Muslim Voters and the European Left

When Inclusion Leads to Populism

Demonstrators at a joint Christian-Muslim rally for peace in Bilbao, June 2017. Vincent West / Reuters

Over the last few years, well over two million mostly Muslim refugees have arrived in Europe, a fact that has come to dominate headlines and elections across the continent. This large-scale inflow has bolstered right-wing populism and pushed some mainstream conservative parties to the right on migration in order to protect their share of the vote. But while the refugee crisis has led to shifts on the right, it has also highlighted a strategic problem for the left: how to approach immigration and immigrant voters without driving away their working-class base.

For instance, although much has been made about how German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open embrace of refugees cost her center-right Christian Democratic Union precious votes in the 2017 German election, parties on the left lost supporters to the anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland in nearly equal numbers. In part because of these losses, the election was a historic defeat for the Social Democrats, who received 20.5 percent of the vote—their worst showing since 1949.

In Austria, meanwhile, the center-right Austrian People’s Party recently agreed to govern with the fiercely xenophobic and nationalist Freedom Party (FPÖ), leaving the defeated Social Democrats out in the cold. In an election in which voters ranked immigration as their top issue, an astounding 59 percent of the Austrian working class voted for the FPÖ, while only a paltry 19 percent cast their ballots for the erstwhile workers’ party.


The left faces a dilemma: over the past several decades social democratic parties have increasingly drawn support from cosmopolitan, middle-class voters who welcome diversity, but large parts of their traditional working-class base reject immigration, especially from Muslim-majority countries. Recognizing this dilemma, some parties have begun to more aggressively court immigrants and other underrepresented minorities in the hope of building a broad, cross-class coalition of socially liberal voters. The Democratic Party has adopted this approach in the United States, albeit with uneven success.  

In Europe, however, my research suggests that this path will be much more difficult.

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