The results of yesterday’s first round of the French presidential election are in and far right Marine Le Pen (Front National) finished with 21.4%. Conservative François Fillon (Les Républicains) who was weakened by so-called “Penelopegate” came in third. The winner is centrist Emmanuel Macron (En Marche!) with 23.9%. The runoff on May 7th isn’t expected to be a close race. Some people might still read this as a far right win, but the historic evidence speaks a different language.
Granted, 2016 was quite a year for right-wing populism and the far right in general. Caused by a general aversion for “the establishment” and, especially in Europe, further quickened by the dramatized effects of the refugee situation the popularity of the new right-wing parties rose and enabled their electoral attack. The victims included left-wing parties, particularly the left-wing populists, but the main losers were the established conservative, center-right parties. The movement celebrated its first major victories in late 2015. After the parliamentary election on October 25th Poland was the first country to fall under full control of an authoritarian, right-wing populist party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość) which won the Presidency back in May and was now in control of the parliament too. They immediately started to effectively abolish the third branch of government and the free press. Next the Front National mentioned above, a party combining socialist and nationalist stances, won the first round of the French regional elections in December with a plurality of votes. Luckily the Republicans were able to defeat them in the second round.
But once we’ve reached 2016 the far right seemed to be unstoppable. During Donald Trump’s winning streak in the Republican primaries with state after state falling for his collectivism the rise of the far right really started to kick off everywhere. On March 13th the right-wing populists of the Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland) striked in three state-wide elections, gained up to 24% of the votes and became second strongest party in a state parliament for the first time. Then the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote on June 23rd marked a new all time low proving that the combined forces of progressive and conservative politicians weren’t enough to stop the anti-establishment, far right sentiment. At the same time nationalist, authoritarian parties won less watched elections in smaller countries like Slovakia and Serbia.
The second half of the year started with the GOP convention ultimately destroying any hope to have a conservative nominee and instead demonstrating the momentary dominance of the far right party wing on July 19th. Then in September the AfD celebrated two more victories in German state elections after surpassing the center-right Christlich-Demokratische Union in Mechlenburg-Vorpommern and basically tying with the greens (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen) and the radical left (Die Linke) in the left-leaning state of Berlin. And finally on November 8th Donald Trump won the U.S. Presidency. The incredible weakness and unpopularity of his opponent was without doubt a big factor here, but there is no way not to weight this as a huge success for the far right, perfecting their year.
But is it possible that they’ve already reached their climax with this? Was this already the best they could do? The facts speak for themselves.
An interesting case we haven’t talked about yet was the Austrian presidential election. The first round was held on April 24th and – expected at the time – the right-wing populist Norbert Hofer (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs) gained a plurality with nearly 1,500,000 votes. Moderate Alexander van der Bellen, a former Green, came in second, almost 600,000 votes behind Hofer. What happened next was unexpected and atypical for a multiple round system. The turnout in the runoff election on May 22nd (72.8%) was higher than in the first round (68.5%). More people went voting and managed to lift van der Bellen to 2,251,517 votes. He narrowly defeated Hofer by approximately 30,000 votes. Unfortunately there were legitimate concerns with the result and the FPÖ contested it. It was nullified and another runoff was held on December 4th. Though we can’t be sure on this, it is possible that the FPÖ was hoping for a lower turnout, but the people of Austria wouldn’t do them the favor. The turnout grew even more and with 74.4% voting, reaching a level not seen in an Austrian presidential election since the 90’s. Nevertheless Hofer’s result dropped by nearly 100,000 votes and van der Bellen won easily.
Although President van der Bellen isn’t a conservative either, the slap in the face of the European far right populists was an early Christmas present. It stopped the winning streak of these fake conservatives and, fortunately, the major elections of 2017 produced similar outcomes.
The first election the far right was looking forward to was the Dutch general election on March 15th since almost every poll conducted last year predicted a win for the right-wing populist Partij voor de Vrijheid of Geert Wilders. But instead of an easy far right win this election marked a major success for an established center-right party. Thanks to an unexpected turnout of 81.9%, Mark Rutte’s Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie was able to maintain its plurality 13 seats ahead of Wilders’ populists. This, probably being the first time the supporters of a far right party or candidate were clearly overrepresented in the polls, debunked the “silent majority” myth.
The first German state-wide election of 2017 on March 26th did the same. In Saarland turnout reached a 20 year high and simultaneously the CDU maintained the Minister Presidency with 40.7% of the votes. The center-left opponent (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands) received 29.6%. The AfD came in fourth with just 6.2% although several polls predicted around 10%. So not only did the CDU maintain the plurality, they even gained 5.5%, regardless of the fact that their current far right opponent didn’t even exist back then. With this in mind, the Saarland state election was an even bigger success for the establishment, specifically the moderate conservative establishment, than the Dutch election.
And all this is why the French presidential election is easy to see as a far right loss, too. Just like in Austria the presumptive winner, Macron, isn’t a conservative either but what matters is that Marine Le Pen’s results were a major disappointment for every far right nationalist as well as for those who still believe in the accuracy of the polls. It was the deathblow for the “silent majority” narrative. In fact, the new right appears to be a loud minority and if there is a silent majority, then it’s consisting of the moderate people not showing up to most elections. In this sense, Trump’s was a good thing to happen. It appears to have been the last straw necessary for those people to get concerned and motivated to turn the tables.
These events mean hope, but it’s not done yet. Sadly we can’t rely on everyone to stay motivated forever, especially when we are winning several elections in a row. But if we keep voting the right way in the coming elections and more importantly tell others to do the same, then maybe, just maybe, the far right’s 15 minutes of fame can be over sooner than expected.