Europe's far-right plays for keeps but faces hurdles

Vienna (AFP) –


They may have failed to actually clinch a victory in national elections, but 2017 has nonetheless proven a bumper year for Europe's far-right parties at the ballot boxes.

Yet with success also come growing divisions, which could mar their future ambitions.

Across the continent, eurosceptics peddling anti-migration agendas have reaped historic election results this year, tapping into unease about a mass influx of asylum-seekers -- many from Muslim-dominated countries.

"The far right in Europe is more popular today than it was at any time in postwar history," said Dutch expert Cas Mudde, an associate professor at the University of Georgia.

The first boost to populists came in March when the Dutch anti-Islam Freedom Party of Geert Wilders became the second force in parliament.

Then followed the French National Front (FN) of Marine Le Pen, which took nearly 34 percent of votes in the May presidential run-off won by Emmanuel Macron.

This was double the score Le Pen's firebrand father and FN founder Jean-Marie obtained in the second round in 2002.

September saw Germany's Islamophobic and anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD), founded in 2013, enter the Bundestag -- the first far-right party to do so since the end of World War II.

Last but not least, Austria's anti-immigration Freedom Party (FPOe) got a near-record result of 26 percent in October and on Friday became the junior coalition partner in the rightwing government of leader-in-waiting Sebastian Kurz, 31.

Experts point out that far-right contenders don't need to come first to seriously bruise traditional parties.

"The glass is clearly three-quarter full for nationalists right now," French analyst Patrick Moreau said.

- Ostracise, copy or collaborate? -

The migrant crisis has been a key factor in fuelling the rise of far-right populism.

More than 1.5 million people, many fleeing the civil war in Syria, have landed on Europe's shores since 2015.

Resentment toward these new arrivals has grown in wealthy nations like Germany and Austria, which have received among the bloc's biggest share of asylum seekers.

Observers say far-right discourse seeks to conflate the issue of immigration with terror attacks carried out on European soil over the past two years.

According to US sociologist Mabel Berenzin, the far right plays on fears relating to "the economy, migration, and security, which all contribute to a global feeling of insecurity".

Shock events like the 2016 election of US President Donald Trump and Britain's decision to leave the EU also revealed voters' frustration with the political establishment.

Stemming the populist tide is a major headache for traditional parties, which are forced to decide whether to ostracise, copy or collaborate with the far-right.

Austria's Kurz opted for the two latter options to march his People's Party to victory.

"Kurz has gone very far in his ideological rapprochement with the FPOe, a strategy which can work as long as he doesn't completely trade off his party's identity," noted Austrian analyst Thomas Hofer.

In neighbouring Hungary, the ultra-nationalist Jobbik party has been outflanked by Prime Minister Viktor Orban's hardline anti-immigration stance.

Meanwhile Bulgaria's centre-right government of Boiko Borisov in March entered a coalition with ultra-nationalists.

And while France -- like Germany and the Netherlands -- refuses to rule with the far-right, its opposition veered distinctly right earlier this month after electing controversial rightwinger Laurent Wauquiez as its leader.

- Opposition 'in the DNA' -

However some experts say centrist parties imitating the far-right will only find short-term success.

"A sizeable part of the electorate of populist radical-right parties are not only motivated by authoritarianism and nativism, but also by very strong anti-establishment sentiments, which make them sceptical toward all promises by establishment parties -- even authoritarian and nativist one," said Mudde.

In addition, the real challenge for Europe's nationalist parties lies in keeping internal strife at bay.

The FN and AfD have been riven by leadership issues in the aftermath of their ballot success.

Similarly, Finland's ultranationalist Finns Party imploded over divisions in June, barely two years after entering a coalition government with centrists.

"Playing the opponent is in the DNA of populist parties," said Hofer, the Austrian expert.

"It's not easy to reconvert that into a government mindset."