Europe’s far right rises

The British National Party will be joined in the European parliament by far-right parties from across the continent. But how much support are fascists and racists really picking up? Tom Walker investigates

August 31, 2009 · 22 min read

The recent European elections saw all sorts of far-right parties making gains across the continent. They ranged from right-wing populists and nationalists to outright fascists and neo-Nazis. With no end to the recession in sight, and with social democratic parties often totally discredited, some on the left fear that we could all soon be crushed under the far right’s jackboots.

But the picture of the far right across Europe is more subtle than that. For every country where the far right picked up votes and won seats, there was another where they were hardly even noticed.

Of course, there is more to the far right than elections. But it is winning elections that allows them to access the resources – and ‘respectability’ – to build mass organisations on the ground. (The non-electoral far right may be vicious, but it is also tiny.)

If we are to fight the forces of the far right, we need to look at where they are strong and where they are weak – and, most important of all, ask: why?

On the up

The highest vote for the far right in all of Europe – 17 per cent – was, remarkably, in the Netherlands. Often considered a paradise of freedom and liberalism, the Netherlands has little history of voting for the far right (although the anti-immigrant List Pim Fortuyn had made some gains in local elections before its leader was assassinated). But this time around, the Partij voor de Vrijheid (Freedom Party), led by Islamophobe extraordinaire Geert Wilders, came from nowhere to win four seats out of 25.

How did that happen? After all, the party is entirely centred on one man, Wilders – it is not a mass movement and has few activists. Wilders appears to have managed to build up his vote by manufacturing controversy and relentless self-publicising. He gathered a following after the assassinations of Pim Fortuyn and filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, as well as frequent threats on his own life.

Wilders built on this by putting out the virulent anti-Muslim hate film Fitna and posing as a ‘free speech’ martyr whenever he was banned from showing it. An attempt to prosecute him for hate speech backfired when the Freedom Party’s poll ratings just rose even further.

Wilders paints himself as a sort of leftish-libertarian, concerned about ‘extremist Muslims’ who are against women’s rights and so on. He makes a point of enthusiastically supporting gay marriage. He even calls himself an anti-fascist, claiming that the Koran is a ‘fascist book’.

The growth of the Freedom Party shows no sign of relenting. Gerrit de Wit of De Fabel van de illegaal (‘The Myth of Illegality’) says, ‘The polls for the national elections in 2011 have shown for months now that the Freedom Party will be the biggest party. They are only polls, but it’s still quite scary. Other parties in Holland aren’t able or willing to fight the Freedom Party – they’d rather take some of its views in an attempt to win back voters.’

Wilders was banned from visiting the UK for his hate speech. But the question of the nature of Wilders and the Freedom Party is one that the Dutch media find much more difficult to grapple with. René Danen of Nederland Bekent Kleur (‘The Netherlands shows its colours’), points out that the media generally describes the Freedom Party as ‘populist’ rather than racist – even though Wilders has said that race riots are ‘not necessarily a bad thing’, and that he wants to ‘tear down the mosques’, ban Islamic schools and stop all immigration.

But Wilders’ eclectic ideology, combined with the lack of party structure, has made it difficult for the left to confront him. De Wit adds, ‘Wilders is far right, extreme right, and sometimes he acts and talks like a fascist, but he’s not a neo-Nazi.’

Jeroen Bosch of Dutch anti-fascist group Alert contrasts Wilders with the more traditional far right. Out-and-out Nazis are ‘never allowed to rent a place for a meeting, have a public concert or a quiet demonstration,’ he says. ‘The neo-Nazis demonstrate roughly eight times a year and we meet them with counter-actions. But Wilders is not a classical ultra-right extremist, which makes campaigning very difficult. He uses parliament and the media as a platform to communicate with his electorate. There is no party structure – he is the only member. So there are hardly any meetings to picket or whatever.’ The left has struggled to find new ways of confronting Wilders.

The Freedom Party is not an isolated case – it is just the most successful of the new, Islamophobic parties of the far right.

Another example is the Dansk Folkeparti (Danish People’s Party), which won 15 per cent of the vote in Denmark (twice as much as in 2004), going from one MEP to two. The party has been making steady gains since it first won seats in the Danish parliament in 1998, but its poll ratings rose sharply after another manufactured ‘Muslims versus free speech’ controversy: the ‘Muhammad cartoons’ published in the Jyllands-Posten newspaper. Like the Freedom Party, the People’s Party compares the Koran to Mein Kampf, draws parallels between the veil and the blackshirts, and opposes what it calls the ‘Islamification’ of society. Party leader Pia Kjærsgaard says there is no east-west clash of civilisations because ‘there is only one civilization, and that is ours. The others want to implement ferocity, the primitive, the barbaric, the medieval’.

The People’s Party has found itself in an influential position as a ‘kingmaker’ in the Danish parliament, supporting the governing right-wing coalition but insisting on a hard line on immigration in order to do so. The result of this has been that Denmark now has some of the strictest immigration laws in Europe.

Anne Nielsen of Denmark’s SOS Against Racism says, ‘The problem in Denmark now is not so much the extreme right parties, but more the fact that several political parties have been influenced by the Danish People’s Party, which is a very xenophobic, anti-Muslim nationalist party. They have succeeded in getting most of their xenophobic and discriminative policies into Danish law.’

This strategy of inclusion and concessions has only helped the far right to grow. The trend towards Islamophobia is also reflected in the UK, with the British National Party winning its two seats mainly by stirring up anti-Islamic tensions (although Wilders claims the two parties have nothing in common, calling the BNP ‘disgusting’). The far right has always been able to shift its rhetoric to target the most recent wave of migrants, and in western Europe it is Muslims who are currently bearing the brunt of that.

Meanwhile, in eastern Europe, ‘throwback’ far-right parties hardly even bother to disguise their fascistic leanings, outright racism, Holocaust denial, homophobia and so on, combining ‘traditional’ anti-semitism with violence against Roma populations and demands for immigrants to be ‘sent home’. These are parties that are not afraid to form street militias and make Nazi salutes in public – something the likes of the BNP has long since shied away from.

The rise of the Jobbik party, which won three seats in Hungary (see box, previous page), is by far the most frightening example. And far right parties standing on similar anti-Roma platforms gained three seats apiece in Romania and Bulgaria, as well as one MEP in Slovakia.

A ragbag of other parties made gains across the continent. Greece’s Laïkós Orthódoxos Synagermós (Popular Orthodox Rally, known as LAOS) gained one MEP, taking it to two, on 7 per cent of the vote. Many in LAOS are anti-semitic, homophobic and worse, and have been known to make ‘Roman salutes’. LAOS is split between its fascist and populist elements, but the party stands as part of an alliance with Chrysi Avyi (Golden Dawn), an ‘uncompromising’ Nazi party which is widely believed to have infiltrated the Greek police. Golden Dawn has openly called for, and been linked to, attacks on immigrants and the left.

In Austria, the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (Austrian Freedom Party) picked up two seats on 13 per cent of the vote – double the vote it got in 2004, but nowhere near the dizzy heights of the 23 per cent the party reached in 1999, shortly before it joined a coalition government. The Freedom Party suffered from infighting brought on by the pressures of power and criticism from other countries (many of which refused to work with the government), with the party effectively splitting along the lines of populists against the harder nationalist elements. But it has been able to make a gradual recovery.

The Finnish Perussuomalaiset (‘True Finns’) is perhaps Europe’s strangest far-right party, winning its first seat on 10 per cent of the vote – up from just 1 per cent and no seats in 2004. Formerly the Finnish Rural Party, it strenuously denies being part of the far right and does not even advocate anti-immigration policies (probably because it doesn’t need to – Finland already has a no-immigration policy). Yet many of its members are openly racist, including former wrestler Tony Halme, one of its best known candidates, and the party’s name is based on the fact that it wants to put ‘true Finns first’. It advocates a sort of back-to-the-1950s set of policies and has most of its support base among pensioners.

The most confusing picture, though, is in Italy. Italy has an incredible array of fascist and fascistic parties for voters to choose from, and probably the most diverse far right of any in Europe. Some would argue that Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is himself a creature of the far right – his party, through various mergers, includes many one-time Mussolini supporters in senior positions.

Italy’s Lega Nord (Northern League) – another part of Berlusconi’s ‘fascism-lite’ government alliance – now has nine MEPs (up from four), the highest number of seats of any far-right party in Europe. It gained 10 per cent of the vote, double what it got in 2004.

The Northern League is keen to distance itself from fascism, but that didn’t stop it from getting openly fascist Gianni Alemanno elected as its candidate for mayor of Rome. The rise of the right has seen anti-Roma pogroms sweep the country. Another Northern League mayor banned poor, homeless and unemployed people from living in the town of Cittadella, in the Veneto region, and organised volunteer ‘security patrols’ that bore more than a passing resemblance to fascist paramilitaries. As part of Berlusconi’s coalition government, the League managed to get the state to turn away boats full of asylum seekers, sending them back to take their chances with Libya’s authoritarian regime.

But at the same time as the Northern League was gaining seats, the hardcore neo-Nazis of Forza Nuova (New Force) and Movimento Sociale Fiamma Tricolore (Tricolour Flame) lost their two MEPs. Confusing, ever-shifting alliances and splits, combined with the populist appeal of the League, drove down their vote.

Going down

While the far-right is advancing across must of Europe, there is another side to the story.

In France, the Front National, once Europe’s largest fascist party, was reduced to a rump. And in Belgium, another of the most established parties, Vlaams Belang (‘Flemish Interest’, formerly Vlaams Blok) also suffered a significant setback when it lost one of its seats, cutting it down to two MEPs. The name change from Vlaams Blok to Vlaams Belang came after the party was prosecuted for violating anti-racism laws in 2004 – a move that meant it would lose all state funding and access to television broadcasts. Vlaams realised that it could get around the ban by reconstituting itself with a new name and some slightly less racist policies in its manifesto.

Vlaams appears to have suffered since the ruling, with its vote falling from 23 per cent in 2004 to 16 per cent this year. But the Belgian far right shouldn’t be written off yet. It has historically derived its strength from its connection to the Flemish independence movement – a movement that has lasted 150 years and counting. Vlaams is so entrenched that the anti-fascist movement does not seem to hold out much hope of inflicting a final defeat on it. Anti-fascists end up relying on the other parties to operate a ‘cordon sanitaire’ around Vlaams Belang (refusing to make any alliances with it).

Patrick Coeman, of Belgium’s AntiFaNet, says, ‘Vlaams Belang has a state income of six million euros per year. It employs a hundred people. We are working with peanuts – we’ve lost the battle, because the big money rules. We have no impact on it. They lost a lot of votes, but they went to two new right-wing parties.’

Going nowhere?

Thirteen of the 27 EU countries – almost half – did not elect a single far-right MEP: Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Ireland, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden. But that does not mean that half of Europe is Nazi-free.

Fascist parties across Europe organise occasional violence whether or not they get elected – from anti-Roma attacks in the Czech Republic to violence at gay pride marches in Sweden.

Europe’s largest and strongest extra-parliamentary Nazi movement is in Germany, where there are an estimated 50,000 active neo-Nazis scattered across five different groups. Nazis are thought to have murdered more than a hundred people in the last decade.

In four countries – Cyprus, Estonia, Ireland and Luxembourg – the far right appears to have no electoral organisation at all, failing to even put up any candidates in the Euro elections.

Ireland’s only far-right party, the Immigration Control Platform, was one that stayed out of the Euro elections altogether. It did stand in a by-election in Dublin Central, but was humiliated, winning only 614 votes (2.1 per cent). Meanwhile the Labour Party picked up three more MEPs, and the genuinely left-wing Socialist Party won one as well.

The failure of the far right to build a viable independent political force in Ireland begs many questions. But the Republic’s political history is such that for the moment, at least, it is the left that stands to benefit from people’s dissatisfaction with the mainstream parties.

One party that is trying to build a presence in Ireland is Libertas – the pan-European party that, while not quite fascist or racist in itself, has made alliances with far-right parties across Europe. Founded by Irish multi-millionaire Declan Ganley, a key figure in the campaign against the Lisbon Treaty, Libertas contested 531 seats across Europe (out of 785 in total in the parliament) – the biggest united populist right challenge ever.

So how many seats did they win? One. Libertas’s only elected MEP is Philippe de Villiers of Mouvement pour la France, who is often described as far right and is infamous for his anti-Islamic views. And his election was not a victory for the Mouvement so much as the party only just managing to cling on – it had 3 MEPs in the last parliament.

In Poland, Libertas managed to lead one of Europe’s biggest far-right parties (in terms of MEPs) to total wipeout – Liga Polskich Rodzin (the League of Polish Families), an anti-semitic party, went from ten seats to zero after a split.

In-fighting: the far right’s fatal weakness

Overall, the far right may have increased its total seat count, but the balance of populist versus fascist forces is now such that the likes of the BNP will find alliances very difficult.

As ideologies, nationalism and xenophobia do not lend themselves well to transnational coalitions. Much of the far right is not in elections for their own sake, so much as to gain a veneer of respectability and – more importantly – funding for their street-level organisations, but maximising that funding requires them to make deals with ‘foreign’ parties.

How many seats the far right has depends on your definitions, but it is somewhere between 30 and 40. So it must be galling for them to have been so internally divided that they have not even been able to come up with the alliance of 25 MEPs from seven countries needed to get funding as a recognised grouping in the European Parliament.

The parties that are strong enough to be part of governmental alliances, or believe they soon will be, do not want to be seen hanging around with fascists – Italy’s Northern League, the Dutch Freedom Party and the Danish People’s Party have all refused to play ball with the rest of the far right, realising it could prove dangerous to their more mainstream appeal.

There are ideological splits as well

As Jeroen Bosch of Alert in the Netherlands notes, ‘For the neo-Nazis, Geert Wilders [Dutch Freedom Party] is a friend of Israel, so they don’t hook up.’ The anti-Islamic parties such as the Dutch Freedom Party and Danish People’s Party tend to be enthusiastically pro-Israel – a position that does not please the ‘old school’ anti-semitic parts of the far right.

And western nationalist parties generally regard eastern Europeans as ‘immigrants and criminals’, while the eastern European far right is virulently anti-Hungarian – with the exception of Hungary’s Jobbik party, which pledges to defend ethnic Hungarians everywhere.

It was these kinds of tensions that brought down the last attempt at a pan-European far-right alliance, Identity Tradition Sovereignty (ITS), which lasted 11 months in 2007. The group included MEPs from Italy, France, Austria, Bulgaria and Romania, as well as one from Britain (a former UK Independence Party member). Alessandra Mussolini (granddaughter of the dictator), at the time an MEP for Italy’s Social Alternative, said in a newspaper interview that ‘breaking the law has become a way of life for Romanians’ – much to the offence of the five MEPs from the Greater Romania Party, who promptly left the alliance. It then no longer had enough members to carry on as an official parliament group. In other words, an alliance of xenophobes was brought down by its own xenophobia.

This time around, the BNP’s ‘informal’ group has thus far only been able to attract 12 MEPs – themselves, Front National, Jobbik, Vlaams Belang and Attack (Bulgaria). The Greater Romania Party appears to have been excluded because of the fallout from the collapse of ITS – but it was the collapse of France’s National Front, which has tended to provide the backbone of alliances in the past, that put the final nail in the coffin.

The schism between far-right populists and open neo-fascists will potentially lose the parties of extreme reaction as much as a million euros a year in funding for staff, office costs and publications. On the other hand, each MEP will anyway still get paid thousands of euros a month that they can use to build their organisations bigger and stronger – not just for the next election, but out in the ‘real world’ too.

So how do we stop them?

The rise of the far right, all things taken together, is not huge – and the 2009 European parliament will have fewer outright fascists than in 2004. It is right-wing populism that has been the main beneficiary of the surge in far-right voting. This represents the neo-Nazis’ failure to use the economic crisis to their advantage.

At the same time, the percentage increase in the far-right vote is significant – 50 per cent more voters cast a vote for the far right in 2009 than in 2004. And the situation in a few individual countries is nothing short of terrifying.

The Netherlands demonstrates that where ‘anti-Islamic’ rhetoric is not challenged and unmasked as the flimsy disguise for racism that is, it can grow. And Hungary shows that we should not imagine outright Nazism is dead in the 21st century. Where ‘mainstream’ parties have shied away from confronting the far right, preferring to soft-pedal it, incorporate it and try to solve its grievances through policymaking, it has grown. The far right craves respectability and legitimacy – so the left does best when it is able to hold the line against the establishment’s temptation to give in. Far-right parties are, in the final analysis, dogged by their own infighting and internal contradictions.

A broad coalition can be held together by power, or the promise of power. But failure and the feeling of retreat brings with it financial pressure and splits over strategy and tactics. A few important defeats can rapidly unravel and destroy parties that are based on nothing but hate and opportunism. The role of anti-fascists can be to bring these divisions to the fore – by humiliating the far right, demoralising them, and hounding them off the streets.

Ultimately, the appeal of the far right needs to be countered by a credible left alternative capable of defending the jobs, homes, and services of people from all backgrounds from neoliberal attacks. But where there is little in the way of such a movement, there needs to be a full debate about the most effective way to defeat the far right. It is a debate that needs to be informed by the lessons from those places where the far right has made gains, and where they have been successfully held back, in order to defeat the fascists.

Hungary: The march of Jobbik

Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom (the Movement for a Better Hungary) won three seats at the election on 14.8 per cent of the vote. The far-right party came third overall in Hungary, not far behind the ruling centre-left Socialist party, which is currently running a minority government.

Jobbik is, to put it bluntly, a scary organisation. Its campaign focused almost entirely on attacking the Roma population over supposed ‘gypsy crime’, and proclaiming that ‘Hungary belongs to the Hungarians’.

Unlike the softer populist far right that made gains elsewhere in Europe, Jobbik is an obviously neo-Nazi party. Its leader, Gábor Vona, is also the leader of a militia called the Magyar Gárda (Hungarian Guard) that openly operates as Jobbik’s armed wing. It marches through the streets wearing black uniforms with the symbols of the Hungary’s second world war era pro-Nazi government (Jobbik says it is just ‘traditional Hungarian clothing’).

The Guard was recently declared illegal, but is still openly organising anti-Roma and Holocaust denial marches. Five Roma have been murdered in the past few months. (Jobbik claims the murders were committed by ‘other gypsies’.) Gay, women’s and socialist groups have also been attacked.

Jobbik and the Hungarian Guard are making inroads into the police force, where they appear to believe they can find recruits. In April, they gained control of the Independent Police Trade Union – a union that represents 5,000 members, or 10 per cent of the police force.

The police union’s leader is a Jobbik candidate, Judit Szima, who has called for an ‘armed battle’ against Jews and Roma. ‘We should expect a Hungarian-gypsy civil war,’ she wrote in the union’s newsletter, Prepared for Action, ‘fomented by Jews as they rub their hands together with pleasure.’

The Hungarian Guard has managed to attract hundreds of recruits and crowds of thousands at its rallies, and it has won some support from sections of the mainstream conservative opposition, Fidesz. Fidesz MPs have attended Hungarian Guard rallies, and the party has refused to condemn the racist paramilitary force. It has even formed coalitions with Jobbik in some local councils.

Hungarian democracy is still relatively new and unstable – it is only 20 years since the end of the ‘communist’ regime there, and the government is still dominated by corrupt former Stalinists. Since the election they have started to crack down on the Hungarian Guard, only for Jobbik to vow: ‘We will retaliate.’ Things could quickly turn nasty.

Jobbik is a close ally of the British National Party. It should be a standing retort to those who argue that the BNP’s ‘Nazi past’ doesn’t matter.

France: Collapse of the Front National

The Front National is one of Europe’s longest-established far-right parties, founded in 1972 by Holocaust denier and anti-semite Jean-Marie Le Pen and a group of second world war Nazi collaborators. It has long acted as a leader among the European far right, initiating the Euronat alliance of European fascist parties among other initiatives. It claims a membership of 75,000 – huge compared to, for example, the BNP’s 10,000.

The Front National might have never got far if it wasn’t for avid supporter Hubert Lambert dying in 1977, leaving Le Pen a multi-million franc fortune (and a castle, too). The party got its first MEP elected back in 1984 and used that extra funding to further build up its organisation. By 1997 it was running four local councils. But Front National administrations were characterised by staffing cuts, massive expenditure on police and outright corruption. They used local libraries as political weapons, banning left-wing newspapers and authors and ordering the purchase of far-right literature instead.

Voters did not take long to turn against such petty dictators. At its peak in the mid to late 1990s, the Front National was getting more than 10 per cent of the French vote – enough for 11 MEP seats. This year, its vote collapsed to 6.3 per cent, leaving it with just three MEPs – the fewest it has had since it started standing.

In July the party had a chance to win its first town hall for seven years when Marine Le Pen (the veteran FN leader’s daughter) reached the runoff vote in the town of Hénin-Beaumont in industrial northern France. In the end, though, an alliance of every other party was enough to defeat her – although only by a narrow margin. Under first-past-the-post, Marine Le Pen would have won comfortably: in the first round she had 40 per cent of the vote to the eventual winner’s 20 per cent. But France’s runoff system makes it easy for people to vote anti-fascist in the final round, just as millions did in the presidential election in 2002.

The collapse of the Front National is not just a matter of electoral mathematics, though – it is also a reflection of the growing strength of France’s working-class movements. Instead of the far right being able to pick up support from people’s dissatisfaction with neoliberalism, in France it is the left that has seized the initiative.

There may have been no breakthrough yet for the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (New Anti-capitalist Party), but it is clear that it is on an upward trajectory. Meanwhile, the Front National appears to have had its progress checked.

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