In several countries across Europe, the radical right has surged over recent years, as dissatisfaction with politics and the political class combines with anti-immigrant sentiment. But how do mainstream political parties – who are so frequently at the receiving end of the ire of these political movements – respond? Kyung Joon Han describes an often complicated relationship between the mainstream and political periphery.

Radical right-wing parties have become a major political player in many western European countries. Even the Sweden Democrats, traditionally one of the least successful radical right-wing parties in western Europe, earned 12.9 per cent of the vote in 2014 – a more than 50 per cent increase since the last national election in 2010, and good enough to become the third largest political party in Sweden.

What are the policy and political impacts of the electoral rise of radical right-wing parties? The direct policy impact of these parties is difficult to determine, as they have rarely participated in governing coalitions until very recently. Infrequent observation of direct impacts, however, does not mean that such parties have had insignificant (or longstanding) indirect impacts. In particular, parties on the radical right may matter indirectly if the ideologies, stances, and/or policy preferences of traditional mainstream parties – which are nearly always in governing coalitions and thus able to implement their ‘preferred’ policies – are influenced by them.

Indeed, the conventional wisdom in scholarship on party competition is that radical right-wing parties pressure mainstream parties to adopt more restrictive positions on those issues the radical right can mobilise voters on – generally, issues related to immigration. The argument is that right-wing mainstream parties adopt radical right-wing policy positions in an effort to expand support in the wider electorate and build a large and lasting right-wing block, while other left-wing and centrist mainstream parties adopt the policy positions of the radical right in order to maintain support among their traditional constituencies – constituencies that may be attracted to the strong and uncompromising positions of such parties. In other words, the conventional explanation argues that mainstream parties of all ideological persuasions respond to radical right electoral success in the same way – by adopting approximations of radical right-wing positions.

These conventional expectations tend to downplay the importance of the ideology of politicians and the constituencies that they represent as well as the role that non-policy factors – such as credibility – play in determining voter support. In a recent study, I take these matters into account and provide empirical results that run counter to the conventional wisdom. I find that right-wing mainstream parties adjust their stances to radical right-wing electoral success relatively easily, quickly adopting more restrictive stances regarding multiculturalism (i.e. party stances that discourage the coexistence of distinct cultures and preservation of the religious and linguistic autonomy of ethnic minorities) when radical right-wing parties increased their vote share in the previous election.

Credit: Caruso Pinguin (CC-BY-SA-3.0)

However, under the same electoral conditions, left-wing mainstream parties are much more resistant to shifting their stances on multiculturalism. These mainstream parties are found to switch their stances in response to an increase in the radical right’s vote share only when core party supporters begin to have a more negative view of foreigners, or when the left-wing mainstream parties lost more votes in the past election than their main right-wing mainstream opponents.

I argue that there are both ideological and practical reasons for this finding. Ideologically, left-wing politicians have cosmopolitan views and a strong commitment to multiculturalism, and thus are not terribly eager to switch to a more restrictive position on immigration-related issues such as multiculturalism.

Practically, left-wing politicians may lose votes by adopting more restrictive stances on multiculturalism – either among ‘swing voters’, who know this is not a position based on conviction but rather political expediency, or among core supporters, who tend to be strong supporters of multiculturalism (and may even be multicultural themselves). Although left-wing mainstream parties have often been criticised for shedding their more inclusive positions of the past and adopting more restrictive positions on immigration-related issues, it should be recognised that a relatively high political threshold must be reached before such position shifts occur.

Future research should explore whether shifts in the positions of mainstream parties have a feedback effect on radical right-wing parties. One plausible scenario is that the supporters of these parties move their support (back) to mainstream parties after the latter promote or implement more restrictive immigration policies. If so, current radical right electoral success may help further their agenda, while at the same time sowing the seeds of their party’s future organisational decline.

Another possible, but opposing, expectation is that the mainstream parties’ adoption of more restrictive positions regarding immigration and multiculturalism increases the salience of immigration-related issues and validates the political agenda set by radical right-wing parties, allowing these parties to mobilise further on such issues and gain more electoral success. If this is the case, the ’accommodative strategy’ of mainstream parties (i.e. adopting the issue stances of radical right-wing parties) may not only fail to achieve its goal of pre-empting or reversing the electoral rise of the radical right, but may also eventually lead to a role reversal: radical right-wing parties as major players in governing coalitions and ‘mainstream’ parties attempting to influence policy indirectly from the outside.

Note: For more information on the subject covered in this article, see the author’s recent paper in West European Politics. This article originally appeared on the Democratic Audit blog. Featured image credit: Caruso Pinguin (CC-BY-SA-3.0).

About the Author

Kyung Joon Han is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Tennessee.

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