European Parliament vote: a step too far?

Polls suggest extremists will profit from Europe’s economic woes to make record gains in the May elections. Here, we analyse them country by country


January 30, 2014
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Front National protesters make their views known (Photo: AP)

Front National protesters make their views known (Photo: AP)

FRANCE

An opinion poll last Sunday suggested that Marine le Pen’s National Front (FN) — campaigning on an anti-immigration and anti-Europe ticket — will garner the highest proportion of votes of any French party in May’s European elections.

The survey indicated that the FN will garner 23 per cent, ahead of the centre right UMP (21 per cent) and the governing Socialist Party (18 per cent). This translates into a record 17 seats — up from just three in 2009.
According to another poll, up to 55 per cent of students will consider voting for the FN.

Given the sharply declining public support for President Francois Hollande, which has crept up three percentage points since the revelations over his affair with actress Julie Gayet, it is not surprising to see his party trailing in third place. But this is the first time that the Front National has ever been ahead of the two main parties in the opinion polls.

It is indicative of the deep disenchantment in France over the perceived hegemony of Brussels, and the widespread fear that French culture and identity is being eroded by immigration.

Le Pen is confident that her party will gain “dozens” of council seats in the French municipal elections, to be held ahead of the European elections in March, although an opinion poll in mid-January suggested that the party would win only 9 per cent of the municipal vote.

Le Pen has worked hard to rid the party of the antisemitism and racism that characterised it under the leadership of her father, Jean-Marie le Pen. But she has only partially succeeded.

There have been a number of high profile defections by disaffected centrist and left-wing (often ex-Communist) members, and even black and Jewish supporters.

Initially attracted by a political discourse that has more in common with Ukip than the BNP, they were appalled to find that the “de-demonisation” of the party that Le Pen promised has failed to root out the vicious racism — largely focused on Muslims and Roma — that still thrives among its hardline members.

The FN may not do as well as opinions polls suggest.

A low turnout, as is likely, has historically been to its disadvantage.

And while one of Le Pen’s flagship policies — her only real economic policy — is to leave the monetary union, a French majority remains strongly attached to the euro.

Her father’s close relationship with the antisemitic comedian Dieudonné will have been an uncomfortable reminder to some potential swing voters that the party still contains elements considerably less attractive than its undeniably decorative leader.

HUNGARY

The antisemitic Jobbik party is likely to retain its seats in May, but that result could be affected by the outcome of the national election in April, experts say.

The latest polls show Jobbik has at least 11 per cent support among decided voters. This would translate into two or three seats in the European Parliament. It currently holds three.

But analysts say support for extremist parties is unpredictable because supporters are hesitant to reveal their preferences before election day. In Hungary, 41 per cent of the electorate is undecided or uncommitted to a party.

In 2009, many were surprised when Jobbik won 15 per cent of the popular vote, says Péter Balázs, professor at Budapest’s Central European University.

Voters feel they can support extremist parties in European elections because “there is no direct political consequence of the choice of the voters,” he said. “It’s almost symbolic and sometimes compensation for the outcome of the national election.”

Jobbik’s influence in the next European parliament will be limited by its small size and extremism. Its MEPs are not members of an official political group, which means they have “less chance to speak and have an impact on the votes,” said Péter Krekó, of the Hungarian think-tank, Political Capital.

Jobbik’s two closest allies ideologically are the BNP, which does not belong to a group either, and Greece’s Golden Dawn, which does not have any MEPs.

Other right-wing parties are unlikely to embrace Jobbik because of its strong antisemitic and anti-Israeli stance.

NETHERLANDS

Geert Wilders’s PVV party has become the strongest in the Netherlands, despite setbacks in the 2012 parliamentary elections.

Although PVV is best characterised as a populist anti-Europe party in the mould of Ukip and Alternative for Germany, Mr Wilders recently forged an alliance with Marine Le Pen’s National Front.

The PVV is predicted to increase its number of European Parliament seats from four to five in May.

Although Mr Wilders constantly emphasises his proximity to Israel, sceptics say this solidarity is based on his negative view of Muslims, which he appears to assume Israel shares.

ITALY

The Five Star Movement is not a marginal force. It got over 25 per cent of the Italian vote in the national elections in February 2013, and the polls predict it will get between 20 and 24 per cent in the European elections (19-20 seats).

Leader Beppe Grillo seems willing to combine his popular anti-Europe stance with more extremist positions. He has courted leaders of the neo-fascist youth movement CasaPound and has made a number of seemingly antisemitic statements about “the Jews” controlling the media and Hollywood.

Meanwhile, leaders of the xenophobic party Lega Nord recently met French FN leader Marine Le Pen to discuss co-operation ahead of the April elections.

AUSTRIA

Last year saw the comeback of the Austrian Freedom Party, which was formerly led by the late Jörg Haider who famously praised Nazi employment policies.

The party won 20 per cent of the national vote and gained 40 seats in parliament in 2013. It has two MEPs and its recent resurgence suggests that it is on track to maintain that presence in the European Parliament.

Last week, 6,000 people took to the streets of Vienna to protest against a ball due to be held today by the Freedom party. The event has gained notoriety in recent years for attracting leading far-right figures from across Europe.

SWEDEN

Sweden’s largest far-right party, the Sweden Democrats, have solidified their position as the country’s thrid-largest party. According to a poll conducted last month, the party would take around 9 per cent of the votes in a national election, winning 30 seats in the Swedish parliament.

The party campaigns on an anti-immigrant, populist platform and has been characterised as fascist. In December last year it emerged that 11 Sweden Democrat politicians had posted xenophobic messages on far-right websites.

The party has no MEPs but observers believe they have a strong chance of entering the European Parliament.

GREECE

Although a large chunk of its leadership has been charged with being members of a criminal organisation — six of its 18 lawmakers, including party leader Nikos Michaloliakos, are in detention — and despite the ongoing, wide-ranging investigation into its activities, Golden Dawn’s influence does not appear to have been dented.

According to the latest polls, about one in ten Greek voters is likely to vote for the neo-Nazi party in the next general election.

It consistently polls third, and will likely take third place in the upcoming European elections in May.

A recent poll by Greek Public Opinion had Golden Dawn taking 8.6 per cent of the vote in the European elections, behind Syriza (20 per cent) and New Democracy (13.5 per cent).

Another recent poll by Pulse RC had them taking 11 per cent of the vote, with Syriza on the first place and New Democracy ranking second.

The group has also begun fielding its candidates for local government elections, to be held earlier in the same the same month. Athens and its region of Attica (which includes the capital) will be crucial tests of the durability of their electoral appeal.

Far-right expert Matthew Goodwin writes: “Assuming its support holds steady, and Golden Dawn is not forcibly disbanded by the state, in 2014, Europe faces the very real prospect of Golden Dawn representatives in the European Parliament.”

BRITAIN

The threat posed by British far-right parties is considerably slimmer than at the last set of European polls five years ago.
The election of two BN
P MEPs, including party leader Nick Griffin, in 2009 marked a low point in the modern-day fight against extremism. But the picture since then has been far more positive.

Griffin’s party has been repeatedly trounced at the polls, losing every council seat it held in England. Rather than providing a boost, his greater exposure in the media has led to party in-fighting, mockery and dwindling support.

He has not departed the scene though. Despite being declared bankrupt earlier in the month, Griffin is working to build a coalition of far-right organisations across Europe in the belief that he is about to be re-elected as an MEP.

His manifesto forerunner focuses on issues including a supposed “clash of civilisations” and some thinly-veiled references to the Weimar Republic and “elite power grabs”, but is unlikely to garner the sort of backing he once had.

The efforts to align with Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn group and Hungary’s far-right Jobbik are perhaps Griffin’s last roll of the dice. It would seem he needs them far more than those two electorally-successful parties need a diminished BNP.

Analysts believe the rise of Ukip and the English Defence League split the right-wing vote, attracting former BNP voters for whom immigration and Euroscepticism were the key draws.

The EDL carried little political power even in its apparent heydays of three years ago. But with its figurehead leader Tommy Robinson defecting — and subsequently being jailed — the group is now a busted flush. It will continue its protests on the streets but holds no sway at the ballot box.

The fact that the Board of Deputies’ 3,000-word pre-election briefing pack barely mentions any of the far-right parties should stand as an indication of the groups’ likely irrelevance this May.

Reporting by Natasha Lehrer, Valentina Jovanovski, Alexandra Kassimi, Toby Axelrod, Cecelia Rencatti, Marcus Dysch, Orlando Radice

Last updated: 12:49pm, January 30 2014