Vidya Ram

The quixotic rise of the Far Right

Vidya Ram | Updated on September 14, 2018

Hard-liners gain: The Swedish election results emphasise the seriousness with which the threat from the far right needs to be taken in Europe and beyond   -  REUTERS

Across Europe, the Right’s influence in public discourse is on the rise. It has chipped into the vote base of mainstream parties

What to make of the result of last weekend’s Swedish election that saw the ruling Social Democrats returned to power, albeit on one of their worst electoral results on record? The Social Democrats won just over 28 per cent of the vote, and their parliamentary alliance with the Greens and Left Party made up 40.6 per cent of the vote (3 per cent down from the 2014 election), while the opposition Right alliance made up of Moderates, Liberals, the Christian Democrats and the Centre Party won 40.3 per cent (a 0.9 per cent gain).

The Far-Right Sweden Democrats failed to take second place or secure 25 per cent of the vote as some polls had suggested. Nevertheless, it had gained significantly: raising its share of the vote from 12.9 per cent to 17.6 per cent. The result for the Far-Right appeared to mirror what has been happening across many Western European countries in recent elections — from the failure of Marine Le Pen in the final round of the French Presidential election last year, to the Dutch election earlier in that year when the centre-right VVD of Mark Rutte won decisively over Geert Wilders’ Far Right party.

Some have sought to highlight the results as an example of how the European Far Right was being accorded attention and potential well beyond its reality — suggesting that fears of a Far Right upsurge are overblown. Others have focussed on the losses to Europe’s mainstream, long-standing parties, resulting from protracted dissatisfaction with the status quo, and concerns that proceeds of economic growth have not been shared evenly, and a shift in favour of smaller, alternative parties.

In Sweden, gains were also made by the smaller Left Party that increased its share of the vote by over 2 per cent, and the Centre Party that saw its share of the vote rise by 2.5 per cent (both the main Social Democrats and the centre-right Moderate Party lost over 6 per cent of the vote between them).

However, with months of coalition talks and uncertainty looming for the two mainstream coalitions, Jimmie Akesson, the controversial head of the Social Democrats, insisted his party were the “real winners” with the ability to hold sway over the elections.

Element of truth

All three perspectives have an element of truth to them: the Far Right in Europe have certainly been imbued with power and influence that well exceeds the reality on the ground. This has been particularly damaging across Europe — used as an excuse for everything, from providing the Far Right with more and more mainstream platforms to speak on (often on the grounds that it was “essential to understand them”) to justifying controversial policy decisions. In the UK recently, Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell, explaining why Labour couldn’t support a second referendum despite growing public calls for it to do so, told the Huffington Post that a second vote would “open up space for UKIP again, we don’t want to open up the space for the Right again.” In other countries, tougher immigration policies have been justified on the grounds that they were needed to see off the Far Right.

The shift towards smaller parties — and not just on the Right — has happened elsewhere in Europe too: in the German election last year, alongside gains by the Far-Right AFD (which became the first Far Right nationalist party to win a seat in the Bundestag since the World War II), the liberal Free Democratic Party also made gains, while the traditional parties of Chancellor Angela Merkel (the CDU), her allies the CSU and the centre-left Social Democrats all faltered.

In Italy’s recent elections, it proved seismic, with the “anti establishment” Five Star Movement becoming the single largest party. This too has had huge implications on politics across Europe — making the formation of stable coalitions even more fraught and wrought with uncertainties as the lengthy process for forming Merkel’s fourth ruling coalition earlier this year testified.

Lessons from Sweden

But there can be little doubt that the Swedish results emphasise the seriousness with which the threat from the Far Right needs to be taken in Europe and beyond. Like many Far Right parties in Europe, the Sweden Democrats are firmly anti-immigrant, pushing for a far more hard-line approach to immigration, as well as lashing out at “multicultural elites” and Islam (which the party’s leader has warned is the biggest external threat to Sweden since the Second World War).

Many, including Sweden’s own Prime Minister, have talked of the Swedish Democrat’s Neo-Nazi roots, which are hard to deny. The party arose in the 1980s through the merger of other political forces, including the Bevara Sverige Svenskt movement (which translates to “Keep Sweden Swedish”), and has sought to build on the back of other nationalist movements across Europe, with pledges to “Make Sweden Great Again,” while at the same time reaching out to new sections of society (it has been predominately supported by men).

Even out of power, the party’s anti-immigrant, anti-refugee message has permeated the mainstream, leading to the Social Democrats toughening up their line on border control, crime and other issues. Similar moves have been seen elsewhere in Europe — such as in Germany where consistent pressure from the Right has led to a significant tightening of immigration controls by the Merkel government.

In all of this Europe’s mainstream parties have been struggling for an effective response. This week, in response to rising tensions, including Far-Right riots in the eastern city of Chemnitz over immigration, a debate was held in the German Bundestag at which emotions ran high and did little to move things forward. How, Sweden’s mainstream parties choose to respond to the Far Right’s gains — aside from ruling out alliances with them — remains to be seen.

From India’s perspective the shifting political climate in Europe is likely to have few direct consequences but rather to be seen in the intangibles: increasingly tough immigration regimes and rhetoric; and increasingly complicated political alliances may result in few leaders with the vision to forge stronger ties abroad. Its noteworthy that, aside from a few words of support following bilateral visits, the EU-India Free Trade Agreement remains firmly on the back-burner, with little prospect of being revived.

Published on September 14, 2018

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