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The Upsurge of the Anti-System Vote

Strategies and Future Prospects in Extreme Right Movements

The sharp reversal in the electoral fortunes of Austria's FPÖ1, in November 2002 should not blind observers to the fact that recent elections in France, Denmark, Norway, and the Netherlands all saw parties of the extreme right consolidate their position in the political landscape.

Several member States of the European Union2 have witnessed in their midst a recent convergence of an old radical Western-European right wing with various forms of contemporary populism around certain themes traditionally dear to the extreme right: anti-immigration; crime and feelings of insecurity that feed authoritarian tendencies; a hybrid economic platform advocating free markets but protecting national social systems; and an exploitation of all possible forms of anti-party attitudes and political resentment.3

The rise of no-choice
On of the explanatory factors of the rise of the extreme right can be found in structural changes in many political systems, characterised by a loss of choice in electoral politics. This “vacuum” has resulted either from swelling cooperation among dominant parties (Austria, Netherlands, Scandinavia) or from alternating political parties whose differences are difficult to discern at least for some voters (France), and it has provided parties on the extreme right or the populist right the opportunity they need to claim they represent the “true” alternative. Exacerbating this situation is the chronic ineffectiveness of dominant Western European political parties to become once again integrated, representative, and mobilising forces in the community and especially to rectify their image as large electoral machines disconnected from citizens' ordinary concerns.

The blurring of political identities
Another reason for the extreme right's attractiveness is the loss of the traditional foundations of voters self-identity by the dominant parties' inexorable drift toward the centre of the political space. When the left abandons its traditional economic-policy ground in order to espouse libertarian positions in social affairs it leaves behind a large part of its working class clientele to go either further left or way right. And when the right raises topics of order and security the far right is easily able to fan those flames into a demand for greater shows of law and order. By holding out to voters a collective identity built on an imagined nationalistic “we” while proposing a different distribution of resources based on “national preference”, the populist strategy, combined with fiscal demagoguery, makes a strong appeal to socially and economically vulnerable groups in society. Specifically, their message sounds like a return to the early glory days of the welfare state, after the war, with its social contract strongly emphasising health, education, and retirement benefits, all of which the 1980's began to dismantle.

The balancing act of “anti-system” dynamics
It remains to be said that the future prospects for extreme right movements are very much up in the air. One on hand, chances are that the major societal challenges that propelled these parties forward in the first place will not go away, while on the other hand certain structural handicaps may curb their potential for expansion. For one thing, their sociological base – up until now the reason for their success – may prove to be less stable in the future in light of the decline of the social groups composing the main part of their electoral forces, i.e. the petite bourgeoisie and certain types of working class voters. Lastly, these parties find themselves faced with the problem of maintaining an anti-system stance without looking like a system, as elections in Austria have shown.


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Gilles Ivaldi
Researcher at the CNRS
Centre d'informatisation des données socio-politiques (CIDSP)
CNRS-Institut d'études politiques de Grenoble-Université Grenoble II
E-mail: ivaldi@cidsp.upmf-grenoble.fr

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