Is the far right gaining in Europe?

The recent electoral successes of so-called "radical right" candidates in Europe have some speculating that far-right parties are gaining a new place in the political landscape. But that's not necessarily the case, close observers say.

What the French and Greek elections may signal

Greece's ultra-nationalist, extreme right party Golden Dawn, led by Nikolaos Michaloliakos, has been accused of holding neo-Nazi views. It was able to get seven per cent of the vote on Sunday and 21 seats in the Greek parliament. (Petros Giannakouris/Associated Press)

The electoral successes of "radical-right" candidates in the recent French and Greek elections have many in the media speculating that the far right is gaining a new place in the European political landscape.

But some analysts say this is not a particularly new voting trend and that these parties, known for their anti-immigrant, anti-European Union and, in some cases, anti-Semitic views, have always enjoyed distinct levels of support.

What's more, in the case of Greece, the surge in support on Sunday for the ultra-nationalist Golden Dawn only brings that far-right voting bloc up to the levels of most other European countries, at least since the early 1990s.

"I wouldn’t overdramatize it, in the sense that they're still on the fringe and the job of normal politics is to keep these guys on the fringe," said Robert Austin, who teaches the politics and history of central and southeastern Europe at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.

"Nobody's in a position to radically alter the political landscape yet," Austin said of these groups. "The question is, can the mainstream parties do their job, which is to get those guys back on the periphery without having to steal some of their nastier policies."

Much has been made of the fact that Marine Le Pen, leader of France's far-right National Front, received nearly 18 per cent of the vote in the first round of the presidential elections on April 22, the best results ever for a National Front leader.

Some observers were also shocked that Golden Dawn, Greece's ultra-nationalist, extreme right party, which has been accused of holding neo-Nazi views, was able to get seven per cent of the vote on Sunday and 21 seats in the Greek parliament, a first.

Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders' anti-immigrant Freedom Party, the third-largest in the Netherlands parliament, brought down the minority government last week by withdrawing its support.

Austria’s Freedom Party holds 34 of 183 parliamentary seats and has been polling second in opinion surveys of late, while the Danish People's Party is currently Denmark's third largest party.

However, this trend shouldn't necessarily be seen as a brand new phenomenon, observers say.

David Art, associate professor of comparative politics at Tufts University, said that since the 1990s the radical right has been part of the political landscape in many countries.

"In some ways, we can point to the success of where the radical right is doing well, but we could have pointed to other elections over the past 15 to 20 years where the radical right was doing quite well," said Art, author of Inside the Radical Right: The Development of Anti-Immigrant Parties in Western Europe

"So there have been various waves of attention to this phenomenon."

Art said Le Pen’s electoral results were only a few percentage points higher than those achieved by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the former leader and founder of the National Front who ran for president of France on five occasions.

The elder Le Pen often polled around the 15 per cent mark. In 2002, he received 17 per cent of the vote when he managed to squeak into the run-off election and finished a distant second to Jacques Chirac. In 2007, his support sank to 10 per cent in the race against Nicolas Sarkozy.

Art also noted that the vote share of the Danish People’s Party hasn't changed much over time, and that the Austrian Freedom Party, which is at around 25 per cent in the polls, actually won 27 per cent of the vote in 1999 when it helped form the government.

"I really don't see anything new about this development," Art said.

"There’s not a sort of automatic transmission mechanism between voter discontent and radical-right party success. A lot of these radical-right parties are not very well run and not very well organized and even if they score a one-time electoral victory, a lot of them collapse afterwards," he said.

He also noted that Greece has, in some ways, been behind the curve when it comes to right-wing parties.

"When you total all the right-wing parties [in Greece] it's going to come to 12 to 15 per cent. But that would make Greece look more like European countries, rather than less like it, where you have this sort of radical-right voting block of 10 to 15 per cent."

Thomas Klau, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, acknowledged that there is a definite pattern in terms of far-right parties emerging in Europe, but said we are not seeing a new wave of these types of party sweeping across Europe.

Klau said it's significant that in Germany, the most populous country in the EU, it is not a far-left or far-right protest party that has risen in popularity. Instead it has been the Pirate Party, which focuses on the rights of internet consumers.

"In most of the countries where we've seen the right doing well, these parties have been an important feature on the national landscape for a number of decades," Klau said.

Klau said that, except for Greece, the parties that have been forming governments are still largely mainstream parties. He said voters have been expressing a strong dissatisfaction with the way governments have handled the eurozone crisis but at the same time have still expressed a "remarkable degree of confidence" in the mainstream opposition parties. 

But Austin said that the far-right parties, despite not making a big political breakthrough, are making inroads by tapping into serious concerns that the mainstream political parties are not addressing.

He said a lot of people have become "frightened majorities" and that the immigrant population is perceived as a threat because of Europe’s demography.

"The far-right parties aren’t just a bunch of lunatics. You can't just dismiss them. You can't say 'oh the people who vote for them are stupid, are uneducated, are unemployed.' Those parties feed off a huge amount of insecurity and that insecurity is there right now."

He said many of their supporters also have a perception that government is "blatantly corrupt."

"This is where they're capturing votes. In that element they're often not wrong."

With files from The Associated Press