--All across Europe, right-wing populist parties are enjoying unprecedented success in elections. Led by charismatic politicians like Geert Wilders they are exploiting fear of Muslim immigration and frustration with the political establishment -- and are forcing mainstream parties to shift to the right--
Continent of Fear: The Rise of Europe's Right-Wing Populists
28 September 2010
By SPIEGEL Staff
Right-wing populist parties have been a part of coalition governments in Italy and Switzerland for years, and they hold seats in the parliaments of Denmark, Austria, Norway and Finland. Jean-Marie Le Pens' National Front captured 9 percent of the vote in last spring's French regional elections with a targeted anti-Islamic campaign. In March, Italy's Northern League gained control of the regions of Venice and Piedmont. During the election campaign, party supporters handed out soap samples, to be used, as they said, "after having touched an immigrant."
Right-wing populism itself isn't anything new. It has been a fixed entity for about 30 years in many European countries, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. What is new, however, is that the right-wing populists have discovered an issue that is much more appealing to voters than the usual anger against foreigners and the political class. They have found a powerful new issue in resistance against the growing visibility of Islam in Europe. They portray themselves as the defenders of European values, and yet both they and their voters seem to care very little that some of those values, such as freedom of religion, are being trampled on in the struggle.
The fear that Muslim immigrants could change the character of European society penetrates deeply into the middle of society. In German opinion polls, about three-quarters of respondents say they are concerned about the influence of Islam. Similar sentiments are voiced in other countries, even though immigration to Europe has been in decline for years.
Barbaric practices in some Islamic countries -- when women are forced to wear burqas, gays and lesbians are persecuted and adulterers are stoned, all under the pretext of religion -- are undoubtedly deeply contrary to modern European values. And there is no question that many countries face severe problems with integrating immigrants into society. But these things alone do not explain the discomfort. Rather, it stems from the fact that the established parties have failed to give their voters the feeling that they are addressing these issues. The economic crisis of the past couple of years has also unnerved the middle class. Europe is aging, and other, younger regions of the world are catching up. Many people are worried about the future in a globalized world, one in which the balance of power is shifting.
The transformation of the National Front [in France] is only one example of the new anti-Islamic mainstream among Western Europe's right-wing populist parties. This is the issue that unites all of these parties throughout Europe, which have even taken to borrowing each other's marketing ideas. For example, the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) copied a game from the website of Swiss People's Party (SVP), in which players shoot at minarets popping up in their familiar landscape. The only difference was that the Austrian version also included the option of shooting at the muezzins.
This is a new phenomenon, and it cannot hide the fact that there are still many differences among the parties that are being lumped together under the heading of right-wing populism. It is certainly true that most of them have always been anti-immigration, have positioned themselves against the political elite, have had charismatic leaders and have done particularly well in countries in which the established parties cultivate a culture of consensus. But a neoliberal with rural roots like Swiss politician Christoph Blocher of the SVP has very little in common with the French demagogue Le Pen. Their origins are too different, as are many of the details of their policies.
It is the shared concept of Islam as the enemy that now makes them ideological allies. Still, it is unlikely that these parties will continue to cooperate across borders in the future, despite Wilders' dream of spearheading such a movement throughout Europe. The "International Freedom Alliance" he established in July has two goals: to "defend freedom" and "stop Islam." In a video which is currently the only content on the alliance's website, Wilders says that he wants to pool the existing forces against Islam, in Germany, France, Britain, Canada and the United States.
When asked about Wilders' initiative, Marine Le Pen told SPIEGEL: "Without a concerted revolution, our civilization is ultimately doomed." This may be an acknowledgement of common goals, but it doesn't sound like she necessarily wants to join Wilders' organization.
The World from Berlin: 'Anti-Establishment Rage Is Fuelling Populism Everywhere'
29 September 2010