This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.
After Brexit, last week delivered another potentially far-reaching result for radical right populists in Europe. On Friday, Austria’s Constitutional Court upheld a challenge brought by the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) against the outcome of the May 22 presidential election. The run-off, in which the Green-backed Alexander Van der Bellen finished narrowly ahead of the FPÖ’s Norbert Hofer, will have to be run again.
Although Hofer lost the second round, his 49.7% result was still an important landmark. It showed that voting for such parties may no longer be the preserve of a clear minority. Another 30,000 or so votes and Western Europe would have had its first radical right populist president. After the successful court challenge, it still might.
If Hofer is eventually elected, it won’t be the first time Austria witnesses the dawn of a new era for the far right. At the beginning of the century, in January 2000, all of Austria’s European Union (EU) partners issued an ultimatum: if the centre-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) went ahead with plans to form a governing coalition with the FPÖ – whose values were considered in conflict with the EU’s – sanctions would be imposed.
The ÖVP did not back down. The FPÖ took its place in a government led by the ÖVP’s Wolfgang Schüssel and Austria became a pariah within the EU. Sanctions lasted until September 2000, when an expert report found no problems with Austria’s human rights record and concluded that the FPÖ ministers had behaved themselves so far.
Thinking back to the international controversy Austria aroused 16 years ago reminds us how much has changed in Western Europe. Since then, radical right populist parties have participated as junior coalition partners in Italy, the Netherlands, Finland and Greece.
Radical right populist parties have also provided centre-right governments with essential parliamentary support in exchange for policy concessions in Denmark and, again, the Netherlands. They have increasingly become, to use the German term, koalitionsfähig: “coalitionable”.
Learning to manage power
Back in the early years of the last decade, moderates consoled themselves with the fact that the FPÖ’s time in coalition government turned out to be a very damaging shambles for the party. It lost votes and ministers at an alarming rate. Eventually, the party split.
Since then, academics have cited the case of the FPÖ as exemplifying why power is bad for populists. Inclusion in government will either tame or break them. It might even do both.
However, while the Austrian case may have been a key moment in the history of Western European radical right populist parties, the negative experience of the FPÖ in government has not been shared by all Western European radical right populists.
In our 2015 book Populists in Power, Daniele Albertazzi and I looked at what happened when right-wing populists in Italy and Switzerland entered into government. In the case of the Northern League (LN) in Italy and the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), we found that – unlike the FPÖ – these parties were able to achieve key policy victories and survive the experience of government without toning down their rhetoric or losing the support of voters and party members.
Notably, in our interviews and surveys with representatives and grassroots members of the two parties, we found that they were not radical hotheads with unrealistic expectations. Instead, they were generally pragmatic about the policy gains that could be achieved and the compromises that being in power with other parties entails.
Building parties to last
The ability to keep their members on board was due not only to the successes on their main issues achieved by the LN and SVP in government, but also to the attention devoted by both parties to their grassroots.
Whether they were in large cities or small provincial towns, members told us they felt that their party cared about them. They also believed they were part of an important mission to protect their communities from the threats that a series of distant elites and dangerous “others” (especially immigrants) posed to their wellbeing and identity.
The importance most radical right populists attach to party organisation, in addition to their key issues like immigration, also helps explain why the FPÖ was able to survive many setbacks in the last decade and bounce back to enjoy electoral successes under its new leader, Heinz-Christian Strache.
With the exception of Geert Wilders’ “memberless party”, the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, radical right populist parties in 21st-century Western Europe are being built to last. They are not dependent on a single leader like personal parties such as Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.
Long-established parties like the French Front National, the Italian Northern League and the Danish People’s Party have all seen their founder-leaders step down in recent years and are doing better than ever in the polls.
The next challenge for radical right populists in Western Europe, if and when one of them becomes the leading party in government, will be coping with the new pressures of being in power. Given current opinion polls in Austria, which show the FPÖ well ahead of both the traditional major parties, the next general election – to be held by 2018 – could well deliver a coalition featuring the FPÖ as the lead party with a mainstream junior partner.
Austria may therefore find itself in a few years’ time with both a radical right president and chancellor.
If the European Union’s silence about Viktor Orbán’s illiberal democracy in Hungary is anything to go by, the EU’s leading lights are unlikely to raise much more than a murmur of protest if we do enter a new era of radical right populists in power in Austria or elsewhere in Western Europe.
And, this time around, don’t necessarily expect the populists to fail at it either.