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Why fringe parties are surging in Europe

Parties on the far left and right are growing as middle-class voters rebel and immigration issues dominate at the ballot box. Is the populist revolt remaking the politics of Europe?

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    Ilias Panagiotaros (l.), a member of the Greek Parliament in the extreme far-right party Golden Dawn, gestures as he talks during a rally to commemorate a 1996 incident which cost the lives of three Greek navy officers and brought Greece and Turkey to the brink of war, in central Athens, Saturday, Jan. 31, 2015.
    Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
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At 11 a.m. on a frigid Sunday, Andreas Bost has just finished a five-hour shift as an office cleaner in Dresden, Germany. It’s his job to buff the floors at a mall in the heart of this baroque city.

Mr. Bost is happy to be employed but he is far from content in life. Yes, he knows that Germany is the powerhouse of Europe. Yes, he knows that Germany builds some of the world’s best cars and exports some of the finest machine tools. But he doesn’t want to hear any of that. What matters to him is that he hasn’t bought a new winter coat in eight years. 

“Germany is not a country,” says the minimum-wage earner bitterly. “It’s a company. And we are not the people. We are the personnel.”

Some 1,300 miles away Nikos Tsiplakis is similarly aggrieved. He is sipping black coffee after his shift as a sound engineer at a television station in Athens. While Europe, led by Germany, helped save Greece from economic collapse in 2010, Mr. Tsiplakis feels anything but rescued. He lost his previous job after holding it for 25 years. In fact, though Greeks and Germans see each other as the problem, Bost and Tsiplakis have a lot in common. Both feel betrayed that a solid middle-class life in Europe no longer means a good life. And their reaction to it has been the same: to punish the establishment.

They both have been drawn to fringe political parties – Bost one on the far right and Tsiplakis one on the far left – that represent one of the most powerful forces now sweeping postwar Europe. From Britain to Germany, Spain to Greece, political groups on the liberal and conservative sides of the spectrum that were once dismissed as trivial are gaining ascendance as middle-class Europeans rebel against the erosion of their lifestyles and issues such as immigration dominate at the ballot box. 

The Europe that arose from the ashes of World War II did so from the center. The middle class – the beneficiary of enviable workers’ rights, social protections, and upward mobility – formed the base of center-right and center-left parties that have alternated in power ever since.

But today the Continent confronts deep woes. The long-term trends of deindustrialization and demographic change that have caused strains in all Western societies are producing stubborn economic stagnation in Europe. Conflict in the Middle East and with Russia knocks at Europe’s door. A rush of refugees and migrants, as well as new threats of terrorism, has crystallized a strong sense of insecurity and disempowerment among many Europeans that populists are feeding on.

Many feel the social contract that they once took for granted has been shredded. Mocked by the media or cast off as racists and xenophobes as Europe integrates its minorities, members of this alienated class say they are the ones who have been left behind. The protests echo some of the class and ideological tensions that have surfaced in the United States, particularly among tea party members. But here in Europe the disaffected are challenging mainstream political parties in a more fundamental way. 

Some people, to be sure, feel the new ferment is bringing hope. They see the prospect of more-responsive political parties, and even inspiring new civic initiatives in which residents are less dependent on the state. Yet deep concerns also loom that the fringe parties are undermining traditional political institutions, with some critics cautioning that the same strains of nationalism that brought Europe to war last century are dancing ever closer. 

“They are calling into question representative institutions, calling into question electoral systems, calling into question the mainstream parties,” says Catherine Fieschi, director of Counterpoint, a British think tank.

And yet if they are testing Europe’s foundation more than at any time in recent decades, they might ultimately serve a purpose beyond a vehicle for protest. “They in a sense are the canary in the coal mine,” adds Ms. Fieschi. “Are they going to prompt parties to really change? My sense is that we are in the middle of a massive transformation of what a political party is.”

 •     •     •       

The direction in which the new political restiveness will ultimately take Europe will be made clearer by the end of 2015. No fewer than eight general elections will be held in countries across the Continent this year.

While populists have entered the scene from both the left and right, they are tailoring their message to each country’s unique woes. In Greece, the sudden emergence of the ruling Syriza party (Coalition of the Radical Left), which Tsiplakis and 36 percent of his countrymen supported in the recent elections, is a simple reflex against European Union-mandated austerity, which has seen hundreds of thousands of people plunged into poverty. 

In Spain, economic crisis and relentless corruption scandals have prompted even the most democratic Spaniards to dismiss mainstream parties as the “casta,” or caste. That’s led to the meteoric rise of the left-wing Podemos (We Can), Syriza’s closest European ally. Both are rooted in social movements that turned political.

The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and France’s National Front, meanwhile, have older histories and have surged in the wake of fiscal woes, as has the Freedom Party in the Netherlands. They appeal to social and economic conservatives and, more recently, to people who feel their middle-class lifestyles have declined. These parties have tapped into anger over economic stagnation and disillusionment with the EU but also into hostility over immigration, especially of Muslims, a sentiment quickly stirred up after terrorist attacks like the one against Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

Xenophobia has sprouted even in unexpected places, such as eastern Germany, where hardly any immigrants exist. That’s not the only anomaly. Though right-wing populists have thrived on economic malaise, they haven’t done so in the most economically struggling nations, such as Spain and Portugal. One reason might be that countries along the Mediterranean are still marked by memories of conservative dictators, and because until very recently they’ve been countries of emigration, not immigration. And while economic angst has galvanized Syriza and Podemos, similar upstart leftist parties haven’t flourished in northern Europe. Instead disgruntled Labor voters have tended to defect to conservative groups. 

While the appeal of populist messages has grown over time, it became much more evident as a regionwide phenomenon after the success of fringe parties in the 2014 EU parliamentary elections. And now they’ve tallied their first national victory, with Syriza’s landslide win against the ruling center-right New Democracy, on the promise to end austerity in return for one of the world’s largest bailouts. Greece’s center-left PASOK, meanwhile, which captured 44 percent of the vote in 2009, got less than 5 percent this year.

For social scientists, Greece provides an intriguing political laboratory. That’s partly because the new base of Syriza, a party formed from a coalition of leftists, including Trotskyites and Maoists, isn’t necessarily left-leaning at all. Its ranks include a lot of small-business owners and engineers like Tsiplakis who never considered themselves radical before they took to the streets demanding that Greece’s political elite step down.

“Many had never seen tear gas before in their lives,” says Michael Spourdalakis, dean of the school of economics and politics at the University of Athens. “They were asking, ‘Why are the police beating us?’ ”

Tsiplakis used to be a loyal PASOK voter, casting ballots for the center-left party his entire life. Life was good for him: He landed his first job at a Greek radio station right out of technical school. He led what he calls a “normal” existence, which included a month of vacation each year, marriage and children, and ownership of a residence in vibrant Athens. “I used to feel lucky: We are in the middle of the world, in the arts ... in the middle of everything,” he says. “Now I’m not lucky. I’m trying.”

The paycheck at his new job, where he works irregular hours, has gone from €2,000 a month to an average of €800, while his mortgage has stayed the same, €500 a month. His wife has taken a pay cut of 25 percent at her insurance job, and instead of working eight hours a day she now puts in 10. “Her boss said, ‘if you want to go home, go home, because I know 1.5 million people without a job here,’ ” he says.

The couple hasn’t been to a movie in a year. The last time they went out to dinner with friends was two months ago.

Marietta Giannakou, a former government minister and lawmaker from the New Democracy party, says that Syriza’s win represents not a shift left for Greece but a crisis of the middle class. “Many think they’ve lost everything,” she says. “It’s easy for them to vote for Syriza.”

In many circles in Greece and beyond, the Syriza victory has ushered in hope – that like-minded austerity critics will lead a revolt against German-led belt-tightening, eventually helping to build a “more socially sensitive Europe,” as Mr. Spourdalakis puts it.

At the offices of Syriza in a run-down plaza in central Athens, Aliki Kosyfologou, who works in social policy for the party, says that members have been inspired by some of the social movements in Venezuela that emerged after the victory of the late Hugo Chávez in the early 2000s. They point in particular to Mr. Chávez’s neighborhood associations that sought to bring participatory democracy to people who had long been shut out of power by the elites. But Syriza could also fall, and fall hard – which is what Fieschi says is one of the biggest risks that populists pose to Europe.

“They don’t know how to do it any better; their solutions are simplistic.... It’s ‘get rid of the scoundrels,’ ” she says. But “one reason institutions seem increasingly imperfect is that they represent societies that are increasingly diverse. Populists on the right and left have a conception of democracy that is often majoritarian. In European societies at the moment, that is unworkable.”

The direction Syriza will take Greece hinges on the outcome of negotiations with the EU over the country’s debt crisis. The recent four-month extension that eurozone partners gave Greece on its financial rescue, in response to some concessions from Athens on a reform package, gives both sides some time to dicker over the next steps.

But fundamental differences still loom over the country’s economic future, which could lead to Greece being forced out of the eurozone. Such a rupture is something that the EU could perhaps manage financially, but the political ramifications would reverberate widely.

•     •     •       

All this comes at a time when frustration with the European project is at record levels, another narrative that unites populists on the right and left. In Britain, Nigel Farage’s UKIP is not expected to win general elections in May, but he’s been shaping the national agenda, forcing Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron to promise a referendum on Britain’s membership in the EU and influencing the debate on border controls and welfare benefits.

Such sway brings hope on the right that European nations will regain more sovereignty from the bureaucracy in Brussels. But too often, critics say, the campaigning comes with anti-immigrant language that is desensitizing society, making words that were once taboo acceptable. Geert Wilders of the Freedom Party in the Netherlands led a chant promising “fewer” Moroccans early last year. Marine Le Pen of the National Front rails against the Islamization of France. Some of the most xenophobic rhetoric has come from the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn in Greece, which came in third place in January’s elections.

“We should not forget,” José Manuel Barroso, former head of the European Commission, warned before the EU parliamentary race last year, “that in Europe, not so many decades ago, we had very, very worrying developments of xenophobia and racism and intolerance.”

While many supporters of these parties might not agree with the historical parallels, the language against outsiders does resonate widely. In the Netherlands, where the state has cut back on government assistance as it overhauls its welfare system, many migrant-heavy neighborhoods still tend to get generous subsidies simply because they are needier. But ethnicity gets confused with socioeconomics.

In the working-class neighborhood of Tuindorp Buiksloot in northern Amsterdam, the chairwoman of a local community center, Marga Negenman-Vrÿ, says many neighborhood people have defected to Mr. Wilders’s party because they feel left out. “A lot of people from other countries get subsidies, and all the Dutch people don’t get anything. But there are a lot of poor people among the Dutch,” she says. “People get kind of angry.”

Many of the same frustrations exist in Germany. Bost, the office cleaner in Dresden, is attracted to Pegida, the right-wing social movement that stands for Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West, because he sees outsiders leading a better life than he does. Pegida, which is anti-Muslim in name but also anti-establishment, staged a rally right after the Charlie Hebdo attack that drew 25,000 people, though subsequent marches in other German cities – and one in Newcastle, England, in late February – have drawn far fewer followers. The group’s leadership is also in flux.

Bost insists he’s not against immigration – as many Pegida members claim to be – but he does admit to feeling resentful. Why, he asks, does he see refugees in this state, Saxony, wearing new clothes, when he and his wife can’t buy the same for their family?

Tall and lanky, with a trimmed beard and trendy spectacles, Bost has not officially joined the group but follows Pegida’s message closely. He likes what he hears: Germany needs a new political system to safeguard itself from the threat that radical Muslims are posing to Europe today. Above all, he’s attracted by Pegida’s rallying call, “We are the people.”

Ralf Melzer, who monitors right-wing extremism for the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Berlin, says studies show a growing disillusionment in Germany with the political class. A 2014 poll by the foundation showed 73 percent of respondents saying that parties are not resolving their problems. “Political parties and institutions have lost credibility in a huge part of the population,” he says. “This is quite alarming.”

In some parts of Europe, such as Britain, that translates into more voters staying home on election day. This often benefits fringe parties. “There is in people’s minds a feeling that there is no one who can stop the [decline],” says Daniel Silver, codirector of the Social Action & Research Foundation in Manchester. “And once populists get momentum, their party is seen as more credible, and more people will vote for them.”

He co-wrote a report on the working-class community of Higher Blackley in Manchester for a project called “At Home in Europe” for the Open Society Foundations. In 2014, UKIP captured one-third of the vote in local elections – a 24 percent increase over its vote tally in 2012. “Many people simply felt that no one else was listening to their legitimate concerns,” says Mr. Silver. They are either blamed for their own poverty or mocked as “chavs” in the media, a derogatory term similar to “white trash” in the US. 

The EU is another favorite pincushion for disaffected voters across Europe. Edda Schaefer, a stylish young grandmother who owns a carpentry business with her husband and son in a little town in eastern Germany, says that she has joined Germany’s anti-EU party, Alternative for Germany, because she thinks the euro was an experiment that has failed.

“Europe is not for the people, it is for big business,” she says. Even in Germany, she adds, “the statistics look good, but the people are exploited.”

•     •     •       

A groundswell of disgruntled voters presents more than just a challenge to the mainstream political parties that have ruled Europe for decades: It affects everything from Europe’s policy on refugees to its ability to unite against aggressors such as Russia.

Pope Francis chastised Europe this winter by calling it “haggard,” “no longer fertile and vibrant.” On a trip to Strasbourg, France, he jolted Europeans when he said the region risked “slowly losing its own soul.”

While the pope was not referring to Europe’s aging population but rather its lack of support for those in need, such as migrants, older people, and the jobless, it is true that demographic changes are roiling politics. As its society gets older, for example, the Netherlands has been on the forefront of Europe in turning a classic welfare state into a “participation society.” Residents are expected to drive their neighbors to doctors’ appointments or help them clean their homes instead of depending so heavily on the state. The change has generated controversy, especially in neighborhoods with high percentages of older residents.

Yet the shift has also given rise to a new civic activism, such as an effort to save a local institution down the street from Ms. Negenman-Vrÿ’s home. When she received a pamphlet in the mail alerting her that the Driehoek Community Center was going to be closed because of budget constraints, she joined a group of women who refused to let one more service disappear.

Last year, with the help of consultants, they sat down with budget reports, organized  volunteer schedules, edited rulebooks, and sent out fliers. Today they are running the community center themselves. Negenman-Vrÿ is the chairwoman.

On this day, young girls arrive for a dance class, as participants at a health-care meeting bid each other farewell. The center holds painting classes, prepares dinners for older people, and on Tuesdays stages its biggest event of the week: afternoon bingo.

Negenman-Vrÿ is modest, but even she exudes a degree of pride over what they’ve accomplished. The center helps counter stigmas that can be attached to the working class in a city of growing inequality. 

“There’s sort of a feeling like people who have [gone to a] university, they look down on you because you haven’t,” says Negenman-Vrÿ, whose four children opted not to go to college, two of them following her husband’s line of work at the railways. “I think it’s stupid. Things don’t work without the working class.”

While saving the Driehoek has been a clear example of empowerment, it’s not easily replicated, if trust in government continues to be eroded, says Saskia Welschen, a sociologist in Amsterdam who wrote a report on the white working class for the Open Society Foundations. “There is a very strong sense of distrust that political institutions aren’t doing anything effective for their neighborhoods,” says Ms. Welschen. “The relationship between government and citizens is changing, and we need to find a new way to cooperate together. In order for that to work, it’s important to have faith in government.” 

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