Newton’s third law of motion, which states that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, applies to both physics and international politics. The connection might not be clear at first, since “opposite reactions” in the electoral sense often take time to manifest, but it is fundamental to understanding the wider world.
Abroad, just as in the United States, electorates tend to move in different political directions after extended periods of control by single parties or coalitions composed of similarly-minded entities.
While this fatigue effect can lead to significant changes in the political preferences and systems of specific countries, it alone usually does not convince population majorities to break consistent voting patterns. Generally, results (i.e., party momentum) shift from election to election as a result of voter turnout differences and successful conversion or persuasion efforts involving small, specific blocs of voters (i.e., swing voters).
In other words, while tired electorates do tend to vote out governing parties, especially when economic and social conditions are sub-par, they oftentimes lack the incentive to fundamentally alter regimes or underlying political structures.
Instead, seismic changes normally result from national crises, which produce instability that is frequently exacerbated by weak institutions and political corruption. Uncertainty and dissatisfaction with the status quo have historically been the best kindling for populism on both the right and left sides of the political spectrum.
This article will focus on the recent growth experienced by some of Europe’s right-wing parties, but will also touch on instances in which the aforementioned fatigue effect has brought mainstream conservative parties out of the shadows and into the halls of government once more.
Since this is an analysis, Split Ticket will avoid taking stances on the visible rise of populist parties, particularly those on the right. Ultimately, any observer of international democracy must respect the principles of self-determination.
One of the best examples of a European right-wing party that attracts a respectable amount of support, at the state and federal levels, is Germany’s Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD). Since its debut in the 2013 Bundestagswahl, the AfD has gradually become a significant arbiter of populism and nationalist sentiments in a country where contrition and expiation have dominated the culture of political institutions since the end of World War II.
Between 2013 and 2017, the party’s second vote (Zweitstimmen) share rose by 8 points (4.7% to 12.6%). Germany’s national election rules require parties to clear a 5% second vote threshold to receive proportional (Landesliste) seats in the Bundestag. The AfD narrowly missed that hurdle in its inaugural contest, but came away with 94 total seats four years later. In 2021, as the Union (CDU/CSU) posted its worst post-1949 result, the AfD lost ground by second vote and entered the ensuing parliamentary session with only 83 seats.
In terms of first vote (Erststimmen) and the Bundestag’s 299 directly-elected seats (Direktmandate), though, the AfD actually gained ground in 2021. Its geographic support, primarily concentrated in the state of Sachsen, expanded enough last year to make competition possible in the nearby states of Thüringen, Sachsen-Anhalt, and Brandenburg. All told, the AfD’s number of directly-elected seats rose from 2 to 16 between the last two Bundestagswahlen.
While it is highly-unlikely that the AfD will ever replace the Union as Germany’s mainstream conservative faction, it appears that the party is here to stay for the foreseeable future in a way that previous post-war parties representing the populist right have failed to do. The recent growth of the AfD and the Greens is at least partially attributable to Germany’s increasing political pluralism and the corresponding decline of its two main parties.
Current polling averages for the next Bundestagswahl, set to occur in 2025, show the AfD gaining back some of the ground it lost last fall. The Union still leads the way, though, with the SPD seemingly paying a greater penalty for the present unpopularity of the Ampel-Koalition than the Greens.
Split Ticket focused extensively on the French presidential election earlier this year because it cemented a new three-way ideological coalition (Rassemblement National, La France Insoumise, and En Marche) in a country whose politics had long been dominated by two parties (Les Republicans and the Parti Socialist). The French electorate’s change in presidential party preference also held up in the country’s summer legislative elections. Let’s break down both contests.
The first round of the most recent French presidential election saw centrist President Emmanuel Macron (EM) advance to a runoff rematch against right-wing populist Marine Le Pen (RN), whom he had beaten 67-33% in 2017. But the other returns from the first vote were also interesting given the country’s political history.
To begin, Le Pen’s Rassemblement National was not the only populist party in contention. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a leftist, inspired many French voters to back La France Insoumise, which came within 2 points of securing a runoff spot. The realization of his movement provides an excellent example of how left-wing populist parties can also be successful in modern Europe.
Another populist in the race was Eric Zemmour of Reconquête, a party with nationalist sentiments similar to, but ultimately more extreme than, those of Rassemblement National. Zemmour probably drew votes away from Le Pen, but, unlike Mélenchon, did not come close to securing a runoff spot.
The rise of three populist parties, two of which were right-of-center, also corresponded with the permanent demise, presidentially, of France’s formerly-mainstream parties: Les Republicans and Parti Socialist. While the Socialists had struggled to compete for France’s highest office since Francois Hollande’s victory over Nicolas Sarkozy (UMP) in 2012, their paltry 1.8% of the vote in 2022 marked a new low.
On the right side of the spectrum, meanwhile, les Republicans continued their demise from Penelopegate and Francois Fillon’s 2017 presidential campaign. That year, the party fell just one point short of making the runoff against Macron. In 2022, though, LR candidate Valérie Pécresse pulled just under 5% of the first round vote.
In the 2022 general election, Macron managed to beat Le Pen by a slightly-larger margin than polls had predicted: 58.5-41.5%. Despite losing, Le Pen and her renamed party kept the runoff noticeably closer than they had in 2017, when Macron won almost 70% of the popular vote.
It might seem weird for a losing right-wing populist to be considered evidence of a potentially-ascendent right in Europe, but Le Pen is actually a good example of a politician who has managed to make unconventional ideas more tolerable to a significant portion of her country’s electorate in an otherwise-short timeframe.
Rassemblement National’s overall improvement in presidential vote share, along with its inroads in rural and post-industrial regions of France, suggests that it will continue to be a force in the country’s tri-polar politics even if Le Pen is not its candidate.
What about the June legislative elections? The final returns in the nationwide races for France’s National Assembly only further contributed to the country’s new three-way political divide. En Marche* (Ensemble Alliance) won the most seats, but lost its outright majority.
Both La France Insoumise (NUPES Alliance) and Rassemblement National made significant gains, matching improvements in performance from the first presidential round. Predictably, Les Republicans saw its legislative caucus halved by the voters. The National Assembly is one of its few remaining vestiges.
*Since the elections, Macron’s En Marche has renamed itself Renaissance.*
In Sweden, long considered one of Europe’s more progressive countries, the right-wing Sweden Democrats, led by Jimmie Åkesson, gained enough seats to become the largest opposition party in the Riksdag. Traditionally, that position has belonged to the Moderates, headed by Ulf Kristersson. In terms of popular vote share, they have continuously lost ground since 2010.
The rise of the Sweden Democrats has somewhat mirrored that of the AfD, although it has been far more successful. In 1998, the SD drew only 0.37% of the vote. By 2014 they had become Sweden’s third-largest party, sucking away support from the Moderates and setting the stage for success in 2022. But how exactly did the Sweden Democrats manage to gain so much momentum over such a short span of time? Optics.
In the most recent electoral campaign, the Sweden Democrats placed conservative policies in a polite package in an effort to diminish historical associations between the party and extremist groups. Åkesson, an affable and youthful leader, also helped define the directionality of the Swedish right’s campaign efforts by providing the movement with a new face.
Messaging in favor of immigration restrictions, crime reduction, and economic stability resonated particularly-well with citizens who felt that Swedish culture was slipping away from them because of a disproportionately-high number of accepted migrants.
Despite clear electoral gains, the Sweden Democrats might not be able to participate in the new government at all. For one, even though Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson’s Social Democrats posted a slight gain in popular vote share between 2018 and 2020, the combined left-wing coalition narrowly fell behind its agglomerated right-wing counterpart (49.6-48.9%).
The results would give the current opposition a slim 176-173 seat advantage over the government. Andersson has already announced her resignation and is currently serving as a caretaker.
How could the government be formed without the Sweden Democrats? Because certain smaller opposition parties have refused to form a government with Sweden’s largest right-wing faction, the Moderates will likely have the first chance to craft a governing coalition.
The formation process is still up in the air as of this writing, but there is no way to deny that it would be awkward if the Sweden Democrats were excluded from a conservative government with electoral momentum at their backs.
The last country on the analysis list is Italy, where the political right seems set to win enough seats in the country’s parliament to form a government after years of turmoil following the 2018 elections (read about the chaos here).
Opinion polling over the last few months has shown Fratelli d’Italia, headed by Giorgia Meloni, with a comfortable plurality. The populist, nationalist party seems set to form a coalition with Matteo Salvini’s Lega and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.
On the left, Enrico Letta’s Partito Democratico has struggled to make up ground against the collective right after refusing to align with Giuseppe Conte and the Movimento 5 Stelle. M5S posted a successful performance in the 2018 legislative elections, but seems unlikely to near its former peak because of its tarnished reputation. Meloni, the frontrunning standard-bearer of Fratelli d’Italia, has been campaigning on many of the same themes that resonated in Sweden, including migrant restrictions and economic security.
What Does The Future Hold?
Politics is ultimately a game of fluctuations, some of which are more predictable than others. Split Ticket should not, therefore, be expected to correctly foresee just how well right-wing populist movements will do over the next few decades. There are, however, only a few paths that these entities could realistically follow going forward.
The best case scenario for the political right would be continued party growth in Europe’s thriving democracies, which could help shift the continent’s collective Overton window.
So far, populists in France and Sweden have accomplished this, in part, by moving into the political mainstream without compromising their core values. Those gains are only temporary, but could be indicative of future success for the political right elsewhere in Europe if conditions are just right.
Because the first scenario assumes that everything possible goes as planned for the various elements of the populist right in Europe, it is safe to call it a rosy and unrealistic expectation. The right may continue to gain influence in specific countries for a few years, but there simply is not enough evidence to suggest any complete ideological realignments in the general sense.
That is why the second scenario constitutes the more sober evaluation of the situation that the political right stands to find itself in over the next decade. This framework is best embodied by Germany’s AfD, which has a large and reliable contingent of support in and around Sachsen but struggles to exert influence over the highly-institutionalized Bundestag.
In other words, parties like the AfD will continue to easily attract recognition, but will probably have difficulty reaching, or maintaining, a locally-accepted presence in the mainstream. Growth is not impossible, though, especially given the unpredictability of global political trends. For example, subjectively-defined concepts of mainstream could shift rightward in other less-institutionalized European countries if economic nationalism, fear of crime, and cultural deprecation remain salient campaign issues.
That brings us to the third and final outcome for the populist right: dissolution. This currently seems highly unlikely because Europe’s individual right-wing parties are almost certain to hold onto their keenest supporters even if they lose ground to center-right conservatives, liberals, and the left among persuadable voters.
The surest way for these sorts of factions to avoid extinction, assuming no added growth at the ballot box, would be ingratiation to more institutionalized right-of-center factions during coalition formation processes.
Ultimately, the only safe prediction that can be made based on historical patterns suggests that the fatigue effect will continue to manifest itself after extended periods of rule by single parties or factions. This reality takes longer to manifest in some countries than in others (i.e., Tories in UK or Union in Germany), but it almost never fails to occur sooner or later.
Changing the guard is one of man’s natural political instincts and generally provides the variety necessary to ensure good lawmaking and healthy democracy. That electoral impetus for change, whether successful or not, may have *somewhat* disproportionately favored Europe’s mainstream conservative and right-wing populist parties as of late, but it has historically benefitted the left too. Given the cyclical nature of politics, it would be shocking if the winds do not blow in the other direction eventually.
My name is Harrison Lavelle and I am a political analyst studying political science and international studies at the College of New Jersey. As a co-founder and partner at Split Ticket, I coordinate our House coverage. I write about a variety of electoral topics and produce political maps. Besides elections, my hobbies include music, history, language, aviation, and fitness.
Contact me at @HWLavelleMaps or firstname.lastname@example.org