Once on the fringes of politics, far-right parties, capitalizing on Europe’s economic woes and isolationist mood, are fast becoming part and parcel of politics, even in traditionally social democratic countries such as Finland and Sweden. France’s National Front won the European Union (EU) parliamentary elections in 2014, as did the right-wing populist Danish People’s Party and Britain’s nationalist Euroskeptic U.K. Independence Party. In Austria, the right-wing populist Freedom Party picked up steam, almost doubling its support from 11 to 21 percent between 2006 and 2013. And in Hungary in 2014, the extremist Jobbik party siphoned votes from the center-right party, Fidesz, to become the country’s second most popular party.
These electoral gains, while important, were still incremental until this past year when the European refugee crisis and the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015 catapulted the far-right’s bread-and-butter issues—immigration, national sovereignty, and Euroskepticism—to the mainstream of political discourse.
With mainstream parties struggling to address growing security threats and fears of an “Islamization of Europe,” support for nationalist populism, economic isolationism, and demagoguery across the continent is likely to increase especially in Central and Eastern Europe where the roots of democracy are still relatively shallow, Russian influence is considerable and gaining, and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) arguably faces its stiffest challenges. In these uncertain times, these countries stand to lose the most in the event of a far-right populist backlash. But as the electoral success of Jobbik shows, citizens of Europe’s youngest democracies are already looking for more radical solutions to the region’s challenges.
The Far-Right Resurgence
The turn to the right in Europe was fueled by two interrelated factors. First was the 2008 economic crisis. As Germany forced Spain and Greece to swallow the bitter austerity pill, and unemployment continued to climb well after the initial shock, the European project started to lose its luster. The economic crisis pushed popular opinion toward a growing Euroskepticism—the second factor boosting the popularity of the far right’s anti-EU platforms. Across Europe, citizens began to doubt that European integration—supported and ushered in by centrist parties on the left and the right—was the answer to their discontent, creating an identity crisis the far right was able to effectively cultivate.
Over the last decade, the most strategic of the far-right parties shifted from open racism and xenophobia to a more subtle narrative in which the EU and non-European Muslim migrants are framed as threats to national sovereignty, civic liberal traditions, and national culture. Far right parties have reinvented themselves as defenders of “true” European values against the encroachment of both non-European foreigners and the EU elite in Brussels.
The refugee crisis of 2015 provided the final crucial plot line for this narrative, making the far-right’s warnings about the “Islamization” of Europe seem more salient. With millions of predominantly Muslim refugees fleeing to Europe to escape the war in Syria in 2015—1.1 million registered in Germany alone—the crisis cast doubt on the sustainability of the Schengen agreement of open borders. Along with the common market, the Schengen system is a bedrock of EU integration, the vision of a borderless Europe made reality. In the wake of a year’s unchecked immigration, many EU countries—Germany, Austria, France, Sweden, and Denmark to name a few—have imposed some form of temporary identity checks at their borders.
Public concern about the refugee crisis and its implications has forced European governments, and particularly the center right, to respond or risk losing voters to the far right. By the spring of 2014, before the largest influx of refugees even began, four in ten Europeans wanted to see more restrictive immigration policies, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. Central and Eastern European countries, through which many refugees pass on their way to destinations in Western Europe, took the most drastic initial measures: Hungary erected a fence along its Serbian border (completed in the fall of 2015). And when the European Commission proposed a plan for Schengen zone members to accept quotas of refugees, Slovakia, Poland, and the Czech Republic joined Hungary in rejecting the plan. Slovenia and Austria then followed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s lead in building their own border fences, leaving Germany virtually alone in its initial effort to make acceptance of the immigrants the politically correct choice.
The triple threat of economic crisis, Euroskeptic attitudes, and mass refugee inflows created a markedly different political reality in Central and Eastern European countries, which have neither the institutional infrastructure nor the cultural experience for integrating migrants. And far-right parties with roots in ultranationalist authoritarian ideology understood that they were now well-positioned to use the anti-immigrant agenda to push the center right toward a more extremist anti-immigrant isolationist agenda.
The Ideological Roots of the European Far Right
The far-right parties that emerged in Europe in the second half of the twentieth century, such as the National Front and the Austrian Freedom Party, toned down their authoritarian ultranationalist rhetoric to avoid being associated with neo fascism. And they remained on the fringes without any real support until the late 1980s when Jean-Marie Le Pen, then head of France’s National Front, gained at the polls, eventually winning nearly 17 percent of the vote in the first-round presidential elections in 2002.
European intellectuals who had previously dismissed the “new” right now began to take notice. German political scientist, Hans-Georg Betz, was one of the first to analyze the rise in support for the far right in the 1990s, identifying three drivers of this shift in allegiance from centrist parties: growing distrust in political institutions among voters, the weakening of electoral alignments along conservative versus liberal lines, and increased political fragmentation in the political party space. These factors, according to Betz, provided an opportunity for these parties, the most successful of which combined racist authoritarianism with free-market liberalism—a “winning formula” of sorts that worked well for the National Front in the 1980s and early 1990s.
By the late 1990s, Western Europe’s far-right parties, in an effort to attract the working class—the traditional constituency of the left—dropped their free-market liberal bent in favor of economic protectionism, authoritarianism, and populism, while blaming minorities for economic decline and unemployment.
Today, these parties are undergoing another change of face as they tone down the remaining racist and overly authoritarian rhetoric in an effort to infiltrate the mainstream. For example, the National Front—now under the leadership of Marine Le Pen—has increasingly moderated its rhetoric and even expelled the founder of the party, Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose extremist statements damaged the new “moderated” image of the party. The far-right Sweden Democrats Party is likewise toning down the more extremist elements in its organization in a bid for electoral respectability. And the strategy is working: the Sweden Democrats may now be the country’s most popular party, according to some polls.
Who Votes for the Far Right?
Supporters of the early far-right parties were seen as the “losers of modernization”—people who struggled to adapt to the new postindustrial environment because of their lack of skills and education. This remains true today: young, working class, or unemployed men continue to be disproportionally represented in the constituencies of the far right.
Beyond demographic characteristics, far-right voters hold a distinct set of views that were once considered fringe or radical, but are now becoming part of the mainstream. First, some far-right voters are driven by what they perceive to be an urgent threat to the ethnicity, religion, and culture they deem fundamental to their national identity and “way of life.” This threat is associated with migrants and refugees particularly from Asia and Africa; religious minorities, especially Muslims; and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) groups. In addition to the cultural threat, Europe’s growing sense of a security threat in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris in November and in Brussels in March has, for many, served to vindicate the far-right’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and positions.
Second, the skepticism and even open hostility toward nonnatives reinforces the perception that European societies are unstable—undermined by austerity measures, economic turmoil, unemployment, social inequality, political corruption, and other troubles. Since World War II, economic downturns have not directly produced far-right surges in Western or Eastern Europe. It is the fear, rather than the experience, of rising instability that creates fertile ground for authoritarian solutions.
Third, far-right voters feel alienated from mainstream politicians who, in their view, not only fail to represent their needs but deliberately ignore them and their concerns. They maintain that Europe’s established parties and political elites do not represent the interests of the “common” people. And, as would be expected, the leaders of the far-right parties represent this sense of detachment by positioning themselves as outsiders and criticize EU elites in Brussels as out-of-touch with anti-immigrant and anti-EU “common sense.”
The Far Right in Central and Eastern Europe
As support for successor communist parties began to wane across the region after the early 1990s, far-right parties started to find political openings in Central and Eastern Europe. Yet they did not all follow the same pattern. In countries like Romania and the Czech Republic, for instance, initial success was followed by decline, while in Hungary initial struggle was followed by rapid electoral rise.
While there is no single explanation for why some far-right parties in Central and Eastern Europe fail while others succeed, it is clear that two factors play a role: the manner in which centrist parties respond to the far-right challenge, and a far-right party’s ability to adapt its discourse to external shocks, such as the economic crisis or the sudden influx of refugees. To see these two factors at work, it is worth looking closely at the failure of the Greater Romania Party in Romania, on one hand, and the unparalleled success of Hungary’s Jobbik on the other.
Romania: A Failure for the Far Right
For more than two decades, the Greater Romania Party (Partidul România Mare or PRM), cofounded and led by the recently deceased Corneliu Vadim Tudor, was the main far-right party in Romanian politics.
Established in 1991, PRM fused racism and communism into its agenda, and, until the mid-1990s, could essentially be described as a national-communist party that praised both the wartime pro-Nazi prime minister and convicted war criminal Ion Antonescu as well as Romania’s longtime communist dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu.
In the party’s terms, “Greater Romania” refers to the interwar borders of the Kingdom of Romania that includes the territories of present day Romania, Moldova, and parts of Bulgaria and Ukraine. Greater Romania unites the ethnic Romanians now scattered outside Romania’s borders and the PRM aimed to revive this homogeneous ethnic Romanian society at the state level. However, the party ideologues believed that such a project could not be realized as long as significant ethnic minority communities—Hungarians and Roma, in particular—lived in Romania and subverted the purity of the Romanian nation.
In 1992, the PRM obtained 3.9 percent of the vote in the first post-communist parliamentary elections and secured twenty-two seats in the parliament, becoming part of the ruling coalition in Romania under social democratic Prime Minister Nicolae Văcăroiu. The 1996 parliamentary elections were more successful for the PRM: It garnered 4.46 percent of the votes and twenty-seven seats in the parliament.
In the 2000 parliamentary elections, PRM received nearly 20 percent of the vote and secured 126 seats in the parliament, becoming Romania’s second-largest party. Moreover, in the presidential election that same year, Tudor received 28.3 percent of the vote and made it to the second round of the election, but ultimately lost to Ion Iliescu, a former communist and leader of the Social Democratic Party. Tudor’s presidential campaign was marked by extreme racist rhetoric directed, in particular, against the Roma minority. As he said during one TV broadcast, “the only reason why [Roma people] do not rape their children and parents is that they are too busy raping ours.”
The rise of the PRM in 2000 was prompted, in part, by dissatisfaction with the rule of the center-right and pro-Western Emil Constantinescu, Romania’s president from 1996 to 2000. His presidency was characterized by significant market reforms, particularly in the banking sector, but they were inconsistent and often incoherent. His administration’s policies eventually resulted in an economic recession.
The center-right, pro-Western parties, such as the National Liberal Party and the Democratic Party, seemed unable to articulate a convincing alternative to the social democrats and far right until PRM succeeded in the 2000 elections. Reacting to this wake up call, the center-right National Liberal Party and the social-democrat Democratic Party, which later turned center right, joined forces and established the Justice and Truth Alliance, a political alliance in opposition to the ruling Social Democratic Party and the PRM. The strategy worked: in the 2004 parliamentary election, PRM’s support fell to 12.92 percent, while the Truth and Justice Alliance formed a coalition government and replaced the PRM as the second-largest political force in Romania. That same year, the Truth and Justice Alliance’s candidate, Traian Băsescu, won the presidency on a strong anticommunist and anti-corruption platform.
In 2007, Băsescu oversaw Romania’s EU accession that was followed by a period of economic recovery and optimism during which the social grievances that had fueled PRM’s earlier electoral support began to fade. And, despite some public efforts by Tudor to distance himself from the party’s anti-Semitic and authoritarian discourse, PRM failed to rebrand itself and its appeal began to diminish. In 2008, having failed to receive sufficient electoral support, the PRM was out of the government. And in 2012, the party only managed to attract 1.47 percent of the popular vote in the parliamentary elections, and it thus promptly receded into obscurity.
PRM’s initial rise and eventual fall demonstrates how far-right parties that do not adapt their political discourse can easily fall from grace in the face of a coordinated effort by the center left and center right. As political competition in Romania moved to the center, the center-left and center-right parties reclaimed dominance, and smaller parties on the far left and far right proved unable to contribute to the political discourse. In addition, Romania’s EU membership, which brought increased economic and political stability, greatly reduced the appeal of PRM’s populist rhetoric. With strong public support for EU integration in Romania in the early 2000s, PRM did not challenge the pro-EU consensus and even failed to exploit the 2008 financial crisis by turning to the Euroskeptic, anti-globalist rhetoric of many other European far-right parties.
Hungary’s Jobbik: Innovation and Success
In contrast to the PRM’s decline into obscurity, the Movement for a Better Hungary, known as Jobbik, has become the most electorally successful far-right party in Central and Eastern Europe. Founded in 2003, Jobbik placed “a blend of ultraconservatism, anticommunism, and anti-globalism at the core of its early agenda.” Its first electoral results were unimpressive: in the 2006 parliamentary elections, Jobbik joined forces with the far-right Hungarian Justice and Life Party, and—as an electoral bloc—they obtained only 2.20 percent of the vote and failed to enter parliament.
After the unsuccessful elections, Jobbik radicalized further, and began to preach for “a greater Hungary” (to its pre–World War I boundaries) agenda that was infused with hate of Gypsies, Jews, gays, and other “non-Hungarian” elements in the country. Furthermore, the party’s new leader Gabor Vona created the Hungarian Guard, a paramilitary wing of Jobbik that allegedly aimed to keep law and order in areas with large Roma populations. Pushing the anti-minority agenda, Jobbik also introduced the concept of “Gypsy crime” into the political discourse in Hungary linking criminality with the Roma minority. The tensions between ethnic Hungarians and Roma pushed Jobbik into the limelight, and the Hungarian Guard branded itself as the only organization that could enforce law and order. In the 2009 European parliamentary elections, Jobbik received 14.77 percent of the vote, and, in Hungary’s parliamentary elections the following year, Jobbik scored 16.67 percent and became the third-largest party in the country.
Jobbik’s success since 2009 has been driven by the party’s ability to consolidate voters’ anti-establishment sentiments, rising disenchantment with European integration, and increasing demand for law-and-order policies. Between 2004 and 2009, the years leading up to Jobbik’s rise, the number of Hungarians identifying as far right on the political spectrum increased from 6 to 13 percent. At the same time, anti-EU attitudes increased: in 2004, one out of ten Hungarians viewed EU integration negatively; by 2011, that number was more than doubled. These trends were buttressed by rising anti-Semitic and anti-Roma rhetoric and attitudes. According to the Anti-Defamation League, a nongovernmental organization tracking anti-Semitic attitudes, two in three Hungarians agreed with the statement that “Jews have too much power in the business world”—the highest level of agreement in the polled countries.
In the run up to Hungary’s 2014 parliamentary elections, Jobbik moderated its image by discarding its harsh anti-Roma and anti-Semitic rhetoric, and instead embraced Euroskeptic populism, anti-Westernism (especially anti-Americanism), and clearly pro-Kremlin stances. As a result, Jobbik retained its position as the country’s third most popular party by obtaining 20.30 percent of the votes cast.
The 2014 parliamentary elections and subsequent public opinion polls suggested that Jobbik was picking up voters from Orbán’s center-right Fidesz party. Fidesz’s loss to Jobbik in a by-election in April 2015, in which Jobbik gained its first-ever individual constituency seat in parliament, was a significant symbolic blow to Fidesz.
In response to Jobbik’s success, Viktor Orban’s Fidesz Party began to co-opt many of Jobbik’s views and policies. Fidesz embraced more restrictive policies on immigration and EU integration, and turned increasingly antidemocratic in its attempt to compete with the challenge from the right. In 2010, for instance, Jobbik introduced the idea of “Eastern Opening”—the notion that Hungary should look east to countries like Russia, China, India, and Central Asia rather than only to the West for policy inspiration. Soon afterward, the Fidesz government engaged in a series of high-level meetings with China, Azerbaijan, Russia, and Turkey, and since then, “Eastern Opening” has become the core foreign policy of Orbán’s government.
Fidesz also began to radicalize its rhetoric. For example, in the summer of 2014, Orbán claimed that his party would “build an illiberal nation state”; the following spring, he introduced the idea of reestablishing the death penalty, which counters EU principles, and also initiated “a national consultation” on immigration that implicitly sought to “vilify Hungary’s immigrants, fan xenophobic sentiment, and promote harsh anti-immigrant measures” by linking immigrants to terrorism and crime. Hungary’s move to build fences along its borders with Serbia and Croatia as the refugee crisis heated up in the fall of 2015, while widely criticized in the media, vastly reduced the wave of refugees pouring into the country and also appears to have helped Orban and Fidesz in opinion polls which, in September 2015, showed Fidesz leading Jobbik in popular support.
In recent years, the line between Jobbik and Fidesz has blurred. The tactical moderation of Jobbik and the consequent radicalization of Fidesz have mainstreamed far-right narratives, establishing a new anti-immigrant norm in Hungary for other center-right leaders to follow. Along with counterparts in Western Europe, Czech President Miloš Zeman, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, and Jarosław Kaczyński, chairman of Poland’s Law and Justice Party, are comfortable with increasingly harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric that only a year ago was the exclusive domain of the far right.
Responding to the Far-Right Challenge
It remains to be seen if Central and Eastern Europe’s far-right parties will mainstream themselves as have their kissing cousins in Western Europe. There are different possibilities. A far-right party could go the way of Romania’s PRM by slowly declining into political oblivion. Or, it could follow Jobbik’s path of success. In the end, the outcome will largely depend on the response of national political leaders, EU institutions, and U.S. policymakers, who have until now turned a blind eye to the toxic politics brewing in Europe’s East. Looking the other way, however, is no longer an option: these extremist movements—and their isolationist and anti-liberal politics—now garnering support in Central and Eastern Europe will fractionalize the EU, the United States’ most important and, indeed, indispensible ally.
Jobbik, the most electorally successful party of the Central and Easternn European far right, is fast becoming a trendsetter for similar parties in the region, such as the Slovak National Party in Slovakia and Ataka in Bulgaria. As the refugee crisis escalates and fears of terrorist attacks increase, centrist politicians are compelled to reckon with calls from anxious citizens for border controls, stricter immigration rules against refugees from the Middle East, and protectionist economic policies. If other center-right parties follow Fidesz’s strategy of political adaptation, Europe’s East may well become the hotbed of far-right nationalism that many observers once (wrongly) predicted it would be in the 1990s.
If the center right embraces the far right, the winners will not be European citizens, who now take for granted the benefits afforded by EU institutions, such as visa-free travel and the ability to work in any EU country. The EU–U.S. relationship will also suffer as the transatlantic relationship, rooted in liberal democratic values, ceases to guide policy decisions.
A pivot to the right will first and foremost benefit the far-right extremists themselves, whose illiberal agenda will be legitimized. The other winners will be authoritarian regimes, most notably Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin has endorsed and even financed far-right parties such as the National Front and allegedly Jobbik. And the admiration is mutual: especially in Central and Eastern Europe, the far right today is openly pro-Russian and anti-American. Far-right leaders maintain close relationships with the Kremlin—traveling to Russia for various celebrations, including Putin’s birthday, and even serving as election observers to legitimize fraudulent and unfair balloting, such as the illegal referendum for the annexation of Crimea.
As the far-right’s electoral appeal grows, it puts Europe on a course toward a new political reality in which Marine Le Pen may become Madame la Présidente and Jobbik the ruling party in Hungary. Avoiding such an outcome depends on stepped up efforts by center-left and center- right European leaders and with closer attention and support from the United States.
The first lesson is that center-right parties should not follow Fidesz’s strategy of acquiescence to the far right, which only benefits the latter. Rather, center-right parties should seek to provide pragmatic solutions to the immigration challenge by engaging with minority and majority communities at the local and regional levels with the goal of increasing communication and interaction between ethnic and religious groups. The far right has mobilized effectively at the local level with targeted campaigns. Centrist parties should engage and compete on the same strategic turf.
Second, at the national level, centrist parties could learn a lesson from the 2015 regional elections in France in which the Socialists and the Republicans worked together to diminish and isolate far-right candidates and their agendas. It should be understood, however, that this tactic is an emergency fix that can backfire by feeding the far-right’s conspiratorial claims.
In the long term, countering the far-right challenge requires that the center left reimagine its role in European politics. Today, there is no clear leftist vision that can capture the hearts and minds of Europeans while putting forward financially and socially viable solutions. Rather, the left has developed its own extremist flank, which is hijacking moderate centrist parties in Spain, England, and Greece. Before the center left can respond to the challenge from the right, it must consolidate its own core values and deal with its own fringe elements.
Last, the United States has a role to play in helping Europe through its crisis of illiberal politics. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States supported the new transitional democracies of Europe’s East because, at the time, policymakers rightfully saw the strategic importance of these countries to ensuring a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace. But, as other foreign policy challenges have taken priority, U.S. investment and engagement in the region has waned and it is now clear that the democratic revolutions on the 1990s are not irreversible as once thought. The West faces a revanchist Russia on Europe’s borders and the growing appeal of authoritarian regimes across the globe, it is time to remember how only twenty-five years ago, U.S. leadership and Western Europe’s resolve helped bring democratic institutions, liberal values, and economic prosperity to Central and Eastern Europe. Those values and institutions now face their greatest ideological challenges since the end of the Cold War. If the United States once again comes to the aid of Europe’s East, one of the greatest achievements of the twentieth century, the post-communist transformation of Europe, can be secured.
Alina Polyakova, PhD, is deputy director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC. She is the author of the Dark Side of European Integration (2015), a monograph on the rise of far-right populism in Europe and a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Anton Shekhovtsov, PhD, is visiting fellow at the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna, Austria. He is also a fellow at the Legatum Institute in London, England.