Even stable democracies cannot prevent the rise of right-wing populist political figures and parties. Over the past decade we have witnessed how these political forces were elected into government across the world, from the United States to Brazil and India.
Across Europe, far-right populist parties such as the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD; Germany) or the Rassemblement National (France; previously Front National), to name only two of them, have also had significant electoral successes and many have firmly established themselves in the political landscape.
However, most of these parties in Europe – with the main exceptions being Orbán’s Fidesz party in Hungary and Kaczyński’s Law and Justice party in Poland, have been confined to the opposition benches in national parliaments.
This has changed significantly in the past few months with the electoral victories of two far-right nationalist parties, the Sverigedemokraterna (Sweden Democrats) and the Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), in the federal elections in Sweden and Italy.
Their election success was remarkable not only because of the number of votes they won – over 20% for the Sweden Democrats and 26% for Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia – but also for two other reasons.
First, both parties have won significant political executive power: Fratelli d’Italia is leading a majority government together with a far-right coalition with Salvini’s Lega and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, and the Sweden Democrats, whilst not officially in government, provide ‘confidence-and-supply’ for a conservative minority government (although they won more seats than any of the parties that now form government) and as such have enormous influence on the government.
Second, both the Sverigedemokraterna and the Fratelli d’Italia have their origins in post-fascist, ultranationalist and neo-Nazi milieus. It seems like many voters saw their own political views sufficiently aligned with these parties’ agendas to give them their vote – undeterred by the parties’ publicly known, not-too-distant ideological roots and personal links to far-right extremism.
Was this just an odd exception or are these electoral successes of the (former) political fringe are warning sign for bigger threats to come for liberal democracies in Europe and beyond?
The electoral performance of these and other far-right parties are, of course, influenced by a range of structural, societal and personal circumstances, many of them country- and time-specific.
There are, however, also a number of common factors that seem to play a role in the success of far-right parties more broadly. The following offers some preliminary observations on what deserves a lot more analytical and empirical attention in the future.
The political-ideological messages of far-right parties must at least in parts resonate with a significant proportion of voters.
Typically, these agendas include, among others: explicit anti-immigration, Islamophobic and xenophobic, law-and-order and anti-establishment positions. In some instances, the official party program may tone down the party’s racist, anti-immigration viewpoints, but this does not always seem to be the case.
To the contrary, Alessia Donà, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Trento, found that the Fratelli d’Italia has increasingly adopted openly nativistic, welfare chauvinistic and anti-Muslim positions since the mid-2010s – assumingly, in an attempt to capitalise on the shift towards anti-immigration sentiments in the public discourse in the aftermaths of the ‘refugee crisis’ in Europe in 2015.
The high number of refugees arriving in European countries during this time also played a crucial role in the rise of the Sweden Democrats. They party has extensively rallied against Islam, refugees and non-Western immigration, making claims about cultural incompatibility, threats to the Swedish welfare and violent ‘black-on-white’ crimes.
Co-opting and further fuelling these fears and pushing them into the centre of the public debate during the election campaign has been a key part of the agenda setting and mobilisation strategy by far-right parties in Sweden, Italy and other countries.
In addition, the global trend of decreasing trust in government and other key institutions such as the media can help increase the appeal of their anti-establishment, anti-elite and anti-government messaging.
One reason for the electoral success of the Fratelli d’Italia in 2022 was that party leader Meloni refused to join the previous left-centre-right Draghi government, contrary to other far-right parties (e.g. Lega, Forza Italia), which put her party in a more credible position when rallying against the political establishment.
‘We say what you think’
The probably most striking aspect of these recent electoral victories in Sweden and Italy is that both parties have their roots in post-fascist and neo-Nazi movements.
This is different to the trajectory of other right-wing populist parties, such as the AfD in Germany, which was founded initially as a conservative party to oppose the establishment of the Eurozone, but soon embraced anti-Islam, nationalistic and revisionist positions.
The Sweden Democrats were formed in the late 1980s by members of racist and neo-Nazi organisations such as Keep Sweden Swedish and Nazi Nordic Realm Party.
The Fratelli d’Italia, founded in 2014, has been described as a ‘heir to the old fascist party’, which has expressed sympathy with Italy’s fascist past or at least not condemned it. It is telling that the party logo – a tricolored flame – is almost identical to the one of the post-fascist party Movimento Sociale Italiano, formed in 1946 as a successor organisation of Mussolini’s party.
Despite their roots in far-right extremism, both parties (and this also applies to far-right parties in other countries such as the rebranded Rassemblement National in France) have managed to present themselves as centrist, politically conservative voice for ordinary people – a voice that claims to not be afraid to speak out against the ‘establishment’ and the ‘elites’.
The appeal of such a populist strategy is further strengthened as traditional liberal democratic norms of egalitarianism, non-discrimination or religious freedom are being framed as a progressive ‘woke’ agenda of political correctness that allegedly seeks to silence ordinary people.
‘We say what you think’, as a member of the Sweden Democrats allegedly stated a few years ago.
Shifts in traditional voting patterns
Another factor that seems to have contributed to the success of some of the far-right (populist) parties in Europe, including the Sweden Democrats, is related to the shifts in voting patterns among those who used to be traditionally affiliated with the political centre-left parties, but have grown increasingly dissatisfied with their progressive political program.
The Sweden Democrats, for example, performed particularly well in rural areas and those previously held by the left-wing Social Democrats, while they underperformed in most larger cities and university towns.
This resonates with Vieten and Poynting’s (2016) argument that, simply put, those who fear a loss of status in an increasingly globalist world, in particular working-class men, would feel drawn to far-right populism.
The US academic Galston put forward a similar argument in the context of Trump’s 2016 election victory: populist messaging of far-right parties appeal particularly to ‘less-educated citizens’ in rural areas as they feel ‘denigrated and devalued’ in the face of the emerging well-educated, meritocratic urban elite that ‘dominates government, the bureaucracy, the media, and major metropolitan areas.’
The rise of illiberal democracies?
The increasing consolidation of far-right populist parties in the political landscape, be it within governments or in opposition, has created significant challenges for democracies in Europe and around the world.
These challenges are by no means new; they have been inherent to the political system itself: How to respect the will of the people expressed in democratic elections if it undermines the very foundational principles of liberal democracy? And how to limit the opportunities for political actors seeking to use democratic process and institutions to advance their illiberal or even undemocratic agenda?
What is new is how prevalent these threats have become with the global rise of far-right politics, in parliaments and outside, and how liberal democratic principles are increasingly at risk of being divorced from democratic processes and institutions.
If democracy is more than a set of administrative, technocratic procedures, it must have the capacity to defend itself in measured but decisive ways against those forces that seek to actively undermine it and aggressively advocate illiberal agendas – without silencing or criminalising democratic dissent.
Banner image: A far-right protest in Germany, October 2022. Source: Matthias Berg/Flickr