Populist and far right parties make gains in EU elections

Le Pen's far right Rassemblement National (RN) party in France won twice as many votes as President Emmanuel Macon’s Renaissance (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The June 6th-9th elections to the European parliament saw expected gains made by the populist and far right, on a 51% turnout of voters. The hard right is on course to hold almost a quarter of the seats when the European parliament next sits, up from a fifth in 2019. These elections to the almost powerless European parliament offer a snapshot of the political mood across the continent, although with nearly half the electorate not voting they cannot provide the whole picture.

Most significantly, the far right Rassemblement National (RN) party in France won a crushing victory in France, taking twice as many votes as President Emmanuel Macon’s Renaissance and 9% more than in 2019. The RN won 30 of the country’s 81 seats. This led Macon calling a highly risky snap general election. Macron is gambling on heading off the Rassemblement National threat ahead of the next presidential elections and he also wants to try to gain enough legitimacy to push through new measures including attacks on public services and workers’ rights. Polls currently indicate that it is possible that the RN could gain more seats than Macron’s party in the late June elections. The ‘Popular Unity’ electoral alliance that has been agreed between the FI, PS (Socialist Party), Greens and communist party is polling on 28% for the national elections later this month, with Le Pen’s RN on 31%.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz rejected calls for snap elections in Germany after all three parties in the national coalition suffered big losses, with his social democrats having their worst result in a nation-wide vote. The far-right Alternative for Germany came second with 16% of the vote, after the conservative CDU-CSU. Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni’s hard right Brothers of Italy gained over 28% of the vote, up from 26% in the 2022 general elections. Far right and reactionary nationalist parties topped the polls in Austria and Hungary. The hard right made significant gains in Spain, and in Cyprus the far-right ELAM party won its first ever EU seat. The far right also gained in Greece and the Netherlands. In southern Ireland the anti-immigrant far right parties did not pick up any EU seats but won some seats at local council elections that were taking place at the same time.

The populist and far right parties cynically exploited widespread discontent, often scapegoating immigrants, at years of austerity, the high cost of living, a housing crisis in most countries, and other pressing social and economic problems facing people.

The rise of the populist and far right parties, albeit not uniform across the EU, is a warning to the working class of the continent. Although these forces represent a wide spectrum of the right, including neo-fascist elements and others such as Meloni’s Brothers of Italy that have moved some of its policies to the more traditional ‘centre right’ when in office, in general they represent a danger to the interests of the working class. Their racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies and other reactionary ideas are intended to divide working people at a time when class unity against the bosses’ attacks is imperative.

Voters turn away from traditional parties of bourgeois rule

In a distorted manner, the gains by the populist and far right parties are indicative of the turning away by millions of voters from the traditional parties of bourgeois rule – the conservative and liberal parties of the bosses and the pro-capitalist social-democratic parties. The election results indicate that among many voters there is no appetite for the governing parties’ endless diet of austerity policies, a high cost of living, a housing crisis, and support and EU treasure for the bloody war in Ukraine and for the mass slaughter in Gaza. 

One of the biggest losers in the elections were the greens, with some exceptions including in Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands, where the Labour/Green alliance just about went ahead of Geert Wilder’s far right party. Five years after they increased their total number of seats from 52 to 74, the greens fell back to 53. This reflects voters’ experience of the greens in coalition governments, such as Germany, where these self-styled ‘radical’ parties slavishly follow the pro-market and pro-Ukraine war line and proposed unpopular legislation that many voters regarded as making the working class pay the most for environmental policies.  Climate sceptic conservative and far right parties have also strongly propagandised against the supposed costs of the EU’s environmental policies to the pockets of hard-pressed working people. The ‘green backlash’ will probably see the EU ditching or watering down its already mediocre climate change policies and targets.

While the rise of the far right grabbed the headlines, overall, the EU elections saw the so-called conservative ‘centre’ parties (i.e. the traditional parties of capitalist rule) still held most seats in the EU parliament. The European People’s party (EPP) bloc of conservative parties won the largest share of the vote in the EU parliament, increasing its seats by 10 to 186.

The social democratic parties emerged with the second largest block in the EU, but their pro-capitalist policies failed to enthuse working class voters. The social democrats in Sweden, for example, won the largest vote with 24.8%, but this was also their worst EU election result in 33 years.

The EU parliament’s liberal Renew grouping lost heavily in Germany and Spain falling from 102 to 80 seats, although holding onto third place in the Brussels chamber.

Some left parties made gains, such as the Greek communist party (KKE), which saw its vote increase to 9.25% compared to 5,35% in the 2019 European elections. The communist party in Austria also made gains. The Left Party in Sweden (the former communist party), made the biggest gains of any party in the country’s EU elections, winning 11% (4.2 percentage points more than in the last election and gaining a new seat).

In France, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Unbowed (LFI) received 9.9 percent, gaining a million votes compared with 2019, though still well behind Le Pen’s party. The potential for a radical socialist appeal is shown by the fact that FI won 30% of the youth vote and topped the poll in Lille, Lyon, Toulouse, Bordeaux, and Grenoble. 

Overall, however, the parties formally to the left of the social democrats failed to make significant headway. This partly reflects the failure of some of these parties when in office, at local and national levels, to make radical socialist change. After the split away of the ‘left conservative’ Alliance Sara Wagenknecht (BSW – a right-wing split-off from the Left Party), Germany’s Left Party faced its worst ever EU election result, gaining 2.7 percent while the BSW won 6.1 percent. 

The failure, in general, of the ‘radical left’ to make a breakthrough in the EU elections is rooted  in recent decades of betrayals and disappointment and a weak political programme that does not match the urgent needs of the working class in this period of capitalist crisis. The betrayal of Syriza, which came to power in 2015 in Greece, pledging and failing to stop draconian EU austerity policies, and ‘anti-capitalist’ Podemos in Spain, which shared power with the right-wing social democrats, for example, demoralised sections of the left and working class and opened space for the nationalist right and populist right to exploit.

Class-based socialist programme and anti-imperialist approach needed

In a time of deep economic and social crises, widespread industrial struggles, with war waging in Ukraine, millions marching across Europe against the slaughter in Gaza and radicalised students staging occupations, it is essential that the left has a clear class-based socialist programme and unambiguously opposes imperialism. Such a programme linked to building a party of struggle in the working-class communities and workplaces can successfully take on the bosses and their political parties to cut across the false appeal of the populist right.

With the populist and far-right MEPs making up just short of a quarter of the EU parliament, at around 146 seats, they will come under closer scrutiny and expectations from their voters and will tend to be beset by internal divisions. They are split between two main groups – the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) coalition and the Identity and Democracy (ID) coalition – and several unattached parties.

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is currently outside the Identity and Democracy (ID) coalition after one of its MEPs, Maximilan Krah, caused a scandal by saying that not everyone who served in Hitler’s SS was a criminal. The ID coalition is dominated by Marine Le Pen’s Rasssmeblement National, which is busy trying to distance itself from its previous fascistic image ahead of France’s general elections. In a bid to rejoin the grouping, the AfD expelled Krah.

Notwithstanding their tendency to divide and split, the nationalist, racist, and populist far right needs to be combated by the left and working class at the polls and by campaigning on the ground. The demands the left should fight for to cut the ground from under the feet of the hard right includes decent jobs for all, a real living wage, a mass programme for building social housing for all, and for properly funded health and education services and the nationalisation of key utilities and industries. 

This struggle needs to go across all the borders of the EU, uniting working class people in solidarity against the endless attacks and exploitation of the capitalist system. This means dispelling any illusions in the ‘progressive’ bosses’ EU, rejecting the capitalist EU structures and arguing for a socialist federation of European states on a voluntary and equal basis, with the democratic public ownership, management and control of the main planks of the economy.


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June 2024