Fear of Change Propels Populists to Power

Throughout Europe, fringe movements have been able to maneuver themselves into the political spectrum, rallying anti-immigration forces and a renewed sense of nationalism with considerable electoral success. While the world is globalizing and Europe becoming one, millions of people, from Finland to Italy, want to have no part of multiculturalism and change.

The first time entry of the Sweden Democrats into parliament last month came as something of a shock to the otherwise so politically centrist welfare state of the north. This radical nationalist movement is strong on law and order and critical of both European integration and efforts aimed at strengthening Sweden’s multicultural society. The country’s two Scandinavian neighbors have had similar parties represented in parliament for several years however.

To the east, the True Finns are a minor faction but in Norway the Progress Party represents more than 20 percent of the electorate. This conservative platform champions low taxes and individual responsibility while opposing Norwegian membership of the European Union. Moderate on immigration policy compared to most of its populist counterparts in Europe, the party has nonetheless been stigmatized by traditional ruling parties and commentators alike.

Nordic populists look at the Danish People’s Party with aspiration of one day exerting power or influence. This anti-immigration platform has fared well in the polls for almost a decade and sustained a minority government of conservatives and liberals who adopted some of its policies, including measures against arranged marriages and forcing immigrants to learn the Danish language.

In the Netherlands, a similar coalition is in the works. Renowned Islam critic Geert Wilders, who more than doubled his party’s presence in parliament during the last election, is set to support a new government of christian democrats and liberals who have promised to curb nonwestern immigration and the Netherlands’ financial contributions to Europe. If elections were held today, Wilders’ Freedom Party would probably come out larger than either of the two ruling parties he has pledged to help win a majority for their policies.

In both Switzerland and Italy, nationalists are already in power. Last year, the Swiss People’s Party, which won almost a third of the vote in 2007, enacted a ban on the construction of minarets while the Lega Nord, advocating autonomy for the wealthier north of Italy, has allied with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition since 2000. In Belgium, Flemish nationalists booked a major election victory this summer and they are expected to push for semi-independence of their region as well.

What most of the populist movements on the rise north of the Alps have in common is that unlike traditional power brokers they have managed to channel the immigration and Islam backlash witnessed in Europe during the last decade. The recent ousting of René Stadtkewitz, who has called for stricter immigration policies, from the German conservative party demonstrates that the political establishment is often unable to cope with dissent. Geert Wilders similarly defected from the Dutch Liberal Party in 2004 when he criticized its positions on Islam and cultural integration.

Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to characterize these parties and their supporters as outright Islamophobic or dismiss them as little more than a backward response to the modern world.

Most of these new parties aren’t popular in conservative hinterlands alone. The Sweden Democrats garnered most of their votes in the more urban south of the country; the Swiss People’s Party is an alliance of rural and urban conservatives; Geert Wilders has won support in major cities where Muslim immigrants and cultural change are most visible.

Islam is integral to their rhetoric, as counterexample to the national values they profess to defend. But people overwhelmingly list security and national interest before perceived Islamification as reasons to vote for populist parties. Jobbik, the Movement for a Better Hungary, is notably patriotic and committed to defend Hungarian tradition without ever mentioning Islam.

No matter outward symbolism as burqa bans and opposition to the erection of further mosques, what has angered voters most is a fear of foreign immigrants living comfortably off Europe’s generous welfare provisions.

While all of these fringe movements are labeled as “far right,” they are usually very adamant in their support of a social safety net. Nearly all of them explicitly favor the welfare state and oppose labor and pension reforms which major parties, both left and right, regard as necessary. The BZÖ in Austria, founded and previously led by Jörg Haider, even campaigned on the renationalization of the entire agricultural sector.

Some movements, including the Sweden Democrats and Jobbik in Hungary, did arise out of a more radical background but the more successful ones, including the Dutch Freedom Party, the Progress Party in Norway and the Danish People’s Party, were established by former conservatives or liberals — and are willing to govern with them.

In those parts of Europe where the political establishment, of which this latest generation of populists is so critical, has reciprocated, either by adopting some of their policies or cooperating with them in government, the popular outrage appears to diminish while new movements are being incorporated in the political system. Whenever populists are consistently dismissed as politically incorrect and extreme however, their support only grows, further undermining the legitimacy as well as the credibility of centrist parties.

Political stability in Europe in the years ahead will depend to a large extent on the willingness of traditional ruling parties to work with newcomers and take their complaints seriously. These movements represent millions of people and cannot be dismissed as an anomaly that will disappear with time. European leaders will have to invest in convincing their people that change and foreign influences are not to be dreaded. Popular support for the European Union and multiculturalism can longer be taken for granted by the establishment.