By Campaign Agent Oliver Ratcliffe
2017 has been a polarising year. Right-wing parties - those sceptical about the supposed advantages of globalisation, mass immigration - gained ground in elections across Europe, championing state sovereignty. In the UK, we don't usually associate these parties with young people. However, in three European elections this year, namely France, Germany and Hungary, previously disengaged voters (many being young) have steered to the right.
Understandably these voters feel angry, but should we be worried about right-wing parties adopting the role as the anti-establishment movements? The left, and particularly the centre must be pro-active at re-capturing the voters they have alienated and involuntarily led into the clutches of the right, otherwise the future for Europe looks to be more divided than ever…
The Front National (FN)
First, we turn to France, where the right-wing Front National (FN) underwent a renaissance this year. Within touching distance of the French Presidency back in May, Marine Le Pen shook off the shackles of their fascist roots, and brought the party's watered down, albeit still divisive views into the mainstream. Her simple slogans and easy solutions revitalised an angry and disillusioned youth, where unemployment figures hovered at 24% during the time of the election. She was able to channel the anger that young people felt towards the lack of jobs and drew attention to the negative impacts of immigration, in particular she targeted the Muslim communities.
Crucially, these set of ideas sounded fresh, as the majority of her supporters were too young to remember the party's more overtly xenophobic past. However the party was unable to shake off the xenophobic baggage with regard to older voters, resulting in only 20% of over 65's voting for Marine le Pen in the final round, compared to 44% of 18-24 year olds. There is no doubt that the deeply out-of-favour centrist parties will cherry pick some of the FN's hard-line policies in order to revive their support. Therefore, despite the FN's defeat, their radical, islamophobic and deeply divisive rhetoric may well be absorbed into the debate for years to come.
The Alternative für Deutschland (AfD)
We then turn to a country that has broadly distanced itself from its dark history with right wing politics, and instead reinvented itself as a modern and multi-cultural society. Germany can boast the largest economy in Europe, with high investment, a healthy manufacturing sector and a low unemployment rate. So how can a party such as the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) enter parliament for the first time this year with a resounding 12.6% of the vote, and become Germany's third largest party? On parallel with the FN, the AfD were able to connect with disengaged voters, as the party picked up close to 700,000 votes from people who were previously non-voters.
Likewise, the left-wing Social Democratic Party (SDP) party gained huge numbers from young people and previous non-voters as well. We have already seen Merkel pandering to the calls from the right, such as banning the burqa, which will no doubt exacerbate tensions with the German/Islamic community even more. Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party have had a reality check; instead of advocating the politics of hope, they seem to be succumbing to the politics of fear due to the AfD's rising popularity.
In a similar vein to the FN, the Hungarian Jobbik party have been trying to soften their party's image. Their promises of education reform and reversing Hungarian emigration have proved to be particularly popular with young people. In fact, according to some polls, Jobbik is the most popular party with university students in Hungary. Their campaign "we are students not slaves", a movement that criticises high tuition fees and student loans, is something us Brits would expect to find in a left leaning party manifesto or on student union web pages. But this a primary campaign brought forward by the same party that espouses views such as banning the annual gay pride parade in Budapest: a curious concoction of policies that would not sit well with young people in the UK. It seems that Jobbik have touched on crucial policies that matter to young people, but are still old-fashioned over other liberal issues.
Ultimately, rather than the far-right softening their image and shifting to the centre, it is the centre that has shifted to the right, with their rhetoric now being legitimized and commonplace. My primary concern is that in their attempts to salvage support from the so called "lost voters", centrist parties will adopt more divisive and discriminatory policies, as already seen in Germany and France. We have seen public opinion reject much of this rhetoric in the Netherlands and Austria this year, yet the possibility that these right-wing parties may win a majority is now no longer a distant probability for Europe.
Sources and Further Reading
- The dark side of France: examining the impact of the far-right on the French presidential elections, Al Jazeera (4 May 2017)
- Why Central Europe's youth roll right: the appeal of new anti-establishment nationalism, Politico (18 October 2016)
- Germany's new far-right AfD party: 5 things you need to know, CNBC (25 September 2017)
- The demographics dividing Britain, Yougov (25 April 2017)
- Europe's lost generation: young, educated and unemployed, CNN Money (13 April 2017)
- Nearly half of young French voters backed Marine Le Pen, The Independent (7 May 2017)
- Home page: Alternative für Deutschland
- Index of economic freedom: Germany, Heritage
- How the AfD won third place in Germany, CNN (25 September 2017)
- Angela Merkel calls for burka ban, The Telegraph (6 December 2016)
Image: Leigh Phillips @ Flickr