Why Radical Right Parties Struggle to Maintain Support
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Explaining the rapid decline in support for radical right parties in Western Europe
The general trend amongst the radical right parties of Western Europe has been a steady increase of fortunes in elections to the national legislature. However, cases in France, Austria, Germany and the Netherlands have presented a phenomenon whereby the party haemorrhages their share of the vote soon after an electoral breakthrough. The aim of this work will be to highlight why (where it occurs) parties of the extreme right have struggled to maintain the consistent support of a large portion of the electorate and explain why this decline is more rapid than traditional mainstream parties.
Amongst observers of Western European parties of the radical, or extreme, right there has been a general consensus that the last three decades have exhibited a trend of resurgent fortunes. Since the collapse in support and legitimacy for such parties in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War and the onset of the Cold War, they initially struggled to establish an electoral foothold in both the traditionally and newly democratic systems of Western Europe. Approaching the 21st Century, though, most countries in Western Europe witnessed an upturn in fortunes for the radical right, with many achieving the status of mass organised parties and becoming a persistent presence in national legislatures. Consequently, academic literature has tended to focus on the reasons behind this phenomenon, observers attempting to provide explanations behind the electoral performance of specific parties or an over-arching explanation of why radical right parties appear to be becoming increasingly popular and successful in elections to national legislatures. This has provided several factors which are generally considered to be conducive towards the success of the radical right, such as: populist appeal; charismatic leadership; shifting debate in the political spectrum which creates a niche which the radical right alone can exploit; increasing salience of radical right issues; notably immigration and race relations; decline in voter confidence in the traditional democratic elites (including electoral effects of voter apathy); and increasing perception of mainstream party corruption; and inability to deliver on critical issues; and more.
Taking the general theme of research in this area, then, one might assume that the fortunes of Western European radical right parties has on the whole been of increasing, or at least stable, electoral fortunes. Indeed, in researching for this paper, it has been noted that electoral results for radical right parties to national legislatures has in almost all Western European countries been improving over the last three decades. However, there are certain cases which present an interesting question regarding the futures of such parties and the continuance of this trend. This is the question of whether they are institutionally capable and stable enough to maintain support and legitimacy, as well as operate as a successful governing party once they have achieved significant success. Such success we might define as the institutionalisation of the party as a relatively permanent feature in national elections, with reasonable potential to participate in coalition negotiations or be a significant factor affecting the passing of bills and focus of debate in the national legislature and media. As mentioned, for many parties this is already a reality, or could realistically become one, but four cases suggest that once extreme right parties have reached a certain level of support, they encounter the same risks as many other institutionalised parties with regard to reversals in fortune. However, I will argue that many of the risks they face are unique to parties of the radical/extreme right, and hence why in the cases under study the decline in support has been so rapid.
The cases under question regard when parties of the radical right experience a reversal of the general electoral trend, namely a decline in support. As mentioned, examples of this have been the exception rather than the rule, but are of significant interest because of the fact that radical right parties are still essentially niche parties. The cases investigated in this paper - Austria's FPO, France's Front National, Germany's Die Republikaner, and the Dutch parties of the radical right - have all at some point experienced a significant downturn in electoral support in national elections. In 2002, the FPO slipped from 26.9% of the popular vote to just 10% after a tumultuous period in coalition with the OVP, and though experiencing a resurgence in fortunes, the party has suffered from Haider's split to form the BZO. In Germany, the Republikaner party went from being a party with European Parliament and Landtag seats and polling over half a million votes in federal elections by 1998, to a splintered and no longer apparently extremist party which has almost dropped off the electoral map in federal elections. The French Front National has been an ever-present and outspoken feature of French politics since Jean-Marie Le Pen burst onto the scene, but after the unexpected success in the 2002 presidential elections, they have been unable to maintain momentum, with numerous internal spats and a slide a results - in 2007 Le Pen's lowest result in presidential elections since 1981, and the National Assembly results more than halving. Finally, the Netherlands presents an interesting case, whereby several radical right parties have scored seats in general elections, yet so far all have swiftly collapsed, despite what might be argued is a fertile ground for the radical right as a force in Dutch politics.
These cases stand out because of the unusually damaging decline in electoral fortunes, which buck the trend of established radical right party performance over the last three decades. Whilst there are examples of established radical right parties (i.e.: parties which have representation in the national legislature over several terms) which have suffered electoral setbacks (notably the Alleanza Nazionale in 2001, Norway's Fremskrittspartiet in 1993), such declines in support have been relatively minor, and such parties have recovered from them swiftly. This paper seeks to provide some explanation as to why the reversal in electoral fortunes for the four parties under investigation here has been so rapid. Whilst there have been cases elsewhere in Western Europe of radical right parties suffering electoral setbacks, none have been so markedly significant as these, where the parties under examination have experienced declines in performance of at least 60% in elections to the national legislature in the space of just two elections. In two cases - the LPF and Republikaner - this has been near a near terminal decline; in the case of the FPO, this was followed by a significant split from which they are only just recovering; and the FN are left at in a difficult position, particularly given the age of their ever-present leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. These results stand in stark contrast to the general story of radical right success in recent decades, where a decline in votes for an established party has been both relatively minor and recoverable from, the four parties under investigation have experienced what appear to be electoral nose-dives. Consequently an examination of the reasons why these four parties have suffered such unusually damaging results might help to produce interesting results concerning how the parties of the radical right operate as an electoral force and any unique challenges they face in consolidating themselves in the party systems of Western Europe.
Previous research in this area
As mentioned earlier, general research into the declining fortunes of the radical right has been relatively sparse and overwhelmed in comparison to the amount of research conducted into the reasons behind success for the radical right.
Much of the general work into the radical right as a new phenomenon has provided useful grounds for research into decline, most notably Herbert Kitschelt's The Radical Right in Western Europe (University of Michigan Press, 1995), which posited that the radical right's success in the late 20th century can to a large extent be explained by an electoral system's effect on voter choice. This seminal work has gone some way to explaining the differing levels of success exhibited by the radical right, offering a plausible reason why there appear to be significant limits to radical right success at a national level in mixed and majoritarian systems, such as the UK, Germany and Scandinavia, compared to systems which are more proportional or have lower thresholds for entry into legislatures. It is useful to take into account the effect of electoral systems, given that many individual and general studies suggest that successful radical right parties will often exhibit very similar traits with regard to leadership style, policy platforms and party organisation, and in particular the mobilisation of electoral coalitions on common policy issues; yet these similarities stand in contrast to electoral results which might vary greatly.
Though Kitschelt's theory as elucidated in The Radical Right is intended primarily to explain the conditions for radical right emergence and success, it has also been to some extent used to explain the converse - why the radical right might experience a decline in success. However, the great weakness of Kitschelt's study is that it is so concerned with explaining conditions for emergence. Numerous studies have gone to show that taking the converse of Kitschelt's theory - that electoral systems can explain reversals in success for radical right parties - will not provide satisfactory explanations of the radical right phenomenon. Partly this is because the electoral systems model cannot account for reversals in success once a radical right party has become established. Indeed, if we take Kitschelt's theory strictly, we might conclude that once a radical right party has established itself as a legitimate and vote-winning parliamentary party (i.e.: it has broken through the electoral thresholds and maintained representation for at least one subsequent election), then it is unlikely to fall back into a position whereby it retreats into permanent decline despite a permeable electoral system. Significant counter-examples to this notion exist, most notably the Dutch example, whereby the radical right has broken through electoral barriers to make relatively significant gains, only to suffer rapid and terminal decline, despite little change to the electoral system and the obvious salience of radical right politics amongst a stubborn group of extremist voters and significant group of protest voters.
The issue is further complicated when we consider the effect of other actors in the electoral system. Two studies in 2005 (Veugelers and Magnan; Meguid) complimented an approach which showed how flawed an analysis of electoral systems can be when considering the reasons for a decline or restriction in the success for radical right parties. The Veugelers & Magnan study sought to apply Kitschelt's electoral systems theory, although the study was specifically aimed at analysing the conditions for far right strength. The significance here was that the study A.) suggested that the conditions for far right success were dependent to a significant extent upon the structure or restructuring of party competition; and B.) that an application of the electoral systems theory could not satisfactorily explain the (varying levels of) success for parties in France and Austria. Whilst Meguid's studypaid little attention to electoral system features as a variable, it did present strong evidence that the attitudes of ‘mainstream' parties towards niche (including radical right parties) is crucial to the electoral fortunes of a niche party at a general election - a theory backed up by Art, who believed the differing levels of success experienced by the German and Austrian extreme right was primarily attributable to mainstream responses to their presence in the arty system.
The structure of party competition is therefore of interest, as it provides the possibility of a significant external factor which might effect a decline in support for a radical right party. Individual studies have shown the significance of mainstream responses to radical right issues when it comes to electoral performance. Generally, there is a lot of divergence across countries with regard to cross-party adoption of and attitudes towards the policies and issues canvassed by the radical right. This is partly due to the nature of political discourse in each country, with what we might call ‘radical right' grievances amongst voters and politicians alike rather diverse. Whilst the primary issues championed by the radical right tend to be common (foremost amongst which are immigration, race relations and anti-establishment platforms), the salience of these issues amongst voters varies significantly from country to country, and accommodation of such issues likewise. For instance, mainstream responses to immigration and race issues in Germany are rather muted by mainstream fears of being accused of ausländerfeindlichkeit, despite it being a highly vocal issue at local level in contrast, there has been a marked shift in strategy amongst the French mainstream since the early 1990's to accommodate issues popularised by Le Pen's outspoken rhetoric.
Again, much of the general work on party system effects on the fortunes of the radical right has centred upon their emergence and the conditions for success, rather than failure. A general theme popularised by Ignazi (1992) was that the evolution of political discourse in post-industrial Western Europe to focus on neo-conservatism and neo-liberalism had opened up and legitimised dialogue concerning issues traditionally confined to the extreme right. Given that these same themes are to some extent still prevalent today, it might be suggested that any decline in fortunes for the radical right might be due to internal factors affecting radical right parties, rather than the result of further shifts in the political spectrum which haven't been evidenced. However, Ignazi's theory has become less popular recently, with studies such as Abedi (2002) suggesting that radical right parties are just as successful where ‘overcrowding' of the centre is evident as when the centre parties open up (as Ignazi suggested) to allow possible entry. Further to this, no obvious correlation between a fall in support for the radical right and a change in the party system can be drawn. This is partly due to difficulties in producing a coherent model of the party system which analyses such a correlation, as well as because responses to the influence of a radical right party tend to be driven by particular or extraordinary events in the short term, rather than medium- and long-term shifts in discourse. Particularly evident are the cases of the LPF and FPO, whereby shifts to actually accommodate these parties in government by pragmatic coalition partners were immediately followed by a rapid decline in support, even though the overall terms of political debate did not significantly change over the period in question. This might lead us to agree with Abedi that any change in support for the radical right is largely unrelated to the degree of polarisation exhibited by the party system. We might subsequently take the view that a decline in support for a radical right party has an ambiguous relationship to restructuring of the party system.
Given this we might look to the manner in which parties of the radical right garner support in the first place (excepting any influence from external actors such as those discussed above). Studies in this area have again tended to concern how the radical right achieves support in the first place. A recent example is Ivarsflaten's (2008) study, which supports the theory that the only grievance mobilised by all radical right parties with any success is that of immigration. Importantly, this study suggests that radical right parties are just as effective when no particular grievance is mobilised (intentionally or not). This presents one of the more crucial issues that the radical right faces, namely how to deal with a voter base which tends to be split along three lines - first, committed voters who are attracted to the party's general platform; second, voters who would normally vote otherwise, but are attracted because the issues touted by the party (in particular, immigration) suddenly become more salient; and thirdly a protest vote from those voters who have become particularly disillusioned with mainstream parties(more on this later). The suggestion, consequently, is that it is not a change in policy or grievance issues which effects a drop in support for the radical right, but rather a party's response to changing perceptions of legitimacy and reliability as a legislative grouping. This is particularly important given that radical right parties so often emphasise themselves as anti-establishment, meaning they risk de-legitimisation if they acquire the labels of ‘corrupt' and ‘ineffective' which they hurl at mainstream parties.
Having to contend with these issues, radical right parties have consequently developed rather unique party structures in order to respond effectively to voter issues. Of particular interest is common assertion that the radical right tend to be populist parties. For numerous reasons too extensive to list here, radical right parties have relied heavily on new media and the appeal of a charismatic and outspoken leadership. Due to their small size relative to mainstream parties, as well as the more transitory nature of their voter base, they have tended to rely heavily on alarmist campaigning, often gaining press coverage in excess of their size or real influence, in order to get heard and maximise their effect on party dialogue. This is a regularly observed strategy, even if it weakens or threatens solidarity and effectiveness in the party leadership. One key objective of such a technique is to widen and enhance their voter appeal, but in order to work successfully radical right parties have often had to ‘water down'proposals, or at least simplify them in order to fulfil the need for soundbites and slick campaign material. Such campaigning, and a reliance on uniquely charismatic and authoritarian leadership (a common feature across the most successful radical right parties), is a factor common to most radical right parties, particularly those under study in this paper.
Given the variety of factors affecting the establishment and growth of the radical right, it might be reasoned that there are numerous reasons behind the failings of radical right parties where they have occurred. Although external factors such as party system structure, electoral system and the nature of the electorate have been shown to have an effect on the performance of radical right parties, existing research suggests that this is most significant when a radical right party is emerging. However, I will seek to show that whilst these factors can be part of the reason for a decline in support for radical right parties, they are not necessarily primary causes. In particular, in the four cases under investigation, the hypothesis is that the external factors mentioned are not significant enough to explain why the decline in support for these parties was so rapid.
The central question of this paper is why the radical right in the four countries under investigation have experienced such a substantial decline in voter share between elections, rather than a minimal drop or continuing to grow as has been the case with the radical right in other West European countries. A hypothesis based on external factors (party system and competition, media strategy, electoral system, voter issues, etc.) affecting the party is unlikely to be sufficient, as the variation in circumstances for the four parties under consideration means it would be difficult to derive a general cause for electoral demise, particularly given the highly unorthodox nature of the parties' decline in comparison to the overall story of radical right success across Europe in the same period. A hypothesis based on internal factors (leadership, party strategy, etc.) alone is also insufficient, as it is difficult to envisage how the decline in votes scored on such a large scale can be the result of internal structural issues without a significant alteration in the external factors precipitating a decline.
Comparing these cases to other Western European radical right parties which have not suffered a significant or permanent collapse in support, it is suggested that the successful parties have better managed a transition which allows them to present themselves as reliable governing parties which can (sustainably) fulfil the demands of voters in parliament or government, rather than just reliable vote-winning parties which can win representation on limited issues at individual elections. The former is shown to be present in the case of parties such as Italy's MSI/AN and Lega Nord, Switzerland's SVP, Norway's Fremskrittspartiet, etc, all of which have avoided significant declines in vote-share despite changing conditions in the party system or electoral system. It is therefore expected that in the four cases under investigation the three most significant factors conducive to the plunge in electoral results are:-
1.) Leadership style. As mentioned, radical right parties tend to, without the ‘taming effect' of coalition partners, be characterised by a populist style of campaigning, often focusing on specific political issues to fan voter sentiments and gain cross-cleavage support from the electorate. This often includes leaders who embody a highly pragmatic and charismatic leadership style. It is hypothesised that in our four cases this style of leadership makes it difficult for the party to the demands of government or maintain a stable coalition of support.
2.) Mainstream party responses to the radical right. Since the emergence of the ‘new' radical right party family there has been a general move by radical right leaders towards legitimising their parties within political systems, and it is not controversial to suggest that this is a necessity for them to be perceived as legitimate by an electorate in order to break into a national legislature or into government, or by the parties they have to negotiate with in parliaments (for the passage of bills, formation of coalitions, etc.) in order to effectively influence policy. It is postulated that the reaction of mainstream parties to a breakthrough by the four parties under consideration inhibits the respective radical right party's ability to operate as a governing/policy influencing party, as well as inhibiting the ability of the initially large electoral coalition which gave them representation to support them in a consequent election.
3.) The social bases of electoral support. Given the heterogeneous nature of support for radical right parties at the polls, it is suggested that a significant portion of the vote for the parties under consideration at ‘breakthrough' elections is mobilised on a temporary, rather than a permanent, basis. This could be for a variety of reasons - issue salience, identification as a ‘radical right voter', legitimacy of the party. It is suggested, therefore, that the four parties under investigation have been unable to establish a stable and reliable basis of electoral support between parliaments, such that when factors (1) and or (2) come into play the party suffers from the departure of one or more groups of voters that are attracted to the party by temporary issues. Consequently the steep decline in vote share is a result of the inability of the party to consolidate their appeal to a broad enough group of voters to maintain their electoral momentum, resulting in only a small group of faithful voters turning out to prop up their poll numbers.
Methods and Focus
This paper will focus on the developments of four parties in the electoral periods relevant to the subject of enquiry. These are: the French Front National between the 2002 and 2007 presidential elections, and the 1997, 2002 and 2007 National Assembly elections; Austria's Freiheitliche Partei Osterreichs (FPO) between the 1999 and 2002 Parlament elections; Germany's Die Republikaner between the 1998 and 2002 Bundestag elections; and the cases of the Dutch radical right parties, concentrating on the electoral fortunes of the Lijst Pim Fortuyn between the 2002 and 2003 elections to the House of Representatives. In each of these cases the parties in question have gone from positions of relative strength to haemorrhaging votes, results which stand in contrast to results for radical right parties elsewhere across Western Europe.
This paper will then focus on analysing whether the hypotheses listed above are true. This has been done by assessing academic papers which have analysed the conditions of the relevant parties in order to determine what, if any, consensus there is on the reasons behind these parties' collapse in vote share, backing this up with media evidence where it is relevant. Additional to this, general research into the systematic effects determining what might cause a drop in votes for the radical right has been called upon in order to confirm the hypotheses, as well as potentially extrapolate the hypothesised causes for vote decline from external factors (such as changes in the party or electoral system, the strategies of rival parties, changes in issue salience, etc) in order to see if it can be confirmed.
Throughout the investigation special attention will be given to several key themes which contribute the events surrounding the electoral defeats of the parties in question. These will include:-
Party leadership - All four parties under investigation have been generally considered by observers as exhibiting a populist style of political strategy. Three factors are worth considering here. First, how far this is important in allowing the party to generate votes at general elections; second, to what extent the party uses populist campaigning to gain influence on policy; and thirdly, how this affects the party's ability to respond to demands of government/the electorate (where relevant).
Legitimacy of the party - This does not concern whether or not the party is viewed as a legitimate, i.e.: not anti-system, party; rather, it concerns whether or not the party has a reputation for delivering on its promises, or can present candidates who are genuine and reliable enough for an electorate to support them. This is important in the sense that the party's chances of maintaining electoral momentum may be hampered by poor performance in government or in the legislative process in parliament.
Competition in the party system - How other (relevant) parties in the country's party system respond to the challenges posed by the party of the radical right. Obviously there is a difficulty in assessing which responses by what parties actually have an affect on the performance of the radical right party. Consequently we will be looking for cases collaboration, cohabitation, or ostracisation by mainstream parties which have an observable effect on either the radical right party's electoral fortunes, or their ability to operate as a policy-influencing party (be it by governing or as a force in the legislature).
Salient policy issues at elections - Parties of the radical right have been noted to campaign on a breadth of issues, albeit often engaging more vocally with a specific issue in order to generate support, in contrast to mainstream parties (particularly those with ambitions of government) which are forced to campaign on a wide variety of issues affecting all voters. Consequently, it is of interest to observe whether the specific campaign and policy stances of the radical right parties at elections in any way effected (or possibly even mitigated) the decline in vote share.
The social bases of support - Radical right parties do not fit easily into a cleavage-based model of the party system, as they tend to draw their support from a wide variety of social backgrounds for numerous different reasons. It is of interest, therefore, from what groups did the party under investigation originally garner support in the election preceding the regression, and whether there was any observable change in the type or confidence of the groups who voted for the party by the time of their decline in the following election.
Austria - the Freiheitliche Partei Osterreichs (FPO)
The FPO is possibly the most significant party to begin this investigation with, due to the fact that it is not only one of the longest established radical right parties, but also because it occupied government for far longer than any other under investigation here. Since Jörg Haider was elected leader of the party in 1986 it had experienced a remarkably sustainable rise in results, culminating in the earthquake success at the 1999 election where it became the second largest party with 26.9% of the vote.
It is of note that the FPO's success has roughly correlated to the declining fortunes of the ‘Grand Coalition' of SPO and OVP. Popular disenchantment with the Proporz system which had characterized Austria's two-party system came to a head in the 1999 elections when both parties' opinion poll ratings slumped immediately prior to the election. The SPO/OVP coalition had not, by most standards, been particularly unsuccessful or hit by scandal, even benefitting from increasing opinion poll numbers thanks to Austria's presidency of the EU in the second half of 1998. Whilst the Social Democrats' poll numbers remained remarkably stable (with only a minimal drop in 1999 compared to the OVP), the OVP had a much harder time, being unable to mitigate a general trend of decline that had continued since the 1991-95 Parlament. In particular, Müller notes that the party had difficulty in producing a coordinated and effective campaign on election issues, compared to the aggressive campaigning of the SPO and FPO, the latter of whom was particularly successful at enlivening their campaign by recruiting celebrities such as Patrick Ortlieb and Theresia Kirler.
The constitution of the vote for the FPO in the 1999 election is also interesting with regard to how it broke the OVP/SPO duopoly. The FPO had been remarkably successful at increasing turnout from voters of every background, suggesting the FPO was poaching voters from both the SPO and OVP. This is partly due to voter dissatisfaction with the continuation of the Grand Coalition still too tainted by Proporz, as well as the FPO's ability to play off Haider's recent election to the Governorship of Carinthia a success which greatly enhanced the FPO's credentials as a party of government. However, the core vote for the FPO remained blue collar (predominantly male) workers, largely (and perhaps disproportionately) drawn from former SPO-leaning voters, despite the SPO being generally seen to have been more successful than the OVP at limiting the drop in votes experienced as the 1995-9 coalition came to its end. (Though it should be noted that the FPO increasingly attracted a significant number of voters from right-leaning farmers and middle-class professionals unhappy with the OVP's commitment to the EU and perceived lack of leadership.)
The FPO had also more than any other party managed to increase membership of the party, particularly amongst professionals and those exhibiting no ideological affinity for the party. Luther points out that as beneficial as this may have been for maximising turnout, the membership drive was set against a push by Haider to fill organisation posts within the party with individuals likely to be loyal to the party leadership (i.e.: Haider), including key figures such as Susanne Riess-Passer and Karl-Heinz Grasser. This contributed greatly to the view of the FPO as autocratic, with the focus of policy and campaigning originating from the party leadership, rather than the membership.
The period of office after the formation of the OVP-FPO coalition in 2000 was relatively tumultuous. Despite the popularity of several FPO initiatives (such as the Kindergeld payment to mothers and outspoken opposition to the Czech nuclear plant at Temelin), the FPO's opinion poll ratings were hurt by an unusually aggressive fiscal retrenchment and unpopular policies such as the decision in 2002 to purchase 24 Eurofighters, despite widespread public opposition, particularly given the budgetary situation. None of this should have been as damaging to the party as the subsequent electoral drop suggests, with many of the more successful policies of having been intended to satisfy the FPO's core vote. However, as Heinisch points out, the damage came primarily as a result of the FPO's failure to depart from confrontational tactics to achieve reforms, ‘calculated outrage and exaggeration'being the hallmarks of FPO strategy at all levels to achieve leverage on policy.
This was particularly damaging, given the rift that quickly developed between the formal leadership of the party, and the de facto leader, Jörg Haider (Haider having stepped down from the leadership since sanctions against Austria were introduced after the formation of the OVP-FPO coalition in 2000, in favour of Susanne Riess-Passer). Haider was widely regarded to be pulling the strings from behind the scenes, yet it became increasingly difficult for the more moderate party leadership (particularly Finance Minister Grasser and Vice-Chancellor Riess-Passer, as the highest ranking officials) to attract support for reforms and maintain face when the Haider camp were intent on criticising both their senior partner in the coalition and their own party officials for setbacks. This was complicated further by increasing public uneasiness towards Haider, whose continuing criticisms of the party leadership increasingly conveyed the image of the party as dysfunctional. In particular, Haider's occasional anti-Semitic remarks and a visit to Saddam Hussein in February 2002 precipitated condemnation within Austria and beyond and a crisis of confidence the FPO struggled to recover from. The moderates resistance to Haider's continuing efforts to enforce his own will on the party could only last so long, and come summer 2002, Riess-Passer and several other government figures resigned, prompting frantic in-fighting between the Haider- and moderate- factions over the party leadership, precipitating the fall of the coalition and early elections.
The election of 2002 was considered to have been, by and large, a disaster for the FPO. The party's share of the vote slipped from 26.9% to 10%, having lost 61% of votes cast compared to 1999. The first point of interest here is where all the lost votes went; some indication of this is given by the strategies of the FPO's rivals. The SPO concentrated its campaigning on the disaffected blue-collar vote, a tactic which largely succeeded, whilst riling against the incumbent coalition, initially propounding a coalition with the Greens. The OVP, meanwhile, worked primarily on promoting the reforms achieved by the black-blue coalition, albeit without reference to the FPO itself, whilst painting a critical image of a potential red-green coalition. The highlight of the campaign came two weeks before the election, when Grasser, widely regarded as the most popular politician in government, was declared to be the OVP's candidate for this position as an independent. The two parties' dismissive attitudes towards the FPO have been viewed as effectively de-legitimising the FPO as a suitable party for government.
The FPO's response was focused on populist overtures, much of it tax-cuts for the lowest earners, criticism of the EU enlargement agenda and, notably, attacking the OVP chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel. These tactics were largely the intent of Haider, who felt such tactics - which had worked well for the party in previous elections - would work well to attract the protest vote again Herein a rift was exposed between the Haider camp and the FPO's formal leadership, which tended to be more moderate and recalcitrant regarding party policy. This epitomised a problem of identity which characterised the party during its period in office, torn between hard-core supporters who hankered for the radical and populist measures on which the party campaigned in 1999, and the party's ministers in government, who took a more moderate stance. Partly this was due to the perceived pressures of public opinion, which became more critical for the party as it was in office. However, it can also be put down to a ‘taming effect' of being in partnership with the OVP, which prevented the FPO from acting on many of their manifesto claims as a criterion of coalition, Minkenberg pointing out that even early in the government's lifespan the FPO's reforms were relatively conservative and ‘far from the implementation of radical right-wing ideology'.
Consequently there are three themes which might be said to have characterised the reasons behind the FPO's poll defeat in 2002:-
- Crisis of identity - once in power, the party faced a question (which it never resolved) of whether to bargain hard to achieve its desired reforms, or moderate its policies in order to achieve goals closer to its policy preferences. This was a cause of heated debate within the party, particularly when opinion polls suggested that the party was risking their core support.
- Party-instability - the FPO was apparently unable to cope with the conditions placed upon it by the coalition agreement and the change in leadership, and intense bickering and in-fighting, much of it performed via the media, characterised the period in office, and to a large extent precipitated the collapse which sparked early elections.
- Loss of the protest vote - commentators suggest that the core FPO vote (voters leaning towards the party's racist/xenophobic/neo-fascist values) remained relatively stable. Instead, what seemed to be propelling the party's incredible successes between 1986 and 1999, and who failed to turn out for the party in 2002, were protest voters disaffected by mainstream incompetence and corruption. It seems that the FPO's failures in policy, dysfunctional politicking and being tainted by colluding with the mainstream badly affected its ability to attract the significant protest vote that exists in the Austrian electorate.
France - the Front National (FN)
Regularly seen as the standard-bearer for the European radical right, the Front National has reached something of an iconic status thanks to outspoken rhetoric an the significant and widespread political success achieved at local and regional level since its foundation by Jean-Marie Le Pen in 1972. Similarly to the FPO, it had since the mid 1980's achieved a notable level of success, winning several councils and mayorships, and polling between 2.3 and 3.8 million votes in elections to the National Assembly. Despite these high numbers, it struggled to gain any seats(with the exception of 35 seats in the 1986 election, where it benefitted from the brief amendment to proportional representation), and could thus be argued to have had negligible influence over legislative activity in the Assembly. However, this does mean that it perhaps benefitted from continued outsider status, unlike other radical right parties (FPO, SVP, AN, Lega Nord, LPF) which had to face the complication of having to cope with the transition from (populist) parties of opposition to parties of government. This is arguably the FN's joker card, allowing it to state claims and policies in national elections with little worry of their feasibility, granting flexibility of the party's platform when pandering to the electorate.
Of high interest is the FN's incredibly diverse bases of electoral support, which ranges from former left-wingers (gaucho-frontistes) to hard-line right-wingers, pro-union to anti-union, from out-and-out racists to pro-Europeans who are against immigration but uncomfortable with xenophobia. This diversity has been well documented, though Perrineau points out that of all the groups which have been documented as having supported the FN, only two groups can be said to be perennially faithful party supporters: right-wing droito-frontistes, who tend to be older, more bourgeois liberals with xenophobic and nationalist tendencies; and ‘national populists', who are more left-leaning and uneducated, working class, and expressing anti-European and racist sentiments. This striking diversity is an obvious cause for difficulty when considering the FN's campaigning tactics, Hainsworth describing the ‘policy and presentational incoherence, as the FN appeals to its different electorates' The FN, therefore, faces two large risks when campaigning:-
1. That other electable parties compete for and steal multiple sections of the FN's core vote - crucial, given that FN voters are drawn from several divergent points and issues in the French political spectrum; and
2. That the FN's campaigning itself is not coordinated well enough to turn out a significant number of each group of voters, as it risks alienating several groups of voters, rather than one or two. I feel protest voters are particularly susceptible here.
As can be seen, both of these were evident in the 2007 elections.
III. The Presidential election
Le Pen's surprising second-place in the second round of the 2002 presidential election has been put down as largely due to circumstance. Low turnout overall (which has been shown to bear a strong correlation to turnout for the FN ) was representative of the failures of either of the main candidates - President Jacques Chirac or Prime Minister Lionel Jospin - to generate significant enthusiasm for an election which was characterised by a lack of political charisma and marked voter apathy . Le Pen typically benefitted from lack of competition on typical FN issues and a significant protest vote for extremist parties, and 2002 was no different. The FN's increase in votes by just over 230,000 votes was not especially significant (it fulfilled a predicted electoral trend), were it not for the slump in votes for the mainstream parties. Thus whilst expectations of a second-round breakthrough in 2007 would have been ambitious, it would not be unreasonable to expect Le Pen to maintain his strong showing at the first-round polls.
Instead, Le Pen's result slumped from 4.8 million (16.9% of the vote) to just over 3.8 million (10.4%), a drop of over 20% - his worst result since the first time he stood in 1974.
What is notable is the fact that Le Pen and the FN did very little different to what they had done in previous elections. The usual populist rhetoric and xenophobic diatribes characterised Le Pen's campaign, though very little could be said to have been especially damaging, with the possible exception of Le Pen's claim that Sarkozy was an unfit candidate due to his Hungarian ancestry .
The two most prominent explanations offered by analysts of the election are:-
1.) Low turnout of the core FN vote
The 2007 election saw an exceptionally high turnout (83.8%), representative of highly polarised and competitive campaigning by parties of all sides. It has been noted, however, that the largest abstainers in the elections were the unemployed and those with minimal academic qualifications. These two groups have often formed a significant proportion of the FN vote, so their failure to turn out for such a competitive election would provide some explanation for the haemorrhage in votes. Given Auberger's theory that FN turnout is inversely correlated to overall turnout, it suggests that the FN turnout might have dropped because many casual (rather than committed) FN voters considered their candidate as having little chance of winning. Furthermore, given that most opinion pollsters over-estimated the FN vote (to account for underestimation in 2002) yet still predicted a loss, this is not hard to believe.
2.) Mainstream parties successfully poached FN voters
(1), however, does not offer a plausible explanation for why the Le Pen's support dropped so rapidly, given trends from previous elections. A more profitable explanation is the strategies of the mainstream parties. The election was characterised by intense campaigning between the candidates of the centre-left and -right (Ségolène Royal and Nicholas Sarkozy, respectively), who, partly thanks to their relative youth and their perceived break from the incumbent executive, focused campaigning on ideological (rather than practical) positions. Le Pen suffered from both. Sarkozy, who had gained a reputation as a hard-talking, traditional Gaullist, had somewhat endeared himself to many voters tending towards the extreme right with an (occasionally recklessly) authoritarian dialogue whilst he was Minister of the Interior. During the election, his campaign concentrated heavily on issues such as law and order, the French welfare state and immigration, all of which were calculated to resonate well with the FN's core voters and drain support from Le Pen, particularly from areas such as Alsace, which expressed a leaning towards the FN whilst also being crucial battlegrounds between the UMP and PS. Royal, meanwhile, concentrated her campaign on the working classes who had so abjectly failed to turn up for the Socialists in 2002, whilst also making the occasional populist overture with musings on the importance of state emblems, again encroaching on typical FN issues.
Perhaps more damaging was the effect of the surprise third candidate in the election, François Bayrou, who's campaigned on a centrist platform of breaking up the centre-left/centre-right stranglehold on the presidency, appealing to the sentiments of both groups with overtures towards the left-leaning classes and rightist promises to cut the public debt. His popularity stemmed from his overtures towards the educated, middle class voters left out by Sarkozy and Royal's campaigns, though his support sky-rocketed when opinion polls picked up on the fact that he would be the likely winner in a second round head-to-head with either of Royal or Sarkozy. This meant he became the candidate of choice for voters who wanted to break the Gaullist-Socialist stranglehold on national politics- despite being essentially ‘mainstream' - which might typically have gone to Le Pen. Bayrou's platform had particular resonance in the media, which he had criticised for perpetuating the centre-left/centre-right dominance, depriving Le Pen of media space. With mainstream voters turned out en masse for the centre-right and centre-left, and all three of these candidates poaching social groups previously seen as ripe for Le Pen's radical, populist and anti-establishment platforms, it would not be contentious to purport mainstream-candidate strategies as the primary cause of Le Pen's troubles.
IV. The National Assembly election
The FN's results in the National Assembly elections soon after the presidential election were not just similarly awful - they were by all accounts a disaster. The party had dropped just under a million first round votes between the 1997 and 2002 Assemblies (in part due to the increased overall turnout after widespread indignation at Le Pen's first-round success in the presidential election), but topped it in 2007 with a 1.7 million drop - a 61% decline.
Beyond what has already be stated regarding the reasons for a Front National loss in the 2002 elections, little can be added, owing in part to the lack of academic analysis on the reasons behind the an increased loss in the legislative elections specifically. However, there are some noteworthy factors.
There was a vast drop in overall voter turnout compared to the presidential elections. Due to Chirac's amendment to the length of presidential terms, it was also agreed to reschedule Assembly elections to coincide with the presidentials. This is one of the reasons touted behind what was seen as an apathetic opinion towards the Assembly elections, a case of voter fatigue affecting the electorate's will to go to the polls again However, given that the FN's overall share of the vote more than halved as well, this cannot be the entire explanation - indeed, this fact suggests either FN voters were unusually apathetic (perhaps not surprising, considering the party's failure to gain more than one seat in the entirety of three Assemblies), or those with FN-tendencies who did turn out had been swayed towards the mainstream parties. To a large extent this latter seemed the result of a concerted effort by Sarkozy - who had not lost any energy between elections - to rob the FN vote in order to establish a solid UMP majority. This was probably compounded by the FN's own financial problems (having spent so much on the presidential campaign) that left it ill-prepared to maintain a concerted campaign for the Assembly elections.
The Netherlands - The Lijst Pim Fortuyn
To say that Pim Fortuyn's List had the greatest impact on Dutch politics in the first decade of 21st century would hardly be controversial. The party exploded onto the scene in 2002, and scored a victory in that year's elections, barely months into its existence, that stunned all observers - polling 1.6 million votes (17%), the party gained 26 seats in the Dutch House of Representatives, enough to force negotiations which resulted in the party becoming the junior partner in a coalition with the CDA and VVD. A significant portion of this vote was, however, a sympathy vote, the party's omnipresent leader, Pim Fortuyn, having been assassinated just nine days prior to the election. This fact makes the Lijst Pim Fortuyn (LPF) unique in comparison to the other parties under consideration in this paper, as the LPF was effectively an artificial party devoted to Fortuyn, and lacking established membership and policy views, yet had to cope with a sudden and crippling leadership vacuum. This all at a period when it had been catapulted into government and expected to deliver on a radical manifesto at a time of political upheaval.
The immediate reason for the LPF's collapse in 2003 was internal upheaval. The party had neither anticipated success on the scale it achieved, nor participation in government before Fortuyn's death. Consequently the Balkenende I cabinet had to contend with LPF leaders in key posts who had little experience of government, or who had been elected for the first time and had little experience of party politics. This in itself would not have been such an issue, had it not been for the fact that those LPF members who held ministerial posts quickly proceeded to fall out with one another amidst disagreements over policy and leadership, or were forced out through scandal. First casualty was Philomena Bijlhout after it was revealed that she had not fully disclosed the extent of her involvement with the Bouterse militia. Weeks later, two parliamentarians left the LPF to form a new party, heightening media speculation that the party was unable to maintain internal discipline and would fragment. Mat Herben, who had taken over the party leadership, failed to maintain unity and respond effectively to various scandals and allegations affecting LPF deputies, and was soon toppled in favour of Harry Wijnschenk. Matters didn't improve, however, Wijnschenk proving himself equally inept at preventing infighting and questions over the leadership of the party and delivery of policy. The result was that Herben returned to the leadership the day before the CDA and VVD pulled the plug on the coalition. Most damaging, though, was the spat between Eduard Bomhoff (Vice Prime Minister and Minister for Health - interestingly, Bomhoff switched allegiance from the PvdA just months prior to the election) and Herman Heinsbroek (Minister for Economic Affairs), who openly fought over policy and the party leadership, at the expense of agreement with their coalition partners. Such attacks were highly personal, aimed at discrediting each other, with little regard for how this affected the coalition's ability to govern day-to-day, or its popularity in opinion polls. It was this conflict which the CDA and VVD claimed to be the reason they could no longer continue working with the LPF, forcing them to dissolve the cabinet on October 16 and call fresh elections for January 2003.
That the LPF lost so many votes in 2003 is therefore not surprising - the party showed a clear incapacity to reorganise itself following the leadership vacuum and adapt to the needs of government. Furthermore, opinion polls support the notion that the party's structural (leadership) issues were solely to blame for the huge loss, the party slumping ten percentage points in the month leading to October, when the infighting was fiercest. The party's chances of maintaining its representation were further hindered by the electoral campaigns of CDA and VVD. They had signed a Strategic Accord with the LPF, agreed upon as part of coalition negotiations, in which significant concessions were made to the LPF on immigration and welfare. The CDA and VVD claimed they wished to see the proposals of the Strategic Accord seen through, but that this was impossible with the LPF in government a position they frequently asserted during the first months of the coalition and becoming a bench-mark of their electoral campaign. This both discredited the LPF as a credible political force and imposed on the LPF's political agenda, depriving them of the unique position on immigration issues which they had enjoyed when Fortuyn was campaigning. Furthermore, the LPF faced greater competition from the PvdA, whose new leader, Wouter Bos, was seen as a much more capable and promising leader than his predecessor, appealing to disaffected Dutch Labour supporters who had turned to the LPF in apathy towards the Purple coalition which had governed prior to 2002.
However, the party still achieved eight seats in 2003, a highly respectable figure on its own (if we ignore the decline from 26). Given this, and the obvious salience of the issues popularised by Fortuyn, the party should not have been too disheartened by its performance. However, indiscipline prevailed, Wijnschenk leaving to continue as an independent. Amidst further disagreements the eight representatives broke away from the party in August 2004, carrying on as the LPF in name only. By the time of the 2006 election, the rump party had lost nearly all of the leaders of the last campaign to scandal and secession, whilst new leader Olaf Stuger barely registered a media presence. To compound matters, the issues which the party and Fortuyn had championed most - ending Muslim immigration and integration of asylum seekers - was being devoured by newcomers. Irwin noted that the mainstream parties had taken a harder line on the immigration issue, whilst Marco Pastors and particularly Geert Wilders obtained much greater recognition and support in the radical right agenda. Wilders, a VVD deputy, gained a national presence from the arguments over immigration and Turkey's EU accession which led to him leaving the party in 2004. Consequently, his Partij voor de Vrijheid, formed in 2006, came to be seen as the standard-bearer for the Dutch radical right, with a fierce anti-Islam platform This prominence made him a far more accessible figure on the Dutch far right, whilst the PvdV had, despite its youth, a significantly more developed party programme than any of its radical rivals, including the LPF
A crucial problem concerning analysis of the LPF's electoral performance is the fact that it sits rather uneasily in the ‘radical right' party family, a fact epitomised by its leader's unusual history. Fortuyn rejected being labelled as either ‘left' or ‘right', did not cover up the fact that he was a former Marxist, and was profoundly liberal, supporting gay rights, prostitution and drugs legalisation all factors which do not often go hand-in-hand with the far-right. Furthermore, The LPF's success in 2002 stood in stark contrast to the history of the Dutch radical right. Historically highly liberal and fragmented as a society, the Dutch lack a history of xenophobia or overt nationalism which is often a prerequisite for radical right success. This is compounded by a near perfectly proportional electoral system and the dominance of economic and social (especially the role of the welfare state) concerns in political discourse up until the mid 1990's, which made it difficult for any extreme-right grouping to gain and sustain a foothold in parliament amidst a highly competitive party system. Most successful were the Centrumdemocraten, who gained a handful of seats 1989 and 1994. Though claiming to be nationalist, the party had little in the way of ideology aside from populist and anti-immigration immigration stances, much of their core vote being drawn by its ambitious and openly racist leader Hans Janmaat
Most literature has therefore been concerned with how Pim Fortuyn managed to get the Dutch radical right on the electoral map, most commentators agreeing that he has been a key factor behind the shift in Dutch media and parliamentary debate towards concerns over multiculturalism, Islam and integration. That so much attention was devoted to Fortuyn is not surprising - his attack on the establishment Purple Coalition became popular with the media in part due to his fame as an outspoken and flamboyant columnist and author, whilst his charisma and speaking skills garnering huge public attention for what were considered radical political views. Thus he became a high profile spokesman for the public concern regarding immigration and the integration of alien cultures in particular. However, it has been noted that whilst Fortuyn had a hand in bringing such concerns into mainstream political debate, it is conceivable that he largely fulfilled a demand from the electorate, rather than creating one. In short, there must have existed conditions favourable to the LPF prior to the 2002 election in order for such a young party lacking membership for it to get elected in the first place.
A lot of information can be derived about the nature of the LPF vote from the performance of the Centrumdemocraten before it and the PvdV after it. The fact that the centre parties had gained representation in previous elections is illustrative that there existed a growing number of voters who felt the issue of immigration an important (but rather neglected) one, and whom were receptive to the anti-immigrant agenda of the LPF Considering that party maintained a significant presence in the Tweede Kamer in 2003 despite such crippling internal fractures and seemingly terminal predictions from opinion pollsters suggests that the issues it campaigned on were still highly salient, and this is what saved it from immediate doom. Additionally, the 2002 result seems overinflated, having bucked opinion poll predictions, with much of the vote attributed to voter sympathy after Fortuyn's death. Consequently, the party's ill's stemmed not only from poor organisation (understandable, given the youth of the party and the nature of Fortuyn's leadership) but from having to cope with conditions it never expected to have to deal with (i.e.: government). Conseuqently, it might be best to assess the 2006 result as the more significant vote decline, as 2003 seemed to simply ‘correct' results for the party, in accordance with the actual level of support for the issues it campaigned on. Whilst increased issue space competition from other parties (in particular from the Wilders and the PvdV in the immediate run-up to the 2006 election) were certainly a factor explaining why voter attention turned so swiftly away from the LPF, the fact that the party essentially imploded by 2004 must surely leave us to conclude that the (lack of) internal organisation is the dominant variable in assessing the LPF's fortunes.
Germany - Die Republikaner
The Republikaner party is the last party under consideration in this paper, and whilst the story behind its decline from success will probably be of less impact on the conclusions reached in this paper, it does reinforce several key observations. The reason for this is that its story is rather different from the other three parties under consideration. Whereas the FPO, Front National and LPF had all at some point achieved representation in their respective national parliaments (albeit the FN to a much lesser extent), Die Republikaner never surpassed the electoral thresholds necessary to achieve representation in the Bundestag (5% in the list vote, or win a constituency seat via the first-past-the-post system). The party did score a string of successes at Land and European level - the party scored 7.1% in the 1989 European elections to send six deputies to the European Parliament, as well as a handful of seats in the Landtag of Baden-Württemberg, being represented there from 1992 to 2001. However, beyond this the party never managed to surpass thresholds to either Landtag or the Bundestag despite significant popular support (reaching a peak of 1.1 million list votes in 1998).
That the party lost votes at all in 2002 was not unexpected. By this time the party had lost all of its Landtag and European Parliament seats, whilst membership continuing a decline evident since the mid nineties. It is clear that by this point the party leadership was struggling to contain the frustration at having failed to break through the electoral threshold at successive Bundestag elections, but the reasons for the steep decline in 2002 (which bucked the expected electoral trajectory for the party) are rather obscure.
On the face of it, Germany has all the key ingredients for radical right success. Whilst institutionalised anti-extremism permeates German society at many levels, there is nonetheless a large and vibrant extreme right subculture, particularly amongst the youth. Such groups range from skinheads to neo-Nazis and fans of extreme-right musicians, all of which have a vocal presence and are frequently debated in the media, particularly due to the prevalence of anti-semitic and xenophobic attacks. Such groups have been on the rise in the Eastern Länder since reunification, and they constitute a large source of support for the radical right. Despite the fact that one of the most popular irks for radical right parties was Germany's divided status before 1990, they have nonetheless been able to readjust to maintain a populist, nationalist rhetoric which reverberates such subcultures. Germany's relatively high level of immigration, particularly state-sponsored (the Gastarbeiter programme) have provided fuel to radical right campaigns. Also, in the late 1980's and throughout the 1990's the radical right benefitted from a significant protest vote, similarly to the other parties investigated here. However, studies suggest that the Republikaner vote is rather more complex, and lacks support from a clear socio-structural group/s, the majority of its support stemming from a pool of protest voters
The Republikaner were founded by two breakaway deputies of the CSU (Franz Handlos and Ekkehard Voigt) and Franz Schönhuber, a Bavarian TV presenter, the original intention being that it would be a national (i.e.: not confined to Bavaria) conservative party to the right of the CDU/CSU, without any explicit extremist agenda. The party was, therefore, originally a nationalist, populist party which began life intending to capture the votes of citizens dissatisfied with the performance of the mainstream right-wing parties - the CDU/CSU and FDP. However, the party's overall ideological position became overtly xenophobic and extremist, for a variety of reasons. One factor was Schönhuber, who wrested the leadership from the other founders in 1985 (at the expense of Voigt and Handlos's membership), who wanted to model the party on France's Front National, emphasising the party's populist message. The (more overt) anti-immigration stance the party adopted was also a deliberate tactic to mop
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