Elections across Europe this year have confirmed the surging popularity of far-right leaders.
While their liberal and conservative counterparts are in free fall, radical right parties are successfully exploiting public anxiety over migration, national identity and the failures of the establishment. After decades on the fringes, they’re forming governments, by themselves or in coalition.
“You’re seeing this very political, symbolic stand saying enough is enough,” said Natalia Banulescu-Bogdan, head of the international program at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. “Those who believe that the system is not working are finding allies throughout Europe.”
These are some of the key leaders and parties seeking to reshape Europe in their own radical right image.
Resurrecting The Far-Right
Matteo Salvini and Italy’s Lega Party
Italy’s Lega party, or the League, has been part of several coalition governments since it was founded in 1989, but it’s never had more power than it does now. The far-right party won the third-largest share of the vote in Italy’s 2018 election and has become the driving power in a coalition government with the anti-establishment Five Star party, despite holding fewer seats.
The League’s election results would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Support for the party tanked at around 4 percent in 2012 after its founder was forced out in a massive fraud scandal. But the League has climbed back up in the polls since Matteo Salvini, now 45, became the leader in late 2013.
Salvini’s rise and his vitriol against minorities have come amidst a wave of anti-migrant violence in Italy. As rights groups warn of increasing racist and fascist sentiment, Salvini once tweeted out a quote from Italian dictator Benito Mussolini ― “Many enemies, much honor.”
“At the end of 2013, Salvini took over a party that most people thought was dying. … It was broke. It was losing members hand over fist,” said Duncan McDonnell, a professor at Australia’s Griffith University. “Salvini turned it around in a very short period of time and on very little money.”
“Many enemies, much honor.”
Under Salvini, the League has gradually abandoned its original political platform calling for prosperous northern Italy to secede from the south and instead embraced Italian nationalism. Where Salvini once derided southern Italians as foul-smelling freeloaders, his current target is the influx of migrants and refugees whom he vilifies as “rapists” and “drug dealers.” He told rallies of supporters that he wanted to close down mosques and vowed to deport 150,000 migrants in his first year in office.
In Italy’s new coalition government, Salvini took on the dual roles of interior minister and deputy prime minister, using his powers to quickly become one of Europe’s most prominent radical right politicians. He has blocked ships of migrants and refugees from disembarking, called for a census of the minority Roma people and pushed for lifting EU sanctions against Russia. His rhetoric emphasizes the need to protect Christian Italy, and he has proposed installing a mandatory crucifix in every public place.
A Veteran Strongman Tightens His Grip
Viktor Orban and Hungary’s Fidesz Party
A lot has changed since Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party first emerged as a pro-democracy force in the late 1980s. While Orban was once a liberal activist who studied law in Britain on a scholarship from billionaire George Soros, he now demonizes his former benefactor while championing severe restrictions on democratic freedoms and anti-migrant hysteria.
Fidesz and Orban, now 55, shifted to the right in the mid-1990s. They started to rapidly undermine Hungary’s democratic institutions after winning a two-thirds majority in the 2010 elections. Fidesz rewrote the country’s laws and eventually its whole constitution, passing electoral legislation that foreign affairs experts say was designed to benefit itself and hinder Hungary’s fractured liberal opposition. Orban’s allies steadily took control of the country’s media, limiting press freedom, while Fidesz loyalists grabbed power in cultural, judicial and financial institutions.
“Nobody considers Hungary to be a liberal democracy, and most people don’t even consider it democratic,” said Sheri Berman, a professor at New York’s Barnard College.
However, Orban’s rise to international fame came during the refugee crisis, when he positioned himself as a crusader against migration and a defender of Christianity in Europe. Even though Hungary has taken in almost no refugees and its population is only 0.4 percent Muslim, he has continued to talk about migrants as “Muslim invaders” who will destroy Hungary’s culture and ethnic homogeneity.
During elections earlier this year, Orban and Fidesz plastered the country with anti-migrant and anti-Soros posters; they have used anti-Semitic tropes and accused the billionaire of trying to overthrow the government. Fidesz won a landslide victory in an April vote that observers deemed free but not fair. Since then, Orban has launched a crackdown on civil society groups and passed laws that criminalize giving aid to migrants.
Secure in his position at home, Orban also plans to export his politics across Europe. He has already backed nationalist allies in other countries and vowed last month that the European Parliament elections in 2019 would bring a wave of “Christian democracy” across the continent.
The Chaotic Slide Toward Authoritarianism
Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Poland’s Law and Justice Party
Polish democracy has backslid ever since the right-wing nationalist Law and Justice party, or PiS, won the right to form a majority government in 2015.
Law and Justice has used increasingly authoritarian means to target civil society and undermine the independence of state-funded media. Currently, it’s attempting to reshape the country’s courts in order to pack them with loyalists. It also passed a widely condemned law earlier this year making it illegal to blame Poland for crimes committed during the Holocaust.
The leader of PiS is Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who is neither prime minister nor president of Poland but is unquestionably the most powerful man in the country. While the 69-year-old doesn’t hold any government post, he controls the ruling party as its chairman.
“What it affords him is incredible authority without any of the responsibility,” said Anna Grzymala-Busse, a professor of international studies at California’s Stanford University.
Kaczynski founded PiS in 2001 with his twin brother Lech, who was the country’s president from 2005 until his death in a plane crash in 2010. The tragedy looms over Polish politics, with Kaczynski accusing both Russia and Polish opposition figures of assassinating his brother ― a charge that two independent investigations have refuted.
“[Kaczynski] has always had this particular take on nationalism. The big difference is now he has a parliamentary majority and he can basically implement what he’s been about all along.””
Kaczynski has long supported Polish nationalism and positions PiS as a party that will preserve the country’s homogeneous Christian identity. He has used his nativist message and a growing economy to hold onto public support while PiS’s legal reforms remove checks on the government’s power.
“[Kaczynski] has always had this particular take on nationalism,” Grzymala-Busse said. “The big difference is now he has a parliamentary majority and he can basically implement what he’s been about all along.”
Massive public protests and EU pressure have pushed back against some of PiS’s plans ― including a total ban on abortion and a law that would remake Poland’s supreme court. But with a fractured political opposition and Kaczynski securely in power, global affairs experts warn that Poland’s democratic institutions remain under perpetual threat.
A Match For Merkel Goes Mainstream
Alexander Gauland and Alternative For Germany
The Alternative For Germany party is rooted in its disdain for longtime Chancellor Angela Merkel’s welcoming stance toward migrants and refugees. Its platform calls for the closure of Germany’s borders to migrants, opposition to the Schengen Area (a zone of free movement within the EU), a ban on burqas and a referendum to leave the EU.
Founded in 2013, the AfD became Germany’s third-largest party last year, winning 12.6 percent of the vote and becoming the first nationalist party to hold a seat in the Bundestag in over half a century. Most of its electoral support came from parts of eastern Germany where immigrant populations have risen significantly since 2015, when the country took in more than 1 million migrants and refugees. Germany has since struggled to process asylum requests in a timely manner and to integrate the newcomers, creating an opening for anti-migrant sentiment to fester.
“Merkel was very successful in rallying support at the height of the refugee crisis and calling upon Germany’s sense of generosity and hospitality and noting that it was part of their culture to welcome people,” Banulescu-Bogdan said. “But as the crisis draws on for a very long time, there’s a generosity fatigue. It’s very hard to sustain that level of support when Europe hasn’t found any solutions for this.”
Frauke Petry, who ran the AfD until 2017, once suggested that German police should shoot at migrants attempting to cross into the country. Alexander Gauland, who now leads the party, also drowns out some of its more moderate factions. Gauland, 77, is known for making unapologetically racist statements, such as suggesting of the government’s integration commissioner, who is German-born but of Turkish descent, that Germans could “dispose of her in Anatolia.”
Although the AfD doesn’t have a seat in Merkel’s governing coalition, its anti-immigration rhetoric has spread into the mainstream and infiltrated policymaking at the highest levels. Horst Seehofer, the interior minister and head of Merkel’s coalition partner, the conservative Christian Social Union, is by no means a far-right figure. Yet as many tire of Merkel’s open-door policy, he too is pushing to shut Germany’s borders.
Under The Trump-Like Slogan ‘Finland First’
Jussi Halla-aho and the Finns Party
The populist Finns Party advocates for a Finland without immigration from countries outside the European Union, except for those individuals who can bring added economic benefit to the country.
Formerly known as True Finns, the Euroskeptic party rose in popularity during the eurozone debt crisis of the late 2000s. It became Finland’s third-largest political bloc in 2011, winning 39 of 200 parliamentary seats, and almost formed a coalition with the majority Centre Party.
The Finns Party selected parliamentary member Laura Huhtasaari to run in this year’s presidential election. Although she didn’t stand a chance of winning, she used the platform to broadcast her party’s message, even channeling U.S. President Donald Trump by coining the slogan “Finland First” and ranting about “Muslim backwardness.”
“Finland is a little bit late if you compare it to other European countries,” Huhtasaari said. “Anti-immigration parties are winning and people are waking up everywhere. They’re waking up now here, too.”
The party’s leader, 47-year-old Jussi Halla-aho, is even more of a hardliner. In 2012, Finland’s Supreme Court fined him for comments he left on a blog that connected Islam to pedophilia and Somalis to theft.
‘A Bit Vague’ But With Racist DNA
Jimmie Akesson and the Sweden Democrats
Convinced that native-born Swedes are being crowded out of their own country, the Sweden Democrats party wants to shut the doors to asylum-seekers and refugees, except those coming from neighboring nations.
The party was originally linked to the neo-Nazi movement in the late 1980s, but its current leader, 39-year-old Jimmie Akesson, claims he’s gotten rid of any vestiges of the party’s former self. It gained seats in Parliament for the first time in 2010 and its popularity has climbed ever since.
“They’re a bit vague but they are targeting migration from outside Europe, Muslim migration and migration from Africa,” said Anders Sannerstedt, a senior political science lecturer at Sweden’s Lund University. “They’d have no problems with people coming from the U.S. or New Zealand ― it’s the Middle East and it’s Africa.”
“They’d have no problems with people coming from the U.S. or New Zealand ― it’s the Middle East and it’s Africa.”
And Sannerstedt explained they’ve changed the rhetoric they use to justify their opposition to immigration.
“In 1988, the Sweden Democrats were against migration as a matter of blood and DNA and genes, using explicitly racist arguments,” he said. “All that has been swept away. Now it’s a matter of immigration costing a lot of money and immigrants having difficulty adapting to Swedish society.”
The party’s rise in popularity in recent years is likely connected to its own and others’ fear-mongering over rising crime rates and gang violence in the country. Gangs from areas with large immigrant populations have been responsible for several deaths in the last few years, creating fodder for the Sweden Democrats’ rhetoric.
The Sweden Democrats acknowledge “that most of the people who live in these problem areas are sick and tired of gang crimes,” Sannerstedt said. But the party contends that these immigrant communities tend to breed this kind of lawlessness.
Founded By Former Nazis
Heinz-Christian Strache and Austria’s Freedom Party
The current success of the Freedom Party of Austria and the muted reaction to that across Europe reflects both the way that radical right parties generally have gained acceptance and how the FPO specifically has remade its image.
When the FPO became part of Austria’s ruling coalition in 2000, there was international outrage. A far-right party that was founded by former Nazi officials in the 1950s being welcomed into European government was seen as a dangerous development. The EU imposed sanctions on Austria, Israel recalled its ambassador in protest, and thousands marched in Vienna.
Last December, 17 years later, the FPO entered government for the second time after winning 26 percent of the vote. Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache struck a deal with Sebastian Kurz of the conservative Austrian People’s Party to form a coalition. But this time Austria faced no sanctions, no recalled diplomats and only scattered protests.
In recent years, the FPO has sought to distance itself from anti-Semitism ― Strache, 49, apologized for his own past as a neo-Nazi youth activist ― and to focus on the public backlash to migration, especially Muslim migration. Austria let in tens of thousands of asylum-seekers during the height of the refugee crisis in 2015. FPO leaders have pointed to those people to stir up fears of a potential “Islamization” of Austria and to campaign for tighter borders. Since the election last year, one of the party’s officials has called for a registry of Jews and Muslims who want to buy kosher or halal meat, and the party has faced scandal over its connections to an anti-Semitic fraternity.
While the FPO remains only a junior coalition partner to the Austrian People’s Party, it has managed to drag the established conservatives to the right and set the agenda on immigration and Islam. Kurz’s government has called for an “axis” with Italy and Germany against migration and has cut its child benefits program for Austrians living abroad.
Austria’s government also announced plans in June to close seven mosques and potentially expel up to 60 imams whom it accuses of receiving foreign funding from Turkey. Strache proclaimed this was “just the beginning.”