Decades Under the Influence

How Europe's Parties Have Been Shifting Right

Leaders of the Freedom Party of Austria, Heinz-Christian Strache (right), Norbert Hofer, and Herbert Kickl in Parliament in Vienna, November 2017. Leonhard Foeger / Reuters

In recent years, Europe’s radical-right parties have had an extraordinary degree of success. In 2017, far-right candidates achieved their best-ever results in presidential elections in Austria and France. After Italy’s parliamentary election in March, the radical-right Lega became the largest party in the conservative coalition. Radical-right parties have entered coalition governments in Austria and Norway, and in Denmark the Danish People’s Party currently supports the center-right minority government. In Germany and the Netherlands, meanwhile, radical-right parties made substantial gains in the 2017 parliamentary elections.

These electoral victories have provoked alarm, leading many observers to ask whether radical-right parties are gaining new and unprecedented influence in European politics. Yet these parties have been around in European party systems for a long time: in France, the National Front won 35 seats in the 1986 legislative elections, and Austria’s Freedom Party (FPÖ) was a junior partner in government from 2000 to 2005. What’s more, radical-right parties have been making their influence felt for decades on issues such as immigration and national identity.


In a 2017 paper published in Political Studies, we set out to measure how the ideology of European parties has changed in recent decades. Using data from the Manifesto Project, which examines the emphasis placed on different issues in parties’ election manifestoes, we looked at the changes in the positions of political parties in 17 western European countries between 1980 and 2014. The analysis focused on how mainstream parties’ stances evolved on topics—such as immigration, law and order, and nationalism—that divide parties along the liberal-authoritarian axis rather than the traditional left-right economic axis. (“Liberal” positions tend toward more personal freedom on issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion, immigration, and multiculturalism, while “authoritarian” positions favor a strong moral authority, traditional ways of life, and cultural homogeneity.) In each country, we looked at the platforms of the major center-left and center-right parties, as well as those of parties on the radical right.

Liberal-authoritarian issues form the ideological core of radical-right parties. We can therefore

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