Why Europe’s far-right parties are losing steam

Protesters rally during an anti-government demonstration in Ljubljana, Slovenia, June 25, 2021. Several thousand people rallied against Slovenia's right-wing Prime Minister Janez Janša, reflecting mounting political pressure weeks before the country takes over the European Union's rotating presidency.
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Is the political tide in Europe turning against the far-right? There are signs that may be the case: Nationalist-populist rulers in Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia are running into head winds, and standard-bearers of the extreme right in Germany and France have suffered badly in local elections recently.

That seems partly due to COVID-19. The pandemic has drawn voters’ attention away from hot-button issues such as immigration and crime and toward how well their governments have dealt with the health crisis.

Why We Wrote This

The political fortunes of European extreme right parties appear to be on the wane. Can more centrist politicians seize the initiative by reconnecting with disaffected voters?

There is also a geopolitical dimension: Europe’s far-right leaders have lost two international soulmates – former U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, defeated the other day by a broad coalition of opposition parties.

For the first time, a similar alliance will be challenging Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in elections next year. The governments of Slovenia and Poland are slipping in the polls.

But has their fate been sealed? That may depend not on them, but on their more moderate rivals.

Can Europe’s centrists reconnect with the voters they lost to the extremes in recent years, and convince them of the value of a more inclusive brand of leadership?

On a map of Europe, you could easily overlook Slovenia. Tucked in among Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Croatia, it’s roughly the size of New Jersey. But the country is worth watching these days, and not just for its Alpine beauty.

It’s because of rising opposition to Janez Janša, the fulsome Donald Trump admirer who is prime minister. And the shifting public mood in Slovenia reflects broader head winds now buffeting right-wing populists elsewhere in Europe – the self-styled “illiberal democrats” ruling Hungary and Poland, and the main far-right standard-bearers in Germany and France.

It’s too early to say if the trend will last. That may well depend on whether more centrist politicians manage to reconnect with the voters who have fueled the rise of Europe’s ultranationalist, anti-immigrant, anti-minority populists in recent years.

Why We Wrote This

The political fortunes of European extreme right parties appear to be on the wane. Can more centrist politicians seize the initiative by reconnecting with disaffected voters?

But the political weather does seem to be changing for two main reasons – one local and one global.

On the domestic front, COVID-19 has reshaped the political landscape. It has drawn voters’ attention away from the populists’ hot-button attacks on immigration or minority groups, and shifted their focus onto how well their governments have dealt with the pandemic. Voters have also become increasingly aware of everyday policy issues spotlighted by the pandemic such as family security, health, and jobs.

One result: unexpected setbacks for Europe’s most prominent far-right opposition groups, the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany and Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement Nationale in France. In early June, the AfD finished a distant second to retiring Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party in a state election in the group’s east German political heartland. It was a disappointing result for the AfD in its last electoral test before September’s national election.

A post-election poll found most voters were less interested in the AfD’s call for stricter immigration laws than in bread-and-butter economic issues and jobs.

Olivier Matthys/AP
Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša talks to journalists in Brussels June 25, 2021, shortly before his country takes over the rotating European Union presidency for six months. His squabbles with Brussels, alliance with populist Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán, and increasingly autocratic policies are sparking growing dissatisfaction at home.

In French regional elections last Sunday, Ms. Le Pen’s RN failed to capture a single council, despite polls suggesting it might win as many as five. Reading the long-term significance of that is tricky, since fewer than one-third of voters bothered to cast a ballot, but Ms. Le Pen proved unsuccessful in appealing to her normally enthusiastic base.

At the global geopolitical level, Europe’s populists have lost two key international allies – former U.S. President Trump and more recently, long-serving Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In Mr. Trump, they had a political soulmate in the White House. But Mr. Netanyahu’s departure carried an even more dispiriting message, especially for the ruling East European populists: He was ousted by an alliance of parties across the political spectrum.

Others are following that example. In Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz Party has long benefited from a divided opposition, six parties have now banded together to try to unseat him in next spring’s parliamentary elections.

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party is not due to face a national election until 2023. But with its poll numbers eroding, it changed tack last year to champion traditionally more left-of-center priorities like higher tax rates for the wealthy.

Still, it’s Slovenian leader Janša whose fate provides the most dramatic sign of the new political atmosphere in Europe, and it was on full display this past weekend in the capital, Ljubljana.

Outside the parliament building, the government celebrated the 30th anniversary of Slovenia’s independence from Yugoslavia, and its ascension this week to the rotating six-month presidency of the European Union. 

But a few streets away, thousands of protesters were staging the latest in a series of rallies that began last year.

The pandemic has been one spur. But what seems to be animating the demonstrators most is the angry, divisive nature of Mr. Janša’s rule – conveyed largely via Twitter – and his moves to limit media criticism.

It was Mr. Janša who responded to Mr. Trump’s premature declaration of victory last Nov. 6 by hailing his “re-election,” and he later echoed Mr. Trump’s accusations of fraud.

Before the U.S. election, he had been looking forward to his stint in the EU chair as a stage for a triumphant piece of political theater, with Mr. Trump and his Slovenian-born wife, Melania, as leading players at a U.S.–EU summit in Brussels.

That’s obviously no longer going to happen. And one recent local poll suggested that his government’s popularity is plummeting, with just 30% of respondents voicing support, and 66% wanting it replaced in next year’s elections.

Mr. Janša’s immediate political prospects do not look bright. But the longer-term picture in Slovenia and elsewhere in Europe will probably not depend on Mr. Janša and his ilk. Rather it is likely to hinge on their centrist rivals, and whether they can make a sufficiently compelling case for a less angry, less confrontational, and more inclusive brand of leadership.

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