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Image and the Far-Right

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Hungary’s annual ‘Margaret Island Festival’ is well is known. Less well known is the ‘Hungarian Island Festival‘ (Magyar Sziget Fesztivál), the far right’s version. The Sun managed to infiltrate this festival, in a pretty decent piece of investigative journalism (credit where credit is due, it’s apparently run by some quite scary people). The Sun journalists got chatting to Chris Hurst, a BNP big wig, and managed to catch him performing Nazi salutes and espousing generally offensive views.

                                  Laurent Hamels

This got me thinking, the far-right in Europe has put quite a lot of effort into moderating its image and appearing more mainstream. Does its success depend on its ability to change its image? Or do successful parties change their images because of the increased scrutiny and integration with the system that comes with success? I expect the more successful parties to be those that present a more moderate image. So, I’ve taken four European parties of the far-right, two successful (by the standards of the far-right) ones and two unsuccessful ones, and made a very unscientific examination of the image that they present.

The four parties that I’ll be looking at will be: our BNP, France’s FN (National Front), Germany’s NPD (National Democratic Party) and Hungary’s Jobbik (The movement for a Better Hungary). The BNP and NPD have had very little electoral success, while the FN and Jobbik have both been able to command around 15% of the vote in past elections.

I’ll start with Jobbik, as it’s the most successful of the four parties. It even has an English language website. As well as being slick and well designed it is also very carefully written to practically ooze moderation. It still sounds very conservative, but certainly not like an extremist party. There are only a few bits which make you feel uncomfortable, such as talking about how the Hungarian Guard (a paramilitary organisation) is not a paramilitary organisation because they don’t carry weapons. Their Hungarian manifesto gives a surprisingly similar picture of moderation. The first foreword (by Krisztina Morvai, their nominee for Hungary’s presidency*) talks about economic issues and appeals for non-supporters not to prejudge them. Similarly the second foreword (by Gábor Vona (the party’s leader) talks about issues such as national self-determination. There is no mention of ‘The Gipsy Problem’, which is Hungary’s equivalent to the Western parties’ immigration issue.

The NPD on the other hand… Well I opened up their manifesto and the first item is the Grundgedanken (fundamental ideas). The first two sentences translate as, “in the 21st century the continued existence of the German people will be decided. Threats come from declining birth rates, the rapidly progressing foreign infiltration, heteronomy* caused by international institutions and the devastating consequences of globalisation.” I think little more needs to be said about the image this party tries to project. I remember looking at its website when I was in the sixth form and it had a map of ‘Greater Germany’ on its front page… Its electoral strength matches the extremity of its manifesto. It barely exists outside East Germany and was beaten by the Pirate Party in the 2009 federal elections (to be fair the pirate party did get a whole 2% of the vote).

The FN is the second successful party of the far right that I’m going to look at. They’re less successful than Jobbik, but can still command a significant share of the vote. If you go to their website and look at their manifesto they have everything organised as subject areas with little clickable pictures. Immigration is the first one, but once you actually read the policy, it’s all couched in terms of crime, benefits and loyalty to the French state. Essentially, it would fit right in with the typical Daily Mail article – a load of very conservative crap, but being careful to avoid seeming like an actual racist/extremist.

Finally the BNP. Their manifesto does not even put immigration in the most prominent spot. That privilege goes to crime and justice (corporal punishment, capital punishment, political correctness etc). In the immigration section of their manifesto they seem to go down an interesting road though. Their first statement is that, “the indigenous British people, will become an ethnic minority in our own country…” This is not a good start… They also keep talking about how most immigrants are, “of third world extraction.” I can only assume that this is code for ‘non-white.’ Finally they have a good moan about how Pakistan wouldn’t tolerate, “millions of Hindus or Christians entering that country and changing it from a Muslim society.” The BNP is certainly trying to promote a more mainstream image for itself (as illustrated by its immediate expulsion of the man I mentioned at the beginning of this post), but its manifesto easily puts it at the more extreme end of the European far-right.

All in all, the parties’ positions have matched my prediction. The more successful ones have had much more moderate-sounding policies than the less successful ones. Whether there is a causal link is much harder to say. My own opinion is that as an extremist party grows there is a process of moderation fed by both external and internal pressure. As successes are achieved the party’s leadership start to see the potential to go beyond being a simple protest party and are also forced to acknowledge the harsh reality of electoral politics and the need to build a coalition of supporters. This in turn leads to more people being willing to support the party as it moderates its stance and new relatively moderate members act to drag it further towards the centre. I believe there are more significant factors for explaining the success (or lack thereof) of far-right parties, but there does seem to be an interesting correlation present.

*Only a figurehead position in Hungary, so I’d be interested to know why she got to go first in the manifesto.

**The opposite of autonomy – imposition of foreign laws and rule on your state. Yes I did have to look the word up.


Written by Confused Politics

August 12, 2011 at 9:18 pm

The Far Right

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Pretty much every country in Europe has a far-right political party. Their rise has worried politicians and observers around the continent and in some countries they have even ended up as part of governing coalitions. In France polls indicate that the National Front’s Marine Le Pen has a decent chance of making it to the second round in the presidential elections. In the recent Finnish elections True Finns came third with 19% of the vote and in 2010 the Dutch Freedom Party (PVV) came third with 15% of the vote.

Most people will agree that the rise of these parties is undesirable, but this begs two questions. Firstly, what makes a party part of the far-right and secondly what is the best way to deal with their increasing strength?

In my opinion what sets them apart is a particular brand of socially conservative and unpleasant nationalism (with strong racial undertones) combined with somewhat incoherently populist economic policy. It is, however, worth noting that you do get some quite significant differences between them. For example, the Italian National Alliance (direct descendants of the Fascists) are not actually particularly anti-immigration while the Dutch PVV, other than its anti-Islam stance, is more Thatcherite than extreme-right.

Oddities aside, there remains the question of how to deal with them. As far as I can see it there are four options, not all of which are mutually exclusive:

  1. Not bothering.
    One could argue that parties of the far-right are a legitimate occurrence in a democratic political system and as such don’t need to be ‘dealt with’. Instead they should be treated like any other political party, ignored if they’re sufficiently small, and as they grow included in debates, coalitions etc. I have a certain amount of sympathy for this approach, in a democracy the views of the voters are meant to be represented and if enough people vote for a particular party… However, parties of the far-right (and left, but that’s a different matter for another day) do stand outside the normal consensus and often hold very unpleasant views. Treating them as if they are just another party is probably giving them credit they don’t deserve.

  2. Ignoring and excluding them.
    This tactic is fairly self-explanatory. You starve your nation’s far right party of any publicity. You refuse to discuss their policies, exclude them from coalitions and essentially treat them as both illegitimate and a minor irritation. This could certainly be effective, but only up to a point. For example, in the UK the BNP is pretty insignificant, to the point that (recent European elections aside) they are a genuine irrelevancy on a national or even regional scale. On the other hand, you can’t ignore a party that looks like it might come second in the French presidential election, or one that can pull 15% of the vote in a proportional electoral system. In Belgium more moderate parties had some quite serious problems trying to keep Vlaams Blok (now Vlaams Belang) out of coalitions, forcing ideological rivals into repeated grand coalitions.My problem with the tactic of ignoring and excluding parties of the far-right is that it plays right into the hands of one of their central propaganda themes. These parties thrive on the parts of the electorate that feel disenfranchised and left out of the progress of the last couple of decades. They love to bang on about how the establishment parties want to keep their own cosy oligopoly and conspire to keep the far-right out of the national discourse because they know that the ‘silent majority’ supports it. By excluding them from normal politics, treating them as something different and refusing to acknowledge their points the centrist political parties basically confirm the claims of the far right.

  3. Debating them.
    By this I mean criticising their policies, being willing to engage with them to a certain degree. To the woolly liberal intellectual type (i.e. me) it appeals. Mature political systems should be able to deal with unpleasant opinions and demonstrate why they are wrong. In principle this is great, but from my experience what it normally seems to entail is either hysterical denunciations or basically handing the debate over to the far right. Worst of all is the tactic most mainstream British politicians seem to adopt; a combination of ignoring and ‘debating’ them. They will make a big fuss about how evil the BNP and its policies are, but then say that they should be ignored. So you get the worst of both worlds. The BNP get talked up by attempts at ‘debating’ their policies, and still get to play the ‘we’re so persecuted’ card.

  4. Addressing their concerns.
    I’m coming at this from a slightly paternalistic view point; what I mean here is not pandering to the xenophobic elements of the far right’s platform. I mean doing more to help the disenfranchised elements of the population whose support is leaking away to the far right. Shield them from the impact of the changing structure of the economy and globalisation etc. The anti-immigration sentiment is, in my opinion, a symptom of deeper problems rather than a cause in its own right. The problem with going down this road is that it’s expensive and essentially ignores economic reality. There comes a point where failing industries simply can’t be propped up. If no one is willing to buy the things at the price you can sell them at then your industry will die sooner or later. You can delay it by transferring wealth from the rest of the economy, but you can’t prevent it forever.

I suppose active oppression is also an option, but for parties which claim to buy into democratic government I think it’s completely inappropriate and not really worthy of serious discussion.

Predictably I can’t make up my mind about which option tactic I prefer. I think for very minor parties ignoring them is the best option, but that’s only going to work when you’re dealing with parties that get less than 5% of the national vote. Once they start going beyond that I think you have to engage with them to some degree. What I don’t like is tactics based around taking their ground off them, á la Sarkozy with his burka ban. I think that when the mainstream parties start trying to copy the far right’s rhetoric on immigration they simply lend credibility to it without actually changing anyone’s votes.

Perhaps treating them as a normal party is the best tactic. Once they actually get into any position of power and have to start thinking about governing they tend to either moderate themselves very rapidly, see their support evaporate or both.

Written by Confused Politics

April 28, 2011 at 7:51 pm

Posted in Politics

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