European Politics

Rage Against the Center

Syriza AFP
A Greek anti-austerity protestor.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Europe’s political system is fragmenting as voters desert traditional conservatives and Social Democrats for more radical alternatives.

  • Facts


    • UKIP, a party that wants Britain to leave the European Union, is now the third-biggest party, attracting almost 4 million votes in last week’s election.
    • Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Front National in France, is likely to make the second round of the French presidential election in 2017.
    • Spain’s Podemos won 8 percent of the vote in European Parliament elections.
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As Nigel Farage, the head of the United Kingdom Independence Party, learned last week he had not won a seat in Britain’s parliament, it looked like his euro-skeptic party had received a drubbing.

Yet despite winning only one seat in Britain’s first-past-the-post system, UKIP’s brand of populist conservatism appears to be alive and well in a country still grappling with the fallout of the global financial crisis.

UKIP, which wants Britain to leave the European Union, is now the third-biggest political force after the conservative Tories and Labour, winning 3.9 million votes, or 13 percent of the vote.

Just as significant, UKIP finished second in 120 voting constituencies in Britain, leaving it well poised to build on its gains in the 2020 election.

The party’s euro-skeptic push had a direct impact on Britain’s election campaign, with Prime Minister David Cameron promising an in-out referendum on British membership in the E.U. by 2017.

UKIP is not an exception in Europe, but increasingly, the rule.

While a very British part of the British electoral landscape, UKIP belongs to a growing wave of populist parties, on both the right and left, that are increasingly making a bid for the political center of Europe.

Often these parties on both sides of the spectrum are deeply wary of the European Union, globalization and what they see as the arrogant technocratic elite.

From the Front National in France, to Syriza in Greece, from the True Finns to Podemos in Spain, these parties, new and old, are garnering support from Europeans who feel abandoned by the political maintstream.


Iglesias Tsipras DPA
Greek Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras with Podemos’s leader Pablo Iglesias. Source: DPA


And even if massive electoral success eludes them, their presence is having an effect on politics, causing increased fragmentation and uncertainty in the European political landscape, and putting mainstream parties under pressure.

The fringe parties have been gaining momentum in recent years as the euro crisis reached its height. And they did particularly well in last May’s European Parliament elections, which saw Front National, Syriza and UKIP coming out on top in their countries.

A Greek population deeply disenchanted with its political establishment then took the plunge and elected the radical left Syriza in January, who formed a coalition with the rightwing populist, the Independent Greeks.

“There is this perception among voters that Social Democratic parties and Conservatives parties are increasingly alike.”

Antonio Barroso, Senior Analyst, Teneo Intelligence

The euro-skeptic Finns, formerly the True Finns, are now poised to join the government in Finland, and in Spain, Podemos (literally, We Can) is on the cusp of gains in the local and regional elections at the end of May. Podemos could challenge the established parties in national elections later this year.

While these alternative political parties differ greatly in their issues, methods and priorities, and take a moderate to hard line, they all agree that the mainstream political establishment no longer listens to ordinary citizens. They typically set themselves up as champions of the common people.

“The way in which they define this establishment or the way they define ordinary citizens differs from case to case,” says Matthijs Rooduijn, a political scientist at the University of Amsterdam. “But in general the message is the same. It is that the good people are betrayed by the evil elite.”

That has been the case in Britain, for example, argued Antonio Barroso, a senior analyst at Teneo Intelligence, a London global advisory firm.

“A party like UKIP has been very able to articulate issues like immigration and Europe,” Mr. Barroso told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “They take advantage of the inability of the mainstream parties to explain frankly to citizens what the policies are and how to tackle those issues. They are extremely able at exploiting this.”

One important factor in the emergence of this new breed of parties is the coalescing of the political center, which has opened up space on the right and left for new parties to emerge. The differences between many center-right and center-left political groups in Europe are increasingly difficult to distinguish.

“There is this perception among voters that Social Democratic parties and Conservatives parties are increasingly alike,” said Mr. Barroso.

“This is a center, where there is consensus around the basics, a neo-liberal market and liberal democratic institutions,” says Lasse Thomassen, an expert on populism and a lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London, “where all that is left is this kind of technocratic, pragmatic meddling.”

“You get these reactions from the right and the left, where parties and movements are bringing a new sort of passion into politics,” he told Handelsblatt Global Edition.


Farage imagao Zuma press
UKIP’s Nigel Farage didn’t make into parliament but the party got 4 million votes. Source: imago/Zuma Press


Those who feel left behind by politics, and by the forces of globalization, are typically attracted to the new parties.

“They vote for radical parties because they feel threatened by the process of globalization and of increasing Europeanization,” Mr. Rooduijn said. “They think that they will lose their jobs, or they think that their identities are under threat.”

The aftermath of the global financial crisis has exacerbated this trend as established parties lost popularity after implementing austerity.

And tellingly, it was just as likely for a nominally left-wing party, such as the PSOE in Spain, PASOK in Greece or the Labour Party in Ireland, to implement tough austerity measures.

Many voters in the crisis countries perceive that the European Union or Germany, the biggest country in the 28-nation bloc, are dictating the austerity policies from afar.

But it is not only anti-austerity parties such as Podemos and Syriza who criticize how Europe is handling the financial crisis. Euro-skeptic parties, such as the Finns in Finland or Alternative for Germany, are also gaining ground by challenging costly euro-zone bailouts.

Yet, while many of these right-wing parties are avowedly anti-European Union, for many on the left, the E.U. is not the culprit for society’s woes.

“Rather they are against the sort of neo-liberal policies that are the norm of the day at the European level,” argues Mr. Thomassen.

Other hot-button issues are immigration and foreigners, with those voting left often much more open to increased immigration. For them, it is the political or business elite at home and abroad, not foreigners themselves, who are to blame for their countries’ economic ills.

Yet, on another level, you see an increasing trend for populist parties on both sides of the spectrum to support more statist policies over free market capitalism. “There is a trend that the radical right parties are becoming increasingly left wing when it comes to socio-economic policies,” said Mr. Rooduijn.

The parties are often in favor of social welfare, protecting state jobs and are against globalization, and oppose the TTIP free trade deal between the European Union and the United States, for example.

“Once the mainstream parties from the left and right work together in a grand coalition, they have to make compromises and water down their policy proposals, and that opens up even more space for these parties.”

Matthijs Rooduijn, Political Scientist, University of Amsterdam

These parties are emerging at a time when more voters are adrift, no longer bound out of loyalty to always support the same party or its candidates.

“The electorate has become more disengaged from these parties,” argues Mr. Barroso. “There’s less party loyalty.”

Amid the fragmentation, more political coalitions are emerging, some offensive, some defensive.

The rise of these fringe parties has forced mainstream parties into left-right coalitions in many countries, such as Germany, Ireland, and the Netherlands.

That in turn reinforces the belief that the major parties are all essentially the same, which they dispute.

“Once the mainstream parties from the left and right work together in a grand coalition, they have to make compromises and water down their policy proposals, and that opens up even more space for these parties,” Mr. Rooduijn told Handelsblatt Global Edition.

In Germany, for example, the far-left Left party and AfD on the right have attracted voters disaffected by the centrist parties, the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats, which are perceived by some of their own party members as having turned their backs on old core values.

To stem the voter flight, traditional parties try to further moderate their political stances, which only makes them more unpopular among some purists.

In France, the Front National has sought to detoxify its own image as a xenophobic and racist party to attract more French voters.

The very public disavowal of the founder and ex-leader, Jean-Marie le Pen, by his daughter, Marine, has helped bring the party closer to the mainstream.

Le Pen AFP
Marine le Pen is seeking to detoxify the Front National brand. Source: AFP


Her strategy is paying off. The party is strong at a regional level, and narrowly missed becoming the strongest party nationally in local elections last March.

In 2012, Ms. Le Pen, a smooth, articulate speaker who strikes a more moderate tone than her own party’s platform belies, received 17.9 percent of the vote in the last presidential election. Currently, French polls see her beating unpopular President Francois Hollande to reach the second run-off round, possibly going up against the former president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

The image makeovers don’t necessarily come with a softening of the party’s platforms, which tend to remain more extreme. “They keep their fierce anti-immigrant positions; they remain very euro-skeptic,” Mr. Rooduijn said.

The Front National is still calling for curbs on immigration to France and wants ethnic French job applicants to be given priority in hiring.

On the political left, besides Syriza’s gains in Greece, Spain’s Podemos is a rising political phenomenon.

Podemos, which arose from the “indignados” anti-austerity protests of 2011, only organized itself into a political party in early 2014. Yet the group won 8 percent in the European Parliament elections in just a few months. By January of this year, the group was polling as Spain’s most popular party.

And while its rise in Spain has been curtailed by the arrival of a centrist rival, Ciudadanos, Podemos has been effective in portraying itself as untouched by corruption scandals that have marred the ruling center-right PP and center-left PSOE. Podemos refers to the  two established parties, which have taken turns ruling Spain since its return to democracy in the 1980s, as “The Caste.”

But the fracturing of political loyalties may have its limits. For one, the more small parties are created, the greater the competition for fewer voters. And some parties, such as Podemos, are having trouble reconciling their aspirations toward power with a left-wing agenda.

The latest Spanish polls ahead of local and regional elections on May 24 put Ciudadanos in third place at just over 19 percent, with Podemos in fourth place. Podemos, which is closely aligned to Greece’s Syriza, may also have lost support amid the struggles Syriza has faced in reaching a deal with creditors.

“I don’t expect Podemos is going to do as well as Syriza did in Greece,” said Mr. Rooduijn.  “Podemos will see that it’s very difficult for Syriza now to be both euro-skeptic and strongly left wing, and to be in government and to make compromises with the European Commission.”


Siobhán Dowling is an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition and covers European politics. To contact the author:

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