex marriage and parenting. And it was the only Italian party to refuse to join the 2021 national unity government under prime minister Mario Draghi.
In the 2022 election, Brothers ran as part of a center-right coalition with Lega and the late Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza. Meloni repudiated not only her party’s links to neo-fascism but its affinity with Orban’s authoritarian tendencies. She said her party “shares values and experiences with the British Tories, the U.S. Republicans, and the Israeli Likud.” As the only party in the legislature not tainted by a decade of political failure and upheaval, it got the most votes—26 percent—and leadership of the center-right majority.
To date, Meloni's government cannot easily be classed with right-wing populism, the far right, or neo-fascism. While about half of her party opposes sending military aid to Ukraine, Meloni and her government have staunchly backed supplying arms to Kyiv. With Italy dependent on financial aid from the EU, Meloni has abandoned her Euro-skepticism. She forged a compromise on asylum policy with Germany and other EU countries only to see it blocked by Hungary and Poland.
Meloni abandoned her party's promise to institute a naval blockade, even as the number of migrants coming by sea has risen. Under pressure from businesses who complain of a labor shortage, she pledged to admit 425,000 non-EU migrants on work visas over the next two years. She also revoked the Universal Basic Income that the Five Star government had passed, with businesses claiming the policy discouraged work. But facing a revenue shortfall, she defied business interests by instituting a windfall tax on bank profits.
Much of Meloni's residual populism appears in her defense of the traditional family. In her campaign, Meloni ran on a slogan of "God, family, and homeland." In the face of public opposition, she promised not to overturn abortion rights, but in office she has opposed same-sex couples raising children via surrogacy while proposing rising tax credits for each child had by a couple. These policies can be seen as an endorsement of Italy's still powerful Catholic social morality as much as anything else.
It's too early to say whether Meloni will avoid the fate of prior governments and serve out a full five-year term; after all, Italy has had 68 governments in the last 77 years—or a new government every 13 months. Meloni's party only received a quarter of the vote in a low-turnout election, and her turn toward the center risks alienating her own party's political base. Any number of issues, from the ups and primarily downs of Italy's economy, which governments cannot control, to widespread opposition to Italy's military aid for Ukraine, could lead to her government losing a vote of confidence in Italy's legislature and having to call new elections.
The main point to take away from Meloni's ten months in office is that there is a big difference between populist parties when they are contesting for power and when they actually gain power and become the establishment they had attacked. As political scientist Sheri Berman has noted, many of these parties have had to recognize that in order to win and govern they have had to moderate their views. Gone, for instance, is the attempt, promoted by Trump follower Stephen Bannon, to "drive a stake" through the EU through a "Movement" of rightwing populist parties.
Commentators on European populism would also be wise to resist the temptation to read the past into the present. Meloni's Brothers of Italy is not a fascist party. Nor is Orban's government in Hungary. What's happening in Europe—and also in the United States—is a transition from one political epoch to another. This includes the incorporation of Eastern European nations with little experience of democracy into a Western European federation of democracies. It includes contending with the uneven economic development reinforced rather than counteracted by the imposition of a common currency; the seemingly unstanchable flow of migrants from war and poverty; the challenges of climate change; and most recently of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The chaotic rise, fall, and revival of populist parties on the left, center, and right is an integral part of that difficult transition.
John B. Judis is author of The Politics of Our Time: Populism, Nationalism, Socialism and, with Ruy Teixeira, the forthcoming Where Have All the Democrats Gone?