Why Europeans are ditching major parties for the far-right and left


The recent EU parliament elections had the highest turnout in 20 years, but both within and among political ideologies, the divide is bigger than ever.

Video above: Why Europe's nationalist parties all sound alike.

Amid a wave of nationalist populism over parts of Europe in recent years, many voters have ditched major parties in favour of smaller ones on both sides of the political spectrum.

Brexit has divided the UK, Marine Le Pen has reinvigorated the National Rally (formerly National Front) in France, and anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany (AfD) has grown domestically. In Italy and Poland, Eurosceptic leaders have helped propel an anti-EU movement within their own countries.

When the polls opened for the recent EU Parliament elections, many among the 214 million voters (50.97 per cent of eligible participants and the highest turnout since 1999) drifted away from the larger parties.

Italy’s Northern League, headed by Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, increased its share of the 751 seats from five to 28. Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party became the largest national party in the UK. In France, Le Pen’s National Rally outscored Emmanuel Macron’s ‘La République En Marche!’.

But across the continent the trend towards populism wasn’t uniform. The rise of nationalist parties rose from 21 per cent to 23, which was less than the predicted gains.

Across the EU its impact had been curtailed by those on the other end of the political spectrum. The growth of the Greens, particularly in Germany countered the populist movements (moving from 52 seats to 69) and also took more votes from the previously dominant central parties.

Among them, the centre-right European People’s Party dropped from 216 seats to 179 and the centre-left Socialists and Democrats dropped 185 to 153. The results still allow for a majority for the EPP, but in an increasingly fragmented parliament.

Despite the large turnout, Australian National University Professor of Political Science, Patrick Dumont, says the shift towards the smaller parties in EU elections can often be seen as a reflection on domestic issues.

Matteo Salvini and on the video a flag of EURome May 27th 2019. Italian Vice-Premier Matteo Salvini appears as a guest during the talk show Porta a Porta to talk about the European elections.(Photo Samantha Zucchi /Insidefoto/Sipa USA) .
Matteo Salvini triumphed in the recent EU elections.

“Ever since 1979, the first direct elections of parliament, there has been a term that describes the election as a ‘second order election’,” he told Dateline.

“Second order in the sense they would be fought on domestic issues, rather than issues on the level you’re electing people to an assembly – EU issues.

“There would be more votes for opposition parties, because voters would not only not go to the polls as much, they would protest and punish much more in EU elections than national elections.

“There is less at stake, but if they want to say something negative with regard to the government, they’ve got the opportunity to do it and hope the national government will then take that into account and change policies or ministers.”

Marco Duranti, a senior lecturer in Modern European and International History at the University of Sydney says the recent election also served as a mini-referendum on the EU itself.

“What we see more clearly is more competition in what he EU should do in the future,” he told Dateline. “Not only the future of whether some countries are thinking of leaving the EU, because Brexit showed it’s not easy, but the question is what to do with the EU; whether that’s more integration or less policies.

“It’s more anti-EU and more pro-EU, defending having more Eurosceptics in parliament.”

Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage delivers a speech
Nigel Farage's Brexit Party proved a big winner in the UK.

Duranti says issues like Brexit in the UK have also led the public to shift away from the major parties.

“The Labour Party is split. The Conservative Party is split. The two parties that have been big tents and had a lot of party discipline over the years aren’t able to reconcile the divergent view points or be in touch with all the different elements of their electric any more,” he said.

“You go to the Scottish Nationalist Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens if you’re for a referendum, or the Brexit party or lesser extent UKIP if you’re not.”

Despite the rise of some of the far right and other smaller groups, many face an ideological challenge in the parliament.

“You have Salvini who has come ahead in Italy and I think it’s significant because he’s trying to forge a transnational coalition of nationalists - which is somewhat paradoxical,” Duranti added. “We don’t think of nationalists as forming coalitions with other nationalists, and that’s one of the problems. It’s intrinsically about putting your nation first.

“He had a rally in Milan with Le Pen, and (Danish right wing politician) Geert Wilders.

“One new development is social media, so I think social media allows these transnational connection between movements and parties, or extremists and white supremacists.”

So why did so many voters abandon the large parties?

Despite their growth, micro parties might not have the numbers to tackle to the larger coalitions, but Professor Dumont says their impact will still be felt in the parliament.

“The results tend to be positive (for nationalists) in France and Italy for instance,” Dumont added.

“But other parties that were supposed to do well amongst that potential group did not do well. Therefore overall we see the fragmentation (in parliament) we kind of expected.

“In the EU architecture, a lot goes on between the different institutions, and having a more fragmented parliament may be a weakening of the power of the parliament if they can’t easily agree.”

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