GENEVA, March 11, 2014 — The rhetoric of the far right is increasingly echoing across the European public sphere. With European Parliament elections fast approaching, there is increasing talk about the likely success and future role the populist far right will play in the EU. Such fresh gains for these populist parties will have Europe’s proponents worried and will likely see the EU slogan of “United in Diversity” gradually diminish to something along the lines of “Disunity in Diversity”.
The financial crisis of 2008, austerity, and rising unemployment, have led European citizens to turn to the all too simplistic yet appealing solutions offered by the extreme far right. Since the onset of the crisis, the number of people who have faith in the EU has plummeted from 60% to just below 30%.
These new Eurosceptics feed off the failure of mainstream parties to adequately address their country’s problems and answer to an evermore disgruntled electorate for their failed policies. In times of crisis, the far right has offered solutions like a return to the nation state and a reversal of immigration. They have also warned of the dangers of the multicultural melting pot that Europe has become. As the average Joe citizen begins to feel increasingly alienated and left to fend for himself, the only option that remains is to lend your support to those who, on the surface, are vouching for your interests.
The success of France’s Front National illustrates this phenomenon well. A recent poll indicated that as much as 24% of the French population intends to vote for Marine Le Pen’s anti-EU and anti-immigration Front National in the May 2014 European Parliament election, taking the lead from both the governing and opposition parties. The party is also making inroads on the national arena. On October 13, 2013 in local council elections in the small town of Brugnoles a Front National candidate managed to secure a whopping 53.9% of the vote
A similar scenario presents itself in the UK, where the anti-establishment UKIP and its charismatic leader Nigel Farage have gained considerable popularity. A YouGov survey has revealed that UKIP has the chance to double its representation from 10 MEPs to over 20 in the EP elections in a damaging blow to the Conservatives, who are predicted to come in third place.
In contrast, Hungary offers a compelling answer to the increasing pressure from these parties.
The extremist anti-Semitic and anti-Roma Jobbik party currently holds 43 seats in the Hungarian Parliament and has a rather unsavory impact on the international media image of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. However, could this all be about to change with the country’s recent electoral reform and upcoming parliamentary elections on April 6?
While Hungary’s new electoral system has been harshly criticized in the media as favoring Orban’s ruling party Fidesz, there is more to it than meets the eye. The system has the potential to squeeze Hungary’s far right out of the political game by allowing smaller minority parties and independent candidates an opportunity to gain seats in the Parliament.
The strong reasoning behind the Hungarian government’s review of the electoral laws stems from the desire to realize the benefits of a more inclusive parliament. The previous and outdated system made it more difficult for small political groupings and independent candidates to prevail in elections, forcing some voters who were disenchanted with the political establishment, to vote tactfully and shift further right in a show of discontent.
In reality, Hungary’s new rules have paved the way for a more representative system with greater opportunities for smaller parties. The number of voter signatures and nominations needed for candidates to run has been substantially reduced and the portion of seats in the Parliament that are elected through single member electoral districts has also increased; out of the 199 member Parliament, 106 MPs will be elected directly from districts and the rest from party lists.
Recent polls indicate that Jobbik has seen a slight boost in support and this may be indicative of other parties’ lack of adequate responses regarding European issues concerning citizens. However, a large portion of the population (25%) still remains undecided, awarding some leeway to other parties and candidates to recapture the population. Jobbik will have to hope for a strong protest vote because otherwise it is unlikely that the party will benefit from these new changes in the electoral rules. The increased opportunity for smaller political groupings and individual candidates increases the prospects that voters will sympathize with other more moderate parties.
In the grander scheme of things, the loss of popularity of these extreme right wing parties on the national scene will mean their swift disintegration into oblivion on the European sphere, ensuring that the EU does not end up in political crisis. But most importantly, to immunize the populist far right, European leaders and mainstream parties need to start listening to their citizens and providing them with the appropriate answers.
If they fail to succeed, no electoral system in the world will be able to salvage the disastrous consequences and political conundrum of the EU’s future. But if they do manage to convince the electorate that they are truly working for the better of EUs future and drive out the far right from the political sphere, they will surely find that the juice is always worth the squeeze.