Europe: Right-wing populism and polarisation

Following the elections to the European parliament in June, Sascha Staničić, national spokesperson from Socialist Organisation Solidarity (Sol – CWI in Germany), analyses the development of right-wing populism in Europe.

The phenomenon of right-wing populism is not new in most countries, but there is much to suggest that it has reached a new level. Not only because in opinion polls and elections the share of votes of right-wing populist parties has grown significantly, but also because they have got hold of, in one form or another, the levers of government at regional or even national level in more countries. On 16 September 2023, the British financial magazine, The Economist, published an article entitled The Hard Right Is Getting Closer To Power All Over Europe.

However, this is not a one-way development. In Poland the right-wing populist PiS government lost parliamentary elections last year, the far-right Jair Bolsonaro was not re-elected as president of Brazil, and Indian president Narendra Modi also lost his overall majority in the Indian general elections earlier this year. In France, in the second round of the parliamentary elections in July, although Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) increased its seats from 89 to 126, it did not win the victory it was expecting, relegated to third place.

But in Hungary, Italy, and now also the Netherlands, right-wing populist parties make up the governments or have a strong position in them. In other countries they are directly or indirectly involved in governments: in Sweden, Switzerland, and Finland at national level, and in Austria and Spain at regional level.

The 2024 European elections saw a success for right-wing populist and far-right parties in many countries. Overall, they were able to increase their share of seats in the European parliament from one-fifth to about one quarter. They topped the polls in Italy, Hungary, France and in Austria – where for the first time there is a threat of an FPÖ-ÖVP (conservative party) coalition with an FPÖ chancellorship after the general election in the autumn. In Germany, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) received 15.9% despite big scandals about its two top candidates, who they even had to cancel from their election campaign.

In eastern Germany the AfD is the strongest force, and it is not impossible that after the regional elections in September it will only be kept off the government benches in some federal states by (almost) all-party coalitions. In Spain, not only the far-right Vox party increased its share of the vote (to 9.6%) but also the newly founded right-wing populist SALF party received 4.6% and three seats. Elliniki Lysi (Greek Solution) doubled its vote to 9.2% in Greece, and for the first time far-right forces in Cyprus and Portugal made headway. In Poland, the populist right PiS party lost almost ten percentage points, but Konfederacja, which stands even more to the right, won 7.5%.

So there has been a shift to the right in the European parliament. But again this is not a uniform picture. Notably, in Northern Europe right-wing populist forces were not that successful and left-wing parties made progress. For example, in Finland the right-wing populist True Finns lost 6.2% (ending up with 7.6% of the vote) while the left-wing Vasemmistolitto increased its vote by 10.5% (taking it to 17.3%). Also in Sweden the Left Party received a credible 10.9% (up by 4.4%) while the far-right Sweden Democrats lost 2.2% (ending up with 13.2%).

In some other countries left-wing forces gained votes. The Communist Party of Greece (KKE) almost doubled its share of the vote to 9.3%, and in Belgium the ex-Maoist Workers Party of Belgium (PTB/PvdA) received 10.7%. In France, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise (LFI) got 9.9%, attracting one million more voters than in 2019. Notably, those left parties which failed to advance, or went backwards, have a record of government participation and adaptation to the capitalist establishment – Syriza in Greece, Podemos in the Spanish state, Die Linke (the Left Party) in Germany.

This is a reflection of what the outcome of the European elections represents overall – a turning away of voters from what they consider to be the political establishment by either voting for right-wing populist or left-wing parties which are seen as being anti-establishment, or by not participating in the elections at all. Voter turnout stood at 51% – half the population couldn’t be bothered to join in the farce of electing a powerless parliament.

What is right-wing populism?

Some of these right-wing populist parties have existed for a very long time, even with parliamentary representation, but they have been strengthened in recent years. In other countries they are a relatively new phenomenon. This applies to Germany, where the AfD was only founded in 2013. Likewise, Vox and SALF are new phenomena in Spain, so is Chega! in Portugal.

These parties have different characteristics, which is reflected in the fact that they have formed different alliances and factions in the European parliament. In June this year the leaders of the right-wing populists in Austria, Hungary, and the Czech Republic formed a new coalition called Patriots for Europe. Just before the Euro elections the German AfD was expelled from the right-wing populist parliamentary faction by the French Rassemblement National (RN) and the Italian Brothers of Italy (FdI), which are aiming for a more ‘respectable’ image.

However, they all reflect a specific phenomenon which has developed over the last decades since the collapse of the Stalinist states in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe from 1989: the appearance of parties between the traditional conservative (or liberal) bourgeois parties and those parties which had their roots in fascist parties of the past.

The populist right can be nationalist, racist and authoritarian but does not – as the fascists do – stand for a complete destruction of the workers’ movement and for the abolition of all democratic rights and dictatorial rule (see the article in the Introducing Marxism series, What is Fascism?, in Socialism Today issue No.278, June 2024). They have no armed wings, do not carry out terroristic attacks, or base their strategy on mass mobilisations and a battle ‘for the streets’. Having said that, there is a grey zone and there are connections between the populist right and neo-fascist forces in some countries.

Right-populist forces defend the capitalist system, and can even have neo-liberal economic policies, but they present themselves as standing ‘for the people’ and ‘against the elites’. By this they attempt to blur the class lines in society, useful for the capitalists, but at the same time they are a constant factor of instability from the point of view of the ruling capitalist class. The latter would, where possible, prefer to rely on the traditional bourgeois parties, but because of the international crisis of capitalism, these are in profound crisis in many countries.

It would, however, be wrong to deduce from these developments a general right-wing trend in society or within the working class. 2023 was a year of upsurge of strikes and workers’ struggles and this is – on a lower scale – continuing in 2024. In 2023 there were big waves of strikes in Britain, France, and Germany, but also important strikes and workers’ protests in other countries like Austria, Norway, Belgium and Croatia. It is also less than two years since a majority in Berlin voted in a referendum for the expropriation of the real estate companies; in Spain there were mass protests for better health care, and Greece has experienced its biggest general strike since the Euro crisis ten years ago.

We have also seen mass mobilisations against the populist right in Germany, with millions taking to the streets in the first months of the year and, at the end of June, 50,000 marching against the party congress of the AfD in the city of Essen. Also big demonstrations took place in Austria, while in France mass demonstrations erupted after the RN’s success in the Euro elections.

Unfortunately, in most cases these struggles find little expression at the political level. Nevertheless, they testify to the fact that we are dealing with a social polarisation instead of a shift to the right – a polarisation that is, however, not taken up by the political left in most European countries and used to strengthen its own position. This inability and crisis of the left is a major reason for the strengthening of right-wing populist forces and the decisive reason why the rise of the right has not yet been stopped.

Sharpening crises

The historical turning point marked by the collapse of Stalinism (ie, the bureaucratically organised non-capitalist planned economies in the Soviet Union, the East Germany’s GDR, and other states) in 1989-1991, and the restoration of capitalist relations in these states, also initiated or accelerated an upheaval of political relations internationally. In many countries in Europe social democratic and communist parties were transformed from bourgeois-workers’ parties into thoroughly pro-capitalist parties and became pioneers of neo-liberal attacks on the working class. The working class was politically disarmed in the face of a sharp bourgeois offensive against the gains it had won in the past, no longer having even a reformist force partially representing its interests.

This offensive, accompanied by the continuation of economic and social crises, undermined social stability and the attachment of large parts of the population to traditional political forces. A political space emerged that right-wing populist parties were able to partially fill. At the same time, an ever-growing part of the working class, especially the most impoverished, turned their backs on the political system altogether and the non-voter rate increased from election to election.

With no mass left parties offering an alternative political solution to the catastrophic crisis of infrastructure and public services, immigration can trigger social fears about the supply of housing, the situation in education and health care, childcare, etc, fuelled also by the anti-immigrant policies of the establishment parties attempting to win votes from the populist right.

Recently the debate on climate protection measures has also been exploited by the populist right. If those in power have their way, the transition to a ‘green capitalism’ will be paid for by the mass of working people. This was the message from the so-called heating law in Germany, proposed by the SPD/Green/FPD coalition government, triggering deep insecurity in large parts of the working class and the middle classes. In this situation right-wing populists can find an open ear with their denial or downplaying of the dangers of climate change. In the Netherlands, the BBB (Farmer-Citizen Movement) has made a rapid ascent because the government’s climate protection measures have been at the expense of farmers.

In some countries, the Ukraine war is also a factor which the right-wing populists can exploit. The growing discomfort with endless military support for Volodymyr Zelensky’s government, as public spending on services is being cut, offers right-wing populists in some countries the chance to present themselves as an anti-war force and to give the slogan ‘this is not our war’ a nationalist content. In addition, right-wing populist forces have increasingly relied on anti-feminist and anti-LGBTQ+ propaganda. In doing so, they can exploit a feeling among sections of the working class that liberal and left-liberal forces care more about politically correct language than about their pressing needs.

All these issues can be exploited by the right because the left and the workers’ movement have not formulated a strong, convincing and unified class position on them, and failed to mobilise around the common interests of workers regardless of nationality, religious affiliation, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Identity politics positions in parts of the left reinforce the perception that the focus is on what divides us and not on what is common to us all. Nevertheless, common struggles do take place – in the trade union collective bargaining rounds, in tenants’ struggles, etc. But they do not find a political generalisation through a left party that could bring the common political class interests to bear. This is currently the case in varying degrees in most European countries.

Government participation

There is also a clear tendency for right-wing populist parties to become part of pro-capitalist governments. The so-called ‘firewall’ of the traditional bourgeois (conservative or liberal) parties against co-operation with right-wing populists is crumbling in one country after another. This is an expression of instability and the loss of their own base. At the same time, bourgeois parties themselves are trying to prevent the loss of voters to the right with right-wing populist content and rhetoric.

This process is most advanced with the Republicans in the USA who, with the wing around Donald Trump, themselves are home to the most powerful right-wing populist force in the country. This has also been seen with the British Tories who, when in government, increasingly used right-wing populist rhetoric, especially with the ‘stop the boats’ campaign against refugees.

Sections of the bourgeoisie see no alternative but to include right-wing populist parties in government coalitions and hope to curb them by doing so. It is true that these parties cannot simply implement their full programmes in government. At the same time, participation in government does not necessarily transform them into ‘normal’ bourgeois parties, and they remain a source of instability and unpredictability from the point of view of the capitalists. The Austrian FPÖ is the best example of this.

Nevertheless, right-wing populist participation in government shows that being in government does not mean being in power. The Italian head of government and post-fascist Giorgia Meloni recently had to accept higher immigration numbers because this was necessary for the labour market from the point of view of the Italian capitalists. She also had to adapt her attitude towards the EU to that of the dominant parts of the Italian bourgeoisie; and her traditionally pro-Russian coalition partners could not prevent Italy’s continued support for Ukraine.

At the same time, however, the Meloni government has been responsible for attacks against refugees and LGBTQ+ rights and has plans to turn the Italian state in a more authoritarian direction – something which all the right-wing populist forces in government have tried to do, most notably the PiS in Poland getting control over the state media and judicial system.

However, it is clear that having right-wing populists in government does not mean a qualitatively different way of capitalist rule as with fascism or dictatorships. And it should not be forgotten that it is capitalist governments of all colours – social democratic, conservative, green, liberal – which are governing in an increasingly authoritarian way, clamping down on democratic rights, limiting freedom of speech, alongside social cuts and anti-working class policies.

It is even possible that under pressure from their electorate, right-wing populist parties in government can implement some social reforms or reverse attacks from previous governments – like the PiS did in Poland with regard to the minimum wage, and RN leader Jordan Bardella announced with regards to Macron’s pension reform.

Failure of the left

The situation following the so-called Great Recession of 2008-09 showed that credible left alternatives can weaken the populist right. At that time, old or new left parties and currents strengthened in many countries – Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, the Workers Party of Belgium, Mélenchon’s projects in France, the Corbyn wing in the Labour Party, Bernie Sanders in the USA. Even the Left Party in Germany had its best election results in that period. There were several studies indicating that Bernie Sanders would have won a presidential election against Trump in 2016. The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, with a left-reformist programme, won over a million votes from former voters of the right-wing populist UK Independence Party (UKIP) in the 2017 general election, and scored the most votes for Labour in decades.

But in one way or another, left-wing parties and leaders have failed in recent years to meet the needs of working-class and middle-class people. This is most obviously the case with Syriza and Podemos, whose governmental policies disappointed all the hopes placed in them, losing a large part of their voters and their active support. In the case of the Spanish state, this has opened the way for the rise of the right-wing populist Vox party and now SALF.

This also applies to the Left Party in Germany, which is increasingly seen as a left-wing part of the establishment and not as an anti-establishment opposition. The Left Party’s participation in government in various federal states and municipalities, and its failure to clearly distance itself from the ruling pro-capitalist parties on both the Covid pandemic and Ukraine, has increased this perception.

The decline of the Left Party led to a split by Sahra Wagenknecht and her supporters, who formed the Alliance Sahra Wagenknecht (BSW) as a new party in January this year. BSW calls itself ‘left-conservative’, combining elements of left and right populism. Sahra Wagenknecht is borrowing from the rhetoric of the AfD with regard to immigration in an attempt to win over AfD voters. While BSW won a credible 6.2% in the European elections, most of its voters were former non-voters or supporters of the Left Party or the SPD, and only a relatively small number came over from the AfD. This might change but is also a testimony to the rule that people would rather vote for the original than the copy.

Adapting to right-wing populism on migration will not lead to right-wing populism being pushed back in society. This requires a strong genuinely left and socialist alternative, a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme which could unite workers of all nationalities, religions and ethnic backgrounds around a class struggle approach to defend their interests.

Unfortunately, the counter-strategy against right-wing populist and far-right forces that tends to dominate on the left – the formation of ‘broad alliances’ with pro-capitalist parties, whose only consensus is a moral rejection of the populist right – end up fuelling the idea that the populist right are the only alternative to the ‘establishment’.

An effective counter-strategy against the populist right must be a pro-active strategy for a real alternative in the interest of the working class and the socially disadvantaged. Building such a strategy requires maintaining complete political independence from pro-capitalist parties and seeing them not as allies but as opponents. It requires not only attacking the right-wing populists as racists and nationalists, but also exposing their anti-working class policies and making clear that they are no better than the established bourgeois parties. Above all, the construction of such an alternative will require that the left forces that want to create it are active in the trade unions and labour struggles, tenants’ movements, neighbourhoods and social movements, both to strengthen them and to bring the idea of a socialist alternative into them.