Do Far-Right Parties Achieve Anything?
Impact of Far-Right Parties on Public Policy
The rise of the far right in European politics has been noted throughout academia, as well as society in general. Parties across Germany, Poland, Hungary, France, Switzerland and Austria have gained unprecedented popularity with the voters, with the Swiss People’s Party reaching a high of 25.6% in 2019 and parties in other countries achieving over 12% of the vote (Buchholz, 2021). In this essay I will try to explore how these parties influence mainstream politics, and whether they can have a significant impact on policy. The first part of the essay will focus on an examination of the performance of the BNP in Britain from 2001 to 2005, the Front Nationale in France from 2002 to 2007 and the Lega Nord in Italy from 2001 to 2006. I will look at these parties through the lens of the issue of immigration, as this has been a major focus of these parties, but is also arguably the policy area, which the far right has in recent times targeted more than others. The second part will discuss several observations that academics have made surrounding the concept of contagion from these far-right parties. In this section I will try to examine several studies that have tried to map out the different rules and structures that either lead to a greater contagion effect, or stop parties from being able to have an effect on mainstream parties. In the last part I will examine the limited impact many of these parties have had, but also how some of them, like the Lega Nord, have actually upset the odds and achieved major success.
The first part of the discussion will focus on how the BNP affected mainstream party policy and the salience of immigration in the national debate during elections. In the early 2000’s the BNP achieved major political success for a far-right party, achieving a high of 17% of votes in local elections in 2003 and 0.7% of the votes in the General Election of 2005 (Tetteh, 2009). This was a major increase from 2001 when the BNP managed to only secure 0.2% in the general election, and 4% in local elections (Buchholz, 2021). This rise in popularity provides a good example for studying the impact of far-right parties on public policy. In the book “Impact of Extreme Right Parties on Immigration Policy: Comparing Britain, France and Italy” (2016), Carvalho claims that during the time of these elections, the BNP had no real effect on the public’s perception of immigration. Asylum did not rank anywhere near the top on the list of important issues and the party failed to influence the levels of hostility and anxiety towards immigrants. Furthermore, the BNP was not even considered as one of the best parties to deal with the issue by voters who did care about immigration. As the book states “only 2 respondents out of 3,219 in the BES 2001 identified the BNP as the best party to deal with this issue”, which revealed that the efforts of the BNP to achieve ownership of the immigration issue was a total failure. Carvalho argues that they did not bring a change in attitude about, rather the anxiety and hostility towards immigration and especially asylum, preceded the rise of the BNP. It also had a negligible effect on other parties, as it failed to influence their policy, Carvalho attributes this to the complete lack of threat to mainstream parties from the far right, meaning that there was no reason for Conservatives or Labour to pander to demands and policy points made by the BNP as they didn’t jeopardise a significant amount of votes. While there was a move from the two mainstream parties to harshen their rhetoric on immigration, with Labour moving onto centre-right territory with their approach to the issue, the Conservatives then responded by moving even further right as a counter to Labour’s move. The Conservative shift in handling immigration did not however come from any sort of influence from the far right, it was the result of inter-party politics between them and Labour. Carvahlo also states that the BNP did not seem to have any meaningful impact on public attitudes towards immigration, and especially asylum issues, additionally these issues were not even considered one of the major talking points during 2001 and were mostly ignored by the public. In 2005 the topic of immigration rose to a much higher level amongst the public, becoming one of the most important issues in the public debate. Again, it was not the BNP that was deemed by the people to be the best party to deal with the problem, it was the Conservatives. He attributes this to the BNP’s weak political networks and scarce electoral support, which prevented the party from having any real soft power on the political stage.
During the period from 2002 to 2007 the Front National had a significant political breakthrough, in the election of 2002, their leader Le Pen, progressed to the second round, beating one of the candidates considered a favourite, the socialist Jospin. In the grand scheme of things this was still a rather meaningless success, but the FN did have a solid amount of electoral support following 2002. This came to an abrupt end in 2007 when the party’s popularity sank significantly and soon after Le Pen ceded the FN’s leadership to his daughter Marine. In the election of 2002, the FN seemed to have little impact on mainstream party attitudes to the issue of immigration, as the main parties engaged in something Carvalho calls the “conspiracy of silence”, meaning they refused to discuss and pander to the far right. Consequently, there was little to no impact on the language and approach of mainstream parties when discussing the issue of immigration. The story is very different however, when considering the FN’s impact on public opinion, as opposed to the BNP, Carvalho claims that Le Pen actually had a meaningful impact on how voters perceived the issue of immigration. As stated in the book, “almost two- thirds of the electorate agreed that there were too many immigrants in France, while the FN electorate overwhelmingly shared this perception”, Carvalho attributes this to Front National’s significant electoral power. The situation also differs somewhat from how it transpired in the United Kingdom, because when the 2007 election arrived, voters in France actually considered immigration less of an issue, rather than more. The FN, as Carvalho claims, had a moderate influence over a change in public policy, following the election of 2002, as many restrictions concerning “family reunion, asylum and irregular inflows” were made stricter. This success at influencing policy he claims, can be explained by the Front National’s party structure, organization and electoral base. As opposed to the BNP the FN actually managed to establish itself as a threat to mainstream parties in the 2002 election. Le Pen’s success also profited from the fact that at the same time, the public’s view of immigration was similar to that of his party (Carvalho, 2016). The later developments were however disappointing for the FN as their agenda became more and more informally co-opted by the new president, Sarkozy. He then proceeded to water down any policy achievements that could have been attributed to the FN, and by the end Le Pen’s party was back to square one. The case in France seems to be that, while the far right did manage to have an impact on the political scene, this was short lived, as the party’s popularity practically collapsed in 2007, which later led to the resignation of Le Pen as its leader.
Lastly, I will examine how the italian Lega Nord impacted the political situation and public opinion in Italy. During the elections of 2001 and 2008, the issue of immigration was especially salient, both voters and parties acknowledged it as an issue that needed addressing. While the 2001 election focused around the issue of immigration in general, the 2008 election was actually more concerned with immigration within the European Union, especially from Romania. Research conducted by Carvalho (2016) indicated that the LN had significant influence on the positions of mainstream parties, in both of the elections being examined. It also achieved political successes in trying to restrict levels of immigration, it had a direct impact on the development of immigration policy and legislation in the period from 2001 to 2006. It also benefited from a significant expansion of its electoral base. It has to be noted however that while their rhetoric remained critical of immigration, in actual fact much of the legislation was not that restrictive and frequently had liberal outcomes. An example of this, which is also discussed later in this essay, is the Bossi-Fini law which appeared as progress for anti-immigration but was accompanied by an amnesty that allowed around 650,000 immigrant workers to become legal workers. This is a story very typical for these types of populist, anti-immigrant parties, because the apparatus of the state is so vast and complex, it is actually not that easy to make any radical change, and so the focus shifts to optics, in other words to appear as if the party is successful and fostering progress. As Albertazzi, McDonnell and Newell (2011) put it: “While these had mixed effects in reality ... the most important aspect for the party was perhaps that it was seen to be proactive (whatever the actual outcome). Through the combination of policies and rhetoric, it was thus able to establish a large degree of ‘issue ownership’ over both federalism and immigration”. Italy’s case differs significantly from the cases of France and Britain however, mainly because the Lega Nord actually managed to get into power, but also performed well enough to maintain ownership of the issues of federalism and immigration after losing power. It’s public image was so well maintained during their stint in government, regardless of whether the policies they were introducing were actually effective or not, that they defied the predictions of many commentators, that they would lose the radical appeal while being in government and would subsequently lose a significant amount of the electorate.
A study of the contagion effects of anti-immigration parties on mainstream parties, provides some very interesting findings, and somewhat confirms the previous assessment by Carvalho. One of the claims made, is that left-wing parties discover immigration as an issue which could garner more votes and alter their language and policy on immigration. This seems to reflect Labour’s repositioning on the issue of immigration, discussed in the section concerning the BNP earlier in this essay. Despite this, research seems to indicate that it is the right wing parties that largely contend with anti-immigration parties, an example of this dynamic could be seen during the 2019 British General Election, when the Conservatives were frightened that the presence of the Brexit Party on the ballot could dilute the vote and endanger their success (van Spanje, 2010). This is echoed partially in “The Impact of Radical Right-Wing Parties on the Positions of Mainstream Parties Regarding Multiculturalism” (Han, 2014), where he makes the claim that “the rise of the parties pushes the overall distribution of voters in a direction advocated by the radical parties”, but contends that left wing parties are not more likely to move their immigration agenda further to the right, rather they only do so when they see it as strategically necessary, in the face of shifting public opinion.
Right wing parties rarely made any difference, in terms of influencing the mainstream parties approach to the issue of immigration. Even in cases like France, where Le Pen had significant impact on french politics after the 2002 election, the policy changes on immigration were largely co-opted and watered down by Sarkozy, a few years later. There are several reasons for this, for one, these parties are not “prophets”, they are “purifiers” as Lucardie (2000) calls them. This means that rather than trying to achieve policy changes in completely new areas, they simply focus on issues that are already in existence. The reason being a purifier is tricky, is because mainstream parties in a lot of cases have already had a chance to claim issue ownership over many of the topics that the purifiers want to tackle. This is reflected in the segment of the essay focused on the BNP, while the party had made immigration control its main goal, the public overwhelmingly concluded that it was the Conservatives who were better equipped to actually accomplish this goal. Probably one of the more serious issues for these parties is however, the miniscule electoral achievements. While they may celebrate victories in certain years, overall their performance is still far from any real power on the national and international stage. Furthermore, because they focus themselves on a small number of specific issues, they tend to limit themselves artificially and so appeal to a smaller number of people. One example of this, is their lack of attention to socioeconomic issues, which they tend to replace by talking about cultural topics. There also seems to be an issue of experience, many of these parties are quite new on the political stage, and have not established political networks anywhere near the size of their mainstream competitors, this results in them usually being junior partners in any coalition they form, which in turn affect how much influence they can actually have over any policy positions. These parties also derive their moderate success, from being radical, in other words they are less likely to want to be seen as mainstream and so purposefully radicalize their ideas, language and public presence. This obviously hampers their chances of ever becoming a solid player in the political system (Mudde, 2012). Even when they do get into power, like the Lega Nord, their rule is rarely anything remarkable, the LN ran on a rhetoric of anti-european immigration but during the period of its power the amount of legal immigrant workers increased. In fact, while the party passed the Bossi-Fini law in 2002 which was sold as a proactive measure to counter immigration, it actually tied “residence to legal and continuous employment”, which is not anything controversial and existed in many european countries already. The law was also introduced around the same time as an amnesty which allowed for more immigrant workers than any amnesty preceding it (Albertazzi, McDonnell and Newell, 2011). It has to be also noted, that in recent years it was mainstream parties that have posed the biggest threat to liberal democracy, not the far right. One must only look at countries like Hungary, Poland or Italy during Berlusconi’s rule. This does not mean however that far right parties will not pose a threat, they are clearly benefiting from social media, which has allowed them to shock, and attract people to their cause. We are also experiencing something Mudde (2012) calls the “tabloidisation of political discourse”, which according to him has allowed the far right parties to inject themselves into the public discussion as the tabloids and the far right parties have converging views on certain issues. It also has to be said that many of these parties have successfully established themselves on the national political stage.
In this essay I have examined the complex relation between far-right parties, the mainstream parties and public policy. In the first section of the essay I examined the failures of the BNP to achieve any meaningful success concerning policy on immigration and their electorate. I then moved on to discuss how the example of the Front Nationale differs slightly from the BNP in that it did actually manage to shake things up during the 2002 election, and arguably had some effect on policy making after 2002. The example of Italy was a different one altogether, as the party not only managed to get into power but was able to maintain their image throughout their time in government. It also defied predictions by sustaining its electoral success after leaving government. I then moved on to a discussion surrounding the complex topic of the contagion effect, complex because it seems as though the reasons why it does not happen sometimes but succeed other times are so dependent on so many factors that it is very hard to predict. In the last section I discussed the limited political impact that most of these parties have and discussed several of the reasons why that might be. I conclude that although most of them currently are having a rather insignificant impact on public policy, there remains the threat of them gaining more power in the future. The fact that needs to be considered is that right now the world is more focused on the pandemic and the likely economic downturn which it may cause. A similar trend was present in the 2000’s when the far right lost a lot of its popularity around 2007 as socioeconomic concerns dominated the discourse. After the recession however, the far right may again come to the fore.
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