Whenever a populist radical-right party has a win anywhere in the world — when it performs unexpectedly well or changes the terms of the debate — it makes headlines. What happens next rarely attracts the same kind of attention. To understand the implications of these victories, we need to look at their longer-term impact and try to determine what winning really means.
Populist radical-right parties can have three kinds of electoral victories: they can win seats in parliament; they can be treated as the effective winner by the media; they can win by dragging established parties from the ideological centre closer to their own position. (They can pull off a combination of these feats, of course.)
Sometimes it can be hard to distinguish between winning the media contest and winning the election itself, even for well-informed citizens. That’s why it’s worth taking a close look at what happens after the shock has died down. Here we focus on Belgium and Sweden, the countries we know best, where populist radical-right parties have been part of the political system for decades. Have they had significant wins? In what way? And what happened next?
Let’s take Belgium first. Depending on which source you consult, the radical-right party Flemish Interest won either 19 per cent or 12 per cent of the vote in the May 2019 elections. Why the different figures? To understand this, you need a brief history lesson about Belgium, the small country (population eleven million) at the heart of Europe.
Famous for its complicated federal structure, Belgium consists of two regions that don’t share a language (Flanders in the north is Dutch-speaking, Wallonia in the south French-speaking) but do share a federal parliament. Since the 1970s, the party systems in the regions have been disconnected: in Flanders, voters can only choose a Flemish party or candidate; in Wallonia, they must vote for a Walloon party or candidate. This means that most ideologies are represented twice: there’s both a Flemish and a Walloon green party, and the same goes for social democrat, Christian democrat and liberal parties.
But one part of the spectrum, the populist radical right, has never been as popular in Wallonia as it continues to be in Flanders. This is a supply-side issue: radical-right parties in Wallonia have been elected to parliament occasionally, but they were never organised well enough to survive the infighting that erupted over the spoils (seats in parliament and then places on electoral lists for the next elections). On the demand side of politics, it’s worth noting that Flemish Interest builds on a Flemish emancipation struggle dating back to the foundation of Belgium in 1831.
Flemish Interest became the second-biggest party in the Belgian parliament in May of this year. Here’s where those confusing numbers come in: it won 19 per cent of the Flemish vote and 12 per cent of the Belgium-wide vote. But did it win in our three senses of the word?
Well, yes. It won seats: it now has eighteen in the federal parliament, having gained fifteen. (There are 150 seats in total, eighty-seven of which are reserved for Flemish parties.) It also won the framing contest in the media: with its previous election performance (the loss of more than half of its votes and nine of its twelve seats in 2014) interpreted as being “the beginning of the end” for the party, it’s not surprising that its 2019 result was framed as a rebirth. And it won by dragging centre parties towards the more extreme end of the ideological spectrum in a way that should worry anyone who doesn’t share the party’s ideas. To understand why, we have to again go back to a time when it was still shocking for a radical-right party to gain a foothold in a European parliament, let alone become the second-biggest party.
On 24 November 1991, a day known since as Black Sunday, Flemish Interest shocked the political world by going from two to twelve seats in the federal parliament. With its roots in extreme-right movements, the party had campaigned on a racist agenda. In response, all the other Belgian political parties swore never to govern with the party at local, regional or national levels. They called this agreement the cordon sanitaire, underlining the urgent need they felt to build a barrier around what they considered a dangerous party. Even today, parties routinely reaffirm this stance through the media.
In that sense, all votes for Flemish Interest have been wasted, given that the party is highly unlikely to be part of a governing coalition. But surveys conducted after the 2019 election show that its supporters don’t particularly care — theirs is a protest vote against the political system. That may be different at the next election, though: for the first time, Flemish Interest has participated in talks to form a regional government. This underlines the fact that it is not only an election result that matters but also how other parties respond. What Flemish Interest really won in 2019 was a seat at the negotiation table, however short-lived, and with it some legitimacy and respectability.
There are good reasons for inviting radical-right parties into negotiations to form a governing coalition. Politicians from all parties like to show respect for “the will of the people.” And politicians from centre-right parties like to use radical-right parties as leverage to force the hand of potential coalition partners. This is what we’re seeing in Belgium, two months after the elections. The centre-right nationalist party that is taking the lead in forming a regional government, New Flemish Alliance, was in “serious talks” with the radical-right party for weeks. The two parties share a preference for greater Flemish independence, according to New Flemish Alliance president Bart De Wever, and together won 44 per cent of the vote in the Flemish regional elections. Voters, survey research shows again and again, are not interested in devolving more powers from the Belgian to the Flemish level. But the cards are on the table, and it is up to the elected parties to play them.
What does this mean for Belgium’s radical-right party? Flemish Interest won the elections by recording a big jump in support, by impressing the media, and because the biggest centre-right party invited it to join coalition-forming talks. But the biggest win, a place in government, is out of reach because the other potential coalition parties are maintaining their cordon sanitaire. But the party now has an unprecedented platform from which to campaign and oppose government. Its two-month-long participation in government coalition talks has given it legitimacy and the veneer of governing potential. What will happen at the next election is anyone’s guess.
Then there’s Sweden. Long considered an outlier among European countries because it lacked a successful populist radical-right party, Sweden has witnessed the rise of the extremist Sweden Democrats over the past decade. The September 2018 election continued the pattern: the party was a winner in at least two of the three ways we listed above.
The Sweden Democrats went from forty-nine to sixty-two seats in the 349-seat Riksdag (from 14 to 18 per cent of the vote), comfortably confirming its position as the third-largest party. It was also declared one of the winners by the media, both because it gained more new seats than any other party and because it seemed that no governmental majority was possible without it. Indeed, much of the election coverage centred on the question of if and how the other parties could continue to refuse any collaboration with the Sweden Democrats. The election ended in a stalemate, and was followed by the longest government-formation process in Swedish history. Normally, these negotiations take only a few days; this time they took 129 days.
To understand why, some background is needed. For most of the twentieth century Swedish politics was dominated by the Social Democrats, usually with the support of the Communist/Left party and sometimes in collaboration with the smaller Liberal and Centre parties. Over time, two fairly stable blocs formed: the Left Bloc (the Social Democrats, the Left Party and the Greens) and the Alliance (led by the liberal-conservative Moderate Party, with the Centre Party, the Liberals and the Christian Democrats). It was generally assumed that one of these two constellations would win any election.
This all changed in 2010, when the Sweden Democrats entered parliament for the first time. The party had been formed in the late 1980s, but for a long time its nationalist ideology and neo-Nazi roots made it unpalatable for most voters. But it started to moderate its position in the 1990s, among other things by prohibiting the use of uniforms at party events and cracking down on overt racism among its representatives. In the aftermath of the successful Riksdag elections in 2010 it also decided to change its official ideology to social conservatism.
Despite all this, the established Swedish parties also maintain a strict cordon sanitaire. A few instances of collaboration occurred at the local level during 2014–18, but at the national level it only took a mild reference by the then Moderate leader Anna Kindberg-Batra to the idea of governing with the support of the Sweden Democrats for an outcry to occur. Kindberg-Batra’s successor quickly returned to the previous party line of no collaboration, at least until the election.
At the 2010 and 2014 elections the established parties largely dealt with the rise of the Sweden Democrats by attempting business as usual. Minority governments had been the norm even before the appearance of the Sweden Democrats, with formal rules and informal praxis making it possible to govern without a stable parliamentary majority. Soon after the 2014 election it became clear that this was no longer possible because the Sweden Democrats refused to follow these informal rules. The Alliance parties helped Stefan Löfven’s Social Democrat–Green government to pass its budgets in order to avoid early elections, but at a high cost. Many Alliance voters and activists were outraged at this support of the traditional enemy, the Social Democrats, and the Alliance itself at times seemed in danger of breaking up.
The 2018 election results pushed the situation to the breaking point. The Left Bloc won 144 seats, the Alliance 143, and the Sweden Democrats the remaining sixty-two. The two liberal parties in the Alliance had both promised voters not to become dependent on the populist right party, but the left’s one-seat lead meant that the Alliance couldn’t form government without support from either the Sweden Democrats or one of the parties of the left. At the same time, none of the Alliance parties was inclined to support a government led by the Social Democrats. In the end, the reluctance to appear dependent on the Sweden Democrats won out for the Centre and Liberal parties, which agreed to support a second Löfven government in exchange for policy concessions.
What does all this mean for the Sweden Democrats? In the short run they didn’t win in our third sense of achieving policy changes; indeed, some migration policies are set to become slightly less restrictive again after being tightened in 2015 in response to the large influx of refugees. On the other hand, the Sweden Democrats’ electoral successes have profoundly altered Swedish politics. The Moderates and the Christian Democrats now face a difficult situation — they can only return to power by mending their relationship with the other Alliance parties and outperforming the Left Bloc in the next election, or by joining forces with the Sweden Democrats.
As Sweden Democrats leader Jimmie Åkesson has pointed out, such a conservative bloc is currently only twelve seats short of a parliamentary majority. When faced with a similar choice, other European centre-right parties have often opted to collaborate with the populist radical right.
We started by describing how populist radical-right parties can “win” elections. People tend to think about elections as binary — either you win or you lose. Once it’s clear that the populist radical right hasn’t become the largest party, interest often fades, at least in the international media. The Belgian and Swedish cases illustrate that the reality is far more complicated, and that the most crucial period often comes after the election.
In most European party systems it is rare that one party wins outright, and thus governing is all about negotiations and finding majorities. This is where even a modest gain for a populist radical-right party can have a large impact on the political system. These parties are no longer newcomers to Western European party systems, but the traditional parties have still not found a way to how to deal with them.
You don’t need to look hard to find examples of less-than-successful attempts to collaborate with populist radical-right parties. In Italy, for example, the leader of the radical-right party Lega recently brought down the coalition government in which he himself was a minister, plunging the country into yet another political crisis. On the other hand, we have described two cases where maintaining a cordon sanitaire around a populist party has proved costly, forcing policy shifts and/or breaking up established party constellations. Since the populist radical-right parties continue to do well in many countries, the traditional parties will have to continue making tough choices. •