A Comparison Between Right-Wing Populist Parties in Eastern and Western Europe

By Alexandra Reinhild Berndt

In Western Europe right-wing populist parties are less influential than in Eastern Europe, but their popularity is continuously rising. During the last French presidential elections in 2017, for example, Marine le Pen from the right-wing populist party FN (Front National) progressed to the second-round run-off against president Emanuel Macron (Eiermann, Mounk & Gultchin, 2017, p. 9). Why are right-wing populist parties so successful in Eastern and Western Europe?

In states like Poland and Hungary right-wing populist parties are increasingly expanding their power and seem to be more anti-democratic at least in comparison with Western European populist parties (Allen, 2017, p. 277). They violate basic democratic principles as judicial independence and freedom of the press. However, the continuous destruction of the media is not only on the agenda of Eastern European populists, but also part of the policy of Western European populist parties (Eiermann, Mounk & Gultchin, 2017, p. 7). The effectiveness of Eastern European populist parties is particularly visible as populist parties were able to promote an anti-Muslim propaganda even if these countries were almost unaffected by Muslim immigration (Kende & Krekó, 2020, p. 31). Why were populist right-wing parties as PIS (Poland) and Fidesz (Hungary) so successful with their anti-Muslim rhetoric? Throughout history post-communist countries experienced not only threats to their territorial integrity, but also threats to their national integrity. These insecurities concerning their sovereignty contributed to an increased fear of the loss of national identity. Since that time, populist right-wing parties were able to easily manipulate people psychologically with the help of these consolidated fears. This also explains why these parties were able to easily mobilise against minorities as the Roma or the Jews (Kende & Krekó, 2020, p. 30). The refugee crisis in 2015 was thus an ideal tool to promote an anti-Muslim propaganda even though these countries were almost unaffected by Muslim immigration. Particularly in this case the influence and power of the right-wing parties is very extreme as even in the absence of terrorism and immigrants, fears were easily fuelled by the populists. With the help of the anti-Muslim rhetoric populist right-wing parties as PIS (Poland) and Fidesz (Hungary) successfully secured their power in government. They effectively capitalised from the people’s historically consolidated fears (Kende & Krekó, 2020, p. 31).

In Western European countries right-wing populist parties are also on the rise. In Western Europe, their success lies amongst others in the voter’s political frustration. In the view of the electorate that turned to populist parties, traditional parties were unable to deal with current political challenges as for example immigration and European integration. The disenchanted electorate is therefore more prone to accept the radical solutions proposed by populist right-wing parties (Albertazzi & McDonnell, 2007, p.1).

Interestingly, the most successful populist parties are those which effectively employ the rhetoric of democracy. Therefore, populist parties try to justify discriminatory policies with the claim to defend Western values. This rhetoric adaption plays an important role in their attempt to appear as a mainstream party (Halikiopoulou, 2018, p. 2). Part of this strategy is also the promotion of direct democracy, including the idea of a referendum, for example. In this manner, right-wing populist parties claim to promote the will of the people. The longevity of a party generally depends on the party’s success to recruit potential voters. For this reason, the talent of the party leader to persuade and socialise sympathisers represents a crucial factor. Socially disadvantaged groups generally represent an important target group (Pauwels, 2014, p. 7). However, different populist parties attract different social classes. Some right-wing parties mainly focus on the lower-class whereas others focus on the middle-class (Betz, 1993, p. 676).

Overall, right-wing populist parties differ significantly with regard to their rhetoric, target group, ideology and agenda (Halikiopoulou, 2018, p. 3). Due to their disrespect for minorities, pluralism and the rule of law, populism is essentially illiberal (Mudde, 2016, p. 28). A very important shared trait is their exclusionary agenda and their claim to fight for the will of the people (Immerzeel & Muis , 2017, p. 910). The reasons for the popularity of right-wing populist parties are slightly different in Eastern and Western European countries. In Western Europe, the popularity of right-wing populist parties lies in the voter’s political frustration whereas in Eastern Europe, right-wing populist parties are particularly successful due to their anti-Muslim rhetoric which effectively fuels historically consolidated fears.

Photo by Samantha Sophia on Unsplash

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