By the evening of Sunday, July 23, the Spanish far right could on the brink of power for the first time since the fall of Franco. If the conservative Partido Popular comes first, then VOX – a right-wing populist party currently polling 13% – could enter government as its junior coalition partner.
And VOX is in no way shy of its aspirations. It wants to ban abortion, deport all illegal immigrants, repeal a law that protects women from domestic violence and close down “extremist mosques”. And it is not alone.
This sudden uptick of support for far-right parties is happening all over Europe. In Germany, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is surging. It scored 22% in a recent national opinion poll and 34% in the region of Thuringia, where, for the first time, its candidate won a district mayoral election in June. In Austria, meanwhile, the Freedom Party (FPÖ) is consistently polling above both the centre left and centre-right parties, at around 30%.
In France, where riots that centred on poor, ethnic minority communities shook Emanuel Macron’s presidency last month, the political winner has been Rassemblement Nationale (RN). It’s leader, Marine Le Pen – who called for a crackdown on the protests – has approval ratings on 39% compared to President Macron’s 33%.
In the Flanders region of Belgium, the Vlaams Belang – a far-right separatist party with a fascist past – is on 22%. In Portugal, Chega, another openly racist far-right party, has doubled its 2022 election score to poll 12% and 14% for most of this year. In Greece no fewer than three far-right parties entered parliament in the June general election with a combined score of 12%, the largest of them overtly aligned to a jailed neo-Nazi former MP.
Meanwhile, in Sweden, Finland, Hungary, Poland and Italy, right-wing populist parties are already firmly ensconced in government. The price democracies pay for that was shown in Finland last week when deputy prime minister Riikka Purra, who leads the far-right Finns Party, was revealed to have bragged: “If they gave me a gun, there’d be bodies on a commuter train,” referring to an incident with migrants. Her defence was that it happened in 2008 and that – unlike her fellow minister – she had not made any public jokes using the phrase “Heil Hitler” (the Hitler guy resigned).
Joe Mulhall, director of research at Hope Not Hate says: “There are a series of elections due over the next five years where, apart from Germany, all the major countries in continental Europe could either end up with far-right governments or a far-right party a ruling coalition. When Austrian far-right leader Jörg Haider was elected in the 1990s, or when Le Pen did well in 2012, there were demonstrations everywhere and conniptions across the global media. Today there’s just a sense of relief that they haven’t won.”
What’s driving this new surge of right-wing populism? First, the cost-of-living crisis triggered by the war in Ukraine, which has plunged the euro area into an inflationary recession. Though the negative GDP numbers were slight – minus 0.1% GDP growth for Q4/2022 and Q1/2023 – the inflation figures were big: 6.1% across the Eurozone, with Latvia, Slovakia, Poland and Czechia all on 12% and Hungary on 21%.
“There’s an increasing sense, for people across the continent, that the status quo isn’t working,” says Mulhall, “and whenever we get into one of those crunch points, with economically deprived communities that are already susceptible to far-right politics, people turn round and ask, electorally: ‘Why not look elsewhere?’.”
Florian Ranft, of Das Progressive Zentrum, a centre-left German thinktank, says this is particularly true of the AfD’s surge in Eastern Germany. In Sonneberg, a picture-postcard town close to the Czech border, Ranft tells, me, “the AfD’s winning candidate only campaigned on national issues. They had thousands of posters about closing the borders, or ending the war in Ukraine, which had nothing to do with local politics. It’s a protest vote”.
The second factor, experts believe, is the unique situation of a rise in trans-Mediterranean refugee traffic, alongside the arrival four million refugees from Ukraine. “You’re getting the idea of the ‘deserving and undeserving’ refugee,” says Mulhall: “There are white Christians from Ukraine and then people who the far-right stigmatise as ‘single male economic migrants of fighting age’: all the primary narratives across the European far right concern the idea there are non-white people coming over to ‘invade’ us and change us demographically.”
But underlying these trigger factors is the deeper demographic divergence between the life experience of young, educated, skilled and urban people and those in older, ex-industrial small towns. Paul Hilder, CEO of Datapraxis, a strategic advice and research company working with progressive parties across Europe, says:
“As worldviews and experiences diverge, and the system is increasingly seen as failing to deliver consistently for people, issues such as immigration and crime function as common vectors of alienation. Wherever we poll in Europe, there is either large minority or majority support for the position that all immigration, legal or illegal, should be stopped.”
The cost-of-living crisis, says Hilder, has made voters go in search of immediate change and practical answers: “Where the populist right are winning they often seem to attract swing voters who are experiencing insecurity in their daily lives and want something better for themselves and their families. These voters are often losing faith in mainstream politics, wanting change, and looking for any port in a storm – and they will vote despite the extremist ideology of the far-right parties, not because of it.”
Hilder’s polling shows that in France, Sweden and Italy, twice as many voters switched to far-right parties because they hoped they would “change things” rather than because they thought such parties “have the best policies”.
Another factor boosting the far-right vote is the mainstreaming of its ideology via social media, which increasingly forces the mainstream media to give it a platform. We’ve had an object lesson in this process with GB News and the National Conservatives conference in the UK – with one feeding off the other to legitimise anti-trans, anti-drag and white victimhood ideas. But elsewhere in Europe, the process is on steroids.
Paulina Fröhlich, who heads the democratic resilience programme at Das Progressive Zentrum, says: “The AfD has more than three times as many Facebook followers as the ruling SPD. They understand social media and use it to good effect. For example, they deliver their speeches in the Bundestag in a YouTube-friendly way. Within a few minutes, the video is edited and uploaded. The speech was not addressed to the colleagues in parliament, but to the party’s followers beyond.
“Experts believe the AfD does not need the traditional media any more – because it has built up its own mass media online, where it doesn’t have to deal with context or critical questions from journalists. Without social media, the AfD would not even be in parliament.”
A signal moment in the evolution of the European far right came with the de facto inclusion of the Sweden Democrats in a conservative-liberal coalition last October. Though they did not get any ministers from the deal, the SDs – who have well-documented origins in neo-Nazism – co-signed the coalition agreement, which calls for a crackdown on gang crime, the reduction of immigration to a legal minimum and a demanding programme of cultural integration.
There was no need for Sweden’s mainstream parties to admit the Sweden Democrats: they could have sought to govern as a minority, or in coalition with the Social Democrats. So it was a conscious, strategic choice – and gave permission for the direct absorption of the Finns Party into the government in Helsinki this year, whose neo-Nazi gaffes have now triggered a political crisis. Few doubt that, if the PP and VOX can form a majority government in Madrid after next Sunday, they will.
The underlying problem is that the idée fixe of modern fascist ideology – the Great Replacement Theory – has begun to structure the thinking of both the populist and the conservative right. The idea that Muslim “invaders” are coming to enact “white genocide” against the population of Europe, encouraged by an army of human rights lawyers, feminists and drag queens is of course ludicrous; but it’s an order of magnitude more dangerous than the routine racial prejudice of the 1970s and 80s.
Because its practical conclusions are alarming. First, it has begun to frame all politics to the right of traditional conservatism around the myth of a coming inter-ethnic conflict. Second, it elevates misogyny and anti-LBTQ+ prejudices to the same status as racism within far-right folklore – opening up recruitment pathways for young men. Third, it swirls through, and collides with, an amorphous cloud of online conspiracy theories. Fourth, it maps more effectively on to the widespread anti-systemic sentiment among voters.
So, for the French far right, the recent uprisings by minority ethnic communities in response to the police murder of an unarmed teenager are no longer simply cited as a justification for ending migration or tougher policing: they are framed as a rehearsal for “Day X” – when liberal democracy erupts into a global inter-ethnic civil war.
And the critical forums where the “text” of far-right populism gets mixed with the “subtext” of outright fascism are online, says Hope Not Hate’s Mullhall:
“Alongside the far-right parties you have a miasma of post-organisational far-right networks involving thousands of individuals operating across national boundaries. These networks are like synapses, that allow information, ideas, rhetoric, tactics to move around the internet, creating memes and content and pushing it towards wherever the next target is.”
Everybody I spoke to about the far-right surge pointed to the paralysis of liberal, green and social-democratic parties in the face of it. Mulhall warns that sudden, local radicalisations, which grab the attention of party strategists weeks before elections, are often the produce of decades of local work by far-right activists. The Spanish left and centre left, meanwhile, had to scramble together messaging for the snap election they triggered, in the case of the radical left producing a whole new party, slogans and programme.
Paul Hilder of Datapraxis offers a handful of to-dos for parties of the progressive mainstream in the face of the right-wing populist surge.
“Meet voters where they are, which is struggling with inflation in their daily lives; make bold, practical and credible offers on these issues. When it comes to drawing a contrast with the right wing populists, it’s not about calling them fascists or Putin backers – it’s about connecting their extremism to life getting worse and not better. Progressives need to attract a diverse electorate, ranging from those who agree with them on social issues to those who don’t. Finally, it’s about execution: making sure that clear, effective messages are reaching the right people.”
Does this mean we should stay away from woke politics, I ask? Hilder, who has worked with some of the most progressive politicians across Europe and the Americas, does not mince his words.
“Many marginal voters take the position that ordinary people’s daily lives are more important than social or ethnic minorities. That doesn’t mean being anti-woke. If your disposable income has dropped by 10 or 20% in the past year, that’s what you want politicians to be focusing on, rather than how many genders there are.”
In the run-up to Sunday’s vote, the Spanish socialist party has been laser focused on the cost of living, campaigning on its record of getting inflation down to 1.9% by using price controls while in government. We will see whether that cuts through the tsunami of hate coming from the right.