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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 learn a lot about whether and how much the far right is changing Europe’s political debate by looking at the prominence of these issues in mainstream party platforms and the positions parties take on them.
Our findings were startling: traditional parties of both the left and the right have become much more authoritarian since 1980 (see Figure 1). In fact, on liberal-authoritarian issues the average center-left party today is about as authoritarian as the average radical-right party was in the early 1980s. On these issues, 40 of the 53 mainstream parties in the study moved to the right over the period in question.
For example, Sebastian Kurz, the young Austrian chancellor from the center-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), embraced a tough stance on immigration during the 2017 elections, which many observers cast as a novel strategy to compete with the nativist FPÖ. Yet we found that the ÖVP has been moving steadily to the right on liberal-authoritarian issues since 1986, when the FPÖ first emerged as a competitor. Similarly, despite German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s pro-migration stance during the refugee crisis, her party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union, has shifted markedly to the right on liberal-authoritarian topics over the last three decades.
These trends are not confined to the center-right parties, which have always taken tougher stances on issues of morality and identity. They are also present on the center-left. For instance, in 2005 the Social Democratic Party of Austria, then in opposition, voted for tougher immigration and asylum measures contained in an Aliens Law Package initiated by the center-right ÖVP-FPÖ government. Although the party was internally divided on this issue, the party leadership hoped that this move would pay off electorally. On average, there has been a uniform swing of mainstream parties toward more authoritarian issue positions.
The shift of the center toward the right, however, does not mean that the mainstream and the radical right have converged or that the radical right has moderated its stance to any appreciable degree. Instead, radical-right parties have moved even further to the right, increasing their distance from the mainstream over time. The radical right has thus become more distinctive, while the party system as a whole has shifted to the right.
On liberal-authoritarian issues the average center-left party today is about as authoritarian as the average radical-right party was in the early 1980s.
The cause of this mainstream shift to the authoritarian right remains an open question. Partly it is a response to changing times, with migration becoming a more politicized topic in Europe thanks to events such as 9/11 and refugee crises arising from wars in the Balkans and the Middle East. But the power and willingness of parties outside the mainstream to place new, previously depoliticized topics on the agenda—and to create new challenges for established parties—should not be underestimated.
In addition to changes in parties’ stances on liberal-authoritarian issues, we have seen an increasing prominence of these issues in party platforms, although less so than we might have expected. Figure 2 shows the increase in attention to liberal-authoritarian issues across the political spectrum. Notably, while these issues have become slightly more prominent for mainstream parties, they have become even more so for parties on the far right.
When we further distinguish new radical-right parties from more established ones, we find that the radical right’s increasing focus on liberal-authoritarian issues results mainly from newer parties that tend to focus much more on these issues than their predecessors. For example, in the Netherlands the populist Pim Fortuyn List—a borderline radical-right party—was replaced in the the first decade of the current century by Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom, whose platform talks even more about liberal-authoritarian issues.
An increased emphasis on liberal-authoritarian issues is visible in the mainstream, too, yet the trend here is weaker. This might be the result of external events. After the economic crisis in 2008–9, issues of migration and national identity took a back seat to those related to the economy. Note, however, that this may have stopped after the European migration crisis in 2015 (our analysis ends in 2014).
Growing attention to liberal-authoritarian issues does not mean that the long-standing roots of European politics—classic economic questions of redistribution and taxation, for example—are no longer relevant. When looking at the importance of various topics in party programs, economic issues are as important today as ever. What we are seeing is not a wholesale replacement of old politics with new politics or of the left-right axis with an open-closed axis. Instead, both sets of issues live side by side, making it difficult for established parties to know how and on which issues to compete.
There has been a right turn in the ideological makeup of European party systems over the past 30 years. This is because mainstream parties of both the left and the right have tended to take up, at least to a certain extent, the positions of radical-right challengers. The radical right has, in turn, shifted even further right. The next years will show whether this trend continues. In any case, we do not need to wait to know whether European politics will be transformed: it already has been.