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Europe's Anti-Refugee Parties Are Dangerous Even When They Don't Win

Ruling parties often try to mollify them by adopting some of their extremist policies.

01/06/2016 9:36 AM AEST | Updated 01/06/2016 9:36 AM AEST
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Supporters hold placards and wave flags for Austrian far-right Freedom Party presidential candidate Norbert Hofer. Hofer narrowly lost the Austrian election on Monday.

Austria's Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer lost his country's presidential elections by just a few thousand votes last week, narrowly missing out on becoming the European Union's first-ever far-right head of state. 

Despite Hofer's defeat, the rattled Austrian government announced a day after the election results that it would make its asylum policy stricter and closer in line with the anti-immigration Freedom Party's platform. Observers said the ruling coalition made the move because support for Hofer forced it to appease some of the Freedom Party's demands, in an attempt to turn voters away from the radical right.

Austria's effort to mollify the rising right-wing populism within its borders reflects similar situations in other European countries. While failing to actually win elections, far-right parties have long succeeded in guiding the political discourse and bringing previously extreme ideologies into the mainstream. 

“The real political danger from far-right parties in Europe is not that they will come to power, because that’s only now beginning to seem possible, but that they will dominate the agenda,” Martin Schain, a New York University professor whose work focuses on European politics, told The WorldPost.

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Norbert Hofer of Austria's Freedom party, on Sunday, May 22, 2016. Hofer lost the presidential election by just a few thousand votes.

Europe's Far-Right Reframes The Debate

Far-right populist parties in Europe are not a monolith, and contain diversity in their policies as well as their backgrounds. Britain's UKIP, for example, is far more moderate than Greece's violent and neo-fascist Golden Dawn. There are a number of aspects that right-wing populist parties in Europe have in common, however, including the ability to undercut traditional right- and left-wing parties and reframe the political debate.

Playing on ethno-nationalist sentiment, and using the refugee crisis to capitalize on fears over Islamism, national security and loss of government benefits, many of these long-established parties have risen in the polls in countries across Europe last year. Casting themselves as defenders of the nation against immigration -- as well as opposing trade policies and the EU -- has been a successful strategy.

Schain and other experts say establishment parties often try to quell far-right movements in places where they're growing by adopting some of their policies.

In Denmark, the success of the far-right Danish People's Party and the need for the ruling Liberal Party to rely on conservative support in parliament contributed to the country passing harsh new immigration laws in January. France's Socialist government, too, proposed legislation that same month to strip citizenship of dual citizens convicted of terrorism -- an idea that originally came from the country's far-right. While these bills didn't arise solely as a result of the far-right's presence, terror attacks and the refugee crisis have given radical parties an opportunity to push them into the mainstream.

In Hungary, the already nationalist and conservative Fidesz party has been pushed even further to the extreme as a result of rising support for the ultranationalist, anti-refugee Jobbik party. Jobbik, the largest opposition party, has previously called for Jewish citizens to be put on registration lists. Observers contend that fending off Jobbik is one of the reasons that Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban has taken such an aggressive anti-refugee and anti-EU stance in recent years.

Austria And The Far-Right

Like many of Europe's far-right parties, the Freedom Party has been an active part of its country's politics for decades, and has dictated Austria's political discourse during the peaks of its popular support. Former Nazi SS officers founded the party around 60 years ago, but it wasn't until the 1990s under charismatic leader Jorg Haider that it became a mainstream political contender.

One of the reasons behind the Freedom Party's breakthrough was an influx of migrants and refugees, who were then leaving eastern bloc countries after the fall of the Soviet Union. Experts say the Freedom Party used similar rhetoric to describe European migrants during the 1990s as it now uses against refugees from the Middle East and Africa.

The Freedom Party used “the fear of young men, the fear of losing jobs, the fear of being ‘overwhelmed’ by masses of foreigners and metaphors -- much like we see now -- of invasion, tsunami and floods," Professor Ruth Wodak, an author on right-wing populism, told The WorldPost.

The party positioned itself early on as a defender of national identity, releasing a popular "Austria First" petition in 1992 that stated "Austria is not an immigration country." The government's response to the Freedom Party's rise, Wodak explains, was to eventually cater to the far-right and implement a number of measures that included restrictive citizenship laws and obligatory German language classes for work permits. 

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Former Freedom Party leader Jorg Haider, who died in a car crash in 2008.

The Austrian far-right's latest spike in popularity again comes during a migration crisis, as well as at a time when Europe's anti-EU sentiment is high. While the government initially pursued an open-door policy for Syrian refugees similar to Germany's, it later reversed its decision and closed Austria's borders amid mounting public discontent. This switch in border policy bolstered the Freedom Party's support, observers say, making traditional parties appear to be political opportunists and the far right look like it had been correct to have opposed refugees.

Even though support for the Freedom Party fell just short of getting Hofer elected to the largely ceremonial position of president, his candidacy has undercut the two centrist parties and furthered anti-refugee, anti-EU sentiment in Austria. 

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