Illiberal challenge to European democracy

Illiberal challenge to European democracy

Amid the migration crisis, discussions on the Brexit from the EU and widening economic problems, right-wing populist parties are rising across the European continent. The latest example was seen during the presidential elections in Austria, where centrist candidates representing governing parties were eliminated in the first round. During the run-off that took place on May 22, Norbert Hofer of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria was barely defeated by a last minute coalition of the rest of the country behind Alexander Van der Bellen, an Austrian Green, who ran as independent and received only 50.3 percent of the vote.

Hofer’s final loss by a very narrow margin - less than 31,000 votes - is yet another signal to mainstream politics, not only in Austria but throughout Europe, which have been failing to meet people’s expectations since the end of the Cold War. With his stunning performance in the first round, emerging as the front-runner with 35.6 percent of the vote, Hofer based his campaign on an anti-immigrant, xenophobic and ultra-nationalist stance and pushed the candidates of the two ruling mainstream parties, the Social Democratic Party and the Austrian People’s Party, out of the race for the first time since the World War II.

Hofer’s campaign was much like an echo of his populist counterparts from other European countries, including Hungary, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, Greece, Germany, France and the U.K., where far-right parties have been on the rise for some time now. The increased concern over migration and the growing frustration with the EU, especially after the euro crisis, have no doubt created a large pool to draw support from for populist parties. Predictably, they agitate for more nationalism, Euro-skepticism and anti-migration sentiments across the continent. Their popularity and increasing electoral success then induce mainstream parties to converge towards populist ideas, thus succeeding even without taking power.

The upcoming referendum in Britain on June 23 on whether to stay or leave the EU is only taking place because of the growing support of the Conservative Party members for the persistent demand of the right-wing populist U.K. Independence Party (UKIP). Though it dragged him toward an unpredictable adventure, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron had to promise to hold a referendum to garner public support in the 2015 general elections in response to the increasing popularity of the UKIP in previous elections.

In Germany, the rise of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland with its anti-immigration and anti-austerity policies became a serious challenge to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. While she took the leadership in Europe to find a sustainable solution to the refugee crisis, heavy domestic pressure pushed her towards an unpopular deal with Turkey in March to cut the flow of migrants into Europe.

In France, another founding father of the EU, the Front National (FN) has been increasing its popularity, also with populist discourse. After achieving third place in the first round of the 2012 presidential elections for its leader, Marine Le Pen, the FN gradually became an important threat to mainstream parties with policies focusing on reducing the number of immigrants to ease the burden on national economy and an anti-EU stance easily finding ground in the public.

These are not isolated phenomena, being replicated across the EU and around the globe. Their populist discourse is easily transformed into extremism, contradicting not only core European values and principles, but also liberal democratic ethics and morality across the world. We do not know where this will eventually lead, but time has come to start questioning the global order, or lack thereof, to find the reasons behind such a global occurrence.