Elections in Europe: Conservative Right, Fuelled by Rise of Nationalist Movement, Strengthens

Politics - February 13, 2024

The results of national elections held in several European countries over the past two years reflect a consolidation of the conservative right, fuelled by the rise of the extreme nationalist movement. The term far right, which until the 2000s was used to describe a relatively small number of parties and groups – for example the neo-fascist groups in Germany and Austria – is now used to describe many political parties, most of which describe themselves as conservative. They were born out of the principle of supply and demand, in response to the ‘fatigue’ of the electorate caused by successive crises in recent years, or, taking advantage of this trend, by rebranding older conservative parties. The success of all conservative political parties, as well as populist ones, is rooted in the desire of a section of the electorate – a significant one, as we have seen in recent elections – to ‘penalise’ the mainstream parties that have shared government in recent years. Naturally, conservative political parties have responded to the electorate’s desire for a return to a pre-pandemic normality, and to regain a sense of security, diminished by the threat of war and terrorism, and a social status and prosperity threatened by massive immigration. But they have also responded to the need of a growing constituency irritated by the supremacy of Brussels in key areas of lawmaking, an entity seen of late as rather dysfunctional and lacking in transparency and effectiveness on key issues affecting society. Post-modern conservatism has developed in Europe in various forms – all bearing no resemblance to traditional British conservatism – from moderate, centrist conservatism, such as Christian Democracy, to nationalist conservatism on the extreme right. There have even been original models – such as the one in Hungary – which today inspire other parties (in Hungary’s case, Slovakia).

The Fratelli d’Italia party, labelled by part of the international press as a “populist”, “extremist” party – but essentially of conservative origin – which managed to give Italy its first female prime minister in its history – Giorgia Meloni – is not only one of the many examples of political parties that have managed to ride this wave, a European trend, but also proof that the line between calculated, prudent, centrist conservatism and far-right conservatism has become fragile. Giorgia Meloni won last year’s election with a tempered speech and, to the surprise of many analysts, the measures taken by her government were not as radical as critics and political opponents had expected. Giorgia Meloni has even managed to get the two politicians Matteo Salvini, with his “League”, and Silvio Berlusconi, with “Forza Italia”, to sit down at the same table – i.e. in government – despite their differences over the conflict in Ukraine. The Meloni cabinet has pledged to support the European Union’s efforts to support the war in Ukraine and the military mission in the Red Sea and has not sent military ships to set up a blockade in the Mediterranean to stop illegal immigrants from North Africa. To the surprise of critics of her rapprochement with China, which was expressed in her support for the new Silk Road project, one of Georgia Meloni’s first steps as prime minister was to limit by law the influence of China’s Sinochem Holdings Corp in Italy’s industry stalwart Pirelli. The Italian PM has not promised to repeal the abortion law, but has argued that measures are needed to support pregnant women without financial means to have “other options” and has made some controversial decisions, such as cancelling a justice reform that was a condition for obtaining post-pandemic funds, repealing the law on compulsory vaccination for health professionals and introducing a surcharge on large financial institutions (banks) to attract money to the national budget. In line with the principles promoted by the European Conservatives (ECR Party), to which Fratelli D’Italia belongs, Giorgia Meloni is no longer promoting – as she did before the election campaign – the idea of her country’s exit from the EU, but is calling for a review of the Brussels rules on public spending. Giorgia Meloni’s victory was promptly welcomed by the leaders of ideologically close parties in Hungary, Poland, Sweden, France and Spain. 

Conservative parties won general elections in many European countries

Conservatives won general elections in many European countries, but in some they failed to form the parliamentary majorities needed to form a government. Finland’s charismatic prime minister, Sanna Marin, was defeated in the parliamentary elections by the centre-right National Coalition party, backed by the far-right Finns Party. Kyriakos Mitsotakis’s conservative Nea Dimokratia party will be able to govern single-party in Athens after the latest elections. Sweden will also be ruled by a right-wing coalition for the next few years, led by Ulf Kristersson’s Moderate Party, which also includes the far-right Sweden Democrats, which won the most votes in the parliamentary elections.

Elections in Spain and Poland were also won by right-wing parties. Alberto Nunez Feijoo’s Spanish conservative party failed to get the simple majority in parliament needed to get into government, and lost the prime ministership to Socialist interim Pedro Sanchez, who allied himself with the Catalan secessionist party. Similarly, Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s conservative Polish Law and Justice party had to cede power to Donald Tusk’s pro-European coalition, despite winning the most votes in last autumn’s parliamentary vote.

It is not only parties with an extremist message that have tempered their way to power, but also some conservative centrist parties veering to the extremes driven by the same goal of forming a government. Recently, the initiative to found a new party, the WerteUnion, by splitting the CDU, has emerged on the German political scene. The CDU is the centre-right Christian Democratic party, which is part of the German political mainstream and has governed the country alongside the Social Democrats. But the Christian Democratic Party’s greatness faded with the disappearance of its former leader and former German Chancellor Angela Merkel from the German and European political landscape. The core of the new party will be the radical wing of the CDU, which, unlike its parent party, does not rule out future collaboration with the far-right AfD, which is considered unattainable by the CDU and Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s SPD.

Far-right parties top voters’ choices in 9 EU countries and second place in 9 other countries

The above are just a few examples illustrating the rise of the conservative right in Europe over the last two years. According to a recent Europe-wide poll carried out in the run-up to this year’s European Parliament elections, which focuses on far-right parties, they are reported to be in first place among voters in 9 EU Member States and second place in 9 other countries. For the conservative right as a whole, there are still countries where conservative-liberal parties – as is the case, for example, in Bulgaria – are rated as the number one option in the electorate’s voting intention. In conclusion, the conservative parties will give serious trouble to the socialists and the political parties in the middle of the European political divide in the next elections. Europe has already shifted strongly to the right and, in the future, it is expected that this shift will be reflected not only in the national policies of the Member States, but also in Brussels, through a wider representation of this current including in the European Parliament.

Photo: Pickpik.com