Europe’s far-right and populist parties are heralding a “Patriotic Spring”. Far-right leaders gathered near Vienna on Friday 17 June 2016, making speeches railing against immigration and the European Union, and pledging to restore national sovereignty. The meeting was hosted by Heinz-Christian Strache, Chairman of Austria’s Freedom Party (FPÖ), and included Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front, as well as representatives from Alternative for Germany (AfD) and Italy’s Northern League.
Strache called for the restoration of nationalist pride and a “Europe of fatherlands”, while AfD politician Marcus Pretzell argued that Europeans should look to their past: “Patriots love what Germany once was, what Germany could be…”
Instead of fearing for the future of democracy, is the rise of populist parties a sign that democracy is healthy and well in Europe? Is this a chance for anti-establishment forces to kick out unpopular mainstream parties, who have failed to steer Europe out of crisis? We had a comment sent in from Klassen, arguing that “Europhiles” should “back down and let democracy work”. Is he right?
To get a response, we put Klassen’s comment to Georgios Epitideios, a former lieutenant-general in the Greek army and currently an MEP for the ultra-right Golden Dawn party in Greece (a party regularly described as “neo-Nazi”, but which is currently Greece’s third-largest, claiming the support of 10% of Greeks in the polls). Did he think the rise of populist parties was a sign democracy is working?
Yes, definitely. Unless they are being persecuted, or are facing undemocratic behaviour.
Golden Dawn’s leadership is currently being prosecuted for a range of crimes, including murder, attempted murder, and serious assaults. Supporters argue that the trial amounts to political repression, though legal scholars believe it is a legitimate criminal case.
For another perspective, we also spoke to Kristof Jacobs, Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science at Radboud University in the Netherlands. His research focuses on contemporary challenges to democracy, their consequences and the responses to them. How would he respond to Klassen’s comment?
The rise of anti-establishment parties is a sign that it’s possible to challenge elites. It depends a bit on the given electoral system in a country; for example, we have seen that the UKIP party – which is clearly an anti-establishment party – only got one seat in the last parliamentary elections even though it got lots of votes. So, in the UK and other majoritarian electoral systems, it’s very difficult to challenge mainstream parties.
But in lot of European countries, such as the Netherlands, populists have been able to enter the fray and give a voice to traditionally excluded people. And, in that sense, they often behave a bit like the drunken guest at a party – they don’t pay attention to the etiquette or the normal way of doing politics, and they talk about issues that a lot of mainstream parties don’t feel comfortable talking about.
So, from the electoral point of view, it’s good. But, on the other hand, it might be problematic for civil rights and liberties, and the liberal pillar of democracy, instead of the electoral pillar of democracy, is where populist parties tend to be problematic.
Is the rise of populist parties a sign that democracy is working? Is it good for unrepresented electorates, but bad for civil rights and liberties? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!