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The biggest hurdle for Europe's nationalist parties

This was originally published on the 13th March, 2017, and republished on this site on the 3rd January, 2022.

In a few days from now, the Netherlands will be going to the polls, the first of three (possibly even four) national elections in major European nations this year. The Party for Freedom (PVV), led by the charismatic Geert Wilders, is fighting with the ruling People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) for first place in the election. If they do manage to win, will PVV form government and have Wilders as the new Dutch Prime Minister? Probably not.

In a month and a half from now, France will be going to polls, the second of three (possibly even four) national elections in major European nations this year. The National Front (FN), led by the charismatic Marine Le Pen, is fighting to have her elected as president, and she is leading the polls despite a strong challenge from the young Emmanuel Macron. If she does come first, will she be elected as President of France? Probably not.

Nationalist parties in Germany and Italy have the same problem, as did Austria’s Freedom Party in elections last year. What’s stopping them?

Geert Wilders (Ned/PVV); Frauke Petry (Ger/AfD); Harald Vilimsky (Aut/FPO); Marine Le Pen (Fra/FN); Matteo Salvini (Ita/LN) (Photo: Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images)

European electoral systems have one thing in common: they, by nature, make radical reform nearly impossible. Most have built their systems using the basic British principle of government from the legislature, but unlike the British House of Commons which uses first-past-the-post in 650 single-member districts, most continental parliaments are either partly or purely proportional. This means that the British system tends to produce a majority government, even when the governing party secures just over a third of the popular vote. A party getting a third of the vote is simply not going to be able to do the same in a continental parliament, and will therefore have to form a coalition.

Why is this a problem?

Well, take the question back a step: why do political parties exist? Their purpose is surely to change the way a nation is governed in accordance with their stated ideology. If the government is formed by the largest political party in the parliament, then the way the country is governed will match the ideology of that party. If one party can form a government on their own, they have, in essence, free rein. If they wish to go ahead with radical reform, they can do so. If the voters decide they don’t much like the reform, they can vote out that party at the next election.

But if one party cannot form government on their own, they need to form a coalition. In a coalition, the leading party is unlikely to be able to govern according to its ideology, because it has to negotiate with the party it’s in coalition with, who will likely have a different ideology. The more parties added to the coalition, the more diluted the ideology of the government becomes, until there is precious little common ground at all. At that point, a government becomes caretaker in all but name, unwilling and unable to make any bold plans for fear of losing their coalition partners.

Some parliaments, such as in Greece, recognise this dilemma and try to overcome it by giving the winning party extra seats. But this is still highly unlikely to take them over the 50%+1 seat threshold to form a majority government, and therefore does not solve the problem. France does not actually use this system — at least, not in Fifth Republic — but their presidential runoff system has a similar result, allowing the less radical candidate to vacuum up the votes of all the voters who would rather have no reform than reform they don’t like in the second round of voting.

Now, there is an obvious historical reason for the nations of Europe to put restrictions on the ability of one party to win a majority and go about radically reforming the government of the nation: they tried it in the early 20th century and ended up with the Third Reich. But there is obvious flaw in this logic, as Weimar Germany had a proportional electoral system, which forced their governments to be coalitions, thereby exacerbating the weaknesses of the Republic and guaranteeing paralysis when crises came.

In fact, of all the continental European countries to come under the control of Nazi Germany used proportional representation. Germany, Austria, France, Belgium, Norway, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Yugoslavia and Greece all had proportional representation in the inter-war period. The Netherlands did as well, having switched away from British-style single member districts after the First World War. Italy had also used proportional representation prior to Benito Mussolini’s ascension. All these countries (and their successors) today use proportional representation, apart from France.

Proportional representation makes it very difficult for the voters to remove an ineffective government, because it leaves the real choice of who governs with the elected representatives. If 5% of voters leave the governing party that they voted for at the last election in the United Kingdom or Canada or Australia, the party of government will probably change. If 5% of voters leave the governing party in Netherlands or Belgium or Austria, the party of government will only lose a handful of seats and will be able to form a coalition again. The repetition of this system at election after election, keeping parties in government when they’re not actually that popular, is a perfect way to create the kind of frustration that leads to radicalism.

This is doubly so when parties that are not really that radical appear and are treated as if they are the new Nazis. Observe how the swathe of patriotic and nationalist parties that have emerged in western Europe over the last decade have been treated as lepers, rarely able to form government. Finland is a rare example of this not happening, with the Finns Party joining a coalition government and performing like a normal party — no signs of democracy ending.

Of course, Finland is not considered as crucial to the continuing existence of the European Union as France, the Netherlands or Germany, so it is perhaps unsurprising that the rhetoric in these countries has been much stronger about their emergent nationalist parties. If the other Dutch parties refuse to govern with PVV, or the other French parties plead with voters to vote for who faces Le Pen in the second round of voting, and follow it up with good government that solves the myriad of issues that face the nations of Europe, then they would have acted rightly.

But the actions of the establishment parties must come with a warning. If they succeed in locking these parties — and their voters — out of government, yet fail to provide good government themselves, then these nationalist parties may well disappear…only to be replaced by parties that are actually threats to the liberal democracy they so cherish. This is already happening in Greece, where the legitimately fascist Golden Dawn are the third largest party in the legislature. Syriza, the governing party who were once the great radical salvation, only to be neutered by pressure from the liberal establishment of the European Union, has collapsed in the polls. If the opposition New Democracy — an old liberal establishment party themselves — fails to solve the Greek crisis, then who will be left to fill the hole?

If Mark Rutte, or Emmanuel Macron, or Angela Merkel, or Martin Schulz, or whichever face of liberalism fails to provide good government in the nations of western Europe, but has locked out nationalist parties that embrace both radical reform and liberal democracy, then who will fill the hole? If the parties of liberal democracy have failed, and the parties of radical reform and liberal democracy have failed, then what is left but the parties of radical reform without liberal democracy?


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