“The Populist Zeigeist”, written by Cas Mudde in 2004, was somewhat prophetic, because it announced that we would be entering a time when populism would become mainstream. Those times have lasted for almost two decades. Even today, the headlines warn us of the “rising far right” and the “increasing influence of the far right on contemporary politics.” If you happen to be a journalist, scholar or an activist working on the far right, chances are your project initiatives will likely find funding. Indeed, the far right has been effectively mainstreamed as a set of talking points operating in the contemporary debates on politics and society. Proof is to be found virtually on a daily basis across different political and geographical contexts, ingrained in the statements and policies of the (presumed) center-right but even the left.
However, it seems that the statements about the “rising far right” are repeated over time without much reflection. With the likes of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro no longer in power, it is also questionable to what extent the far right has become a threat to regimes around the world. Indeed, after the departure of Bolsonaro, 1.7 billion people around the world live under populist regimes – which, as daunting as that number may seem, is a 20-year low, falling by 800 million in two years. Since 2023 was an election year for many of Europe’s (hybrid) democracies, it seems likely that this number will continue to fall.
One of the loudest of these “falls” was Poland, following the defeat of the long-ruling (since 2014) Law and Justice Party (PiS), but also the poor performance of the extreme-right Konfederacja coalition, the latter of which has already lead to infighting within the coalition. The loss of the far right in Poland was an important statement, especially after years of illiberal institutional encroachments by the ruling PiS, including a near-total ban on abortion, control of state media, staunch anti-immigrant and even climate skeptic rhetoric (a rhetoric that has been softened over the years).
Another loud fall was the result of the Spanish far-right VOX, in the elections held on July 2023. Although many expected the party to enter the government in a coalition with the conservative Popular Party, led by Alberto Nuñez, the polls have shown otherwise. The party lost a total of 19 seats in the Congress of Deputies (31 seats, or 12.33 percent), the lower house of the Spanish Parliament and two seats in the Senate (10.2 percent). This major setback has surprised the far-right around the world.
In Estonia, the Conservative People’s Party with some populist and far-right tendencies remained in opposition, winning 17 seats, which is 2 seats worse than their previous result in 2019. However, they have become the second list in the country, replacing Estonian Center Party by a small margin.
In September, Slovakia went to the polls following a vote of no-confidence in the government of Eduard Heger of the center-right OľaNO. The far-right Republika, formed after a dispute within Marian Kotleba’s People’s Party, failed to enter Parliament, winning only 4.7 percent of the vote. However, the nationalist Slovak National Party won 10 seats with only 25,000 (0.8 percent) more votes than Republika. Also, SMER, a populist and nationalist party albeit with an officially leftist, social-democratic profile, won the elections with almost 23 percent of the vote. So it would be a bit of a stretch to argue that nationalist politics in Slovakia are on the decline.
In some countries, the far-right improved its position. The most prominent example was Finland, where the Finns party won 20.06 percent of the vote (7 seats better than in 2019), and entered the government as part of a four-party coalition (with The National Coalition, Christian Democrats and the Swedish People’s Party). Another good example is Bulgaria, where the far-right Revival party won 13.5 percent and 17 seats, 10 seats better more than in their previous election campaign. Similarly, in Greece, the far-right Victory party won 10 seats with 3.69 percent of the popular vote, making a major electoral breakthrough. In addition, the ruling center-right party of Prime Minister Mitsotakis (New Democracy) has long been criticized for some time for its anti-democratic tendencies during its time in power. Therefore, even though 2023 was not a great year for the far-right in Europe in terms of its electoral results, this does not mean that the far right has lost its political relevance in the contemporary era. An important “by-product” of these results is that the center-right parties generally fared much better than in previous elections, successfully emulating some of the far-right rhetoric in their political platforms and election manifestos. The danger of the spread of far-right talking points across the political spectrum seems to be the bigger problem than the electoral performance of the far-right parties themselves.
Therefore, as the mainstreaming of the far-right remains a problem for democracies worldwide, it would seem that the “far-right scare” in European politics should be a thing of the past. This is not to say that far-right politics should be completely ignored or overlooked, as the mainstreaming of the far-right would not have been possible without the far-right itself. However, alarmism often tends to exaggerate the far-right, ultimately creating an even larger (and undeserved) platform for these actors. Such alarmism ultimately does a disservice to the protection and preservation of the (crumbling) values of liberal democracy – values that have themselves been challenged by the insensitivity to everything that fueled the rise of the far right in the first place: economic and social inequality, climate change, lack of justice, and the tacit authoritarianism of everyday politics.
This is not to suggest that the European politics should turn a blind eye to the far-right – this is obviously not possible in most parts of the continent, where the far-right has either come to power (Hungary, Finland) or presented a potent political force in the opposition (France). But every crisis is also an opportunity. Therefore, the overall trend of the 2023 elections could point to favorable future tides for the center right, which is probably as important as the strengthening of the left and green responses to illiberalism. In order for the center-right to capitalize on these tides, it is important to first abandon the far-right talking points from their own narratives. Perhaps a step further would be to critically examine the tendency toward national conservatism for its illiberal tendencies. Thus, resolving the tension between the conservative preference for order and stability and the authoritarian tendencies of far-right politics is a must for center-right politics to move forward. Moreover, in the face of current crises, especially the climate crisis, conservative politics must offer a promise of a better future: a promise that is more respectful of the differences that exist in a liberal democratic society. After all, the only way for liberal democracy to exist and thrive is through the cultivation and political management of difference.
Dr. Balša Lubarda is the Head of Damar Research Institute (Montenegro) and previously Fulbright Visiting Fellow at UC Berkeley. He is the author of the book “Far Right Ecologism: Environmental Politics and the Far Right in Hungary and Poland” (Routledge, 2023.)
Cover photo: leader of far-right party VOX, Santiago Abascal and Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki talk to the press on the sidelines of the “Defend Europe” summit, organised by the Spanish far-right party VOX, in Madrid on January 29, 2022 (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP.)
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