Two European elections show that rightwing populism is still a force

Le Pen’s first round win, her second in two elections, and Orban’s 4th in Hungary show that rightwing populism remains a potent force in European politics.

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When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th,, it seemed at first that many of those who identify as rightwing populists in North America and Europe had miscalculated in giving so much praise to Vladimir Putin over last few years and that it might cost them politically, at least in the short term. Two recent elections in Europe have shown that this isn’t the case and that xenophobic Christian nationalism is still a force to be reckoned with, especially in the absence of a real, united left that leaves only the center right to oppose these reactionary demogogues.

Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who has never been shy in his praise of the Russian leader, won his 4th election in a row on April 3rd. His party, Fidesz, also increased its share of seats in the country’s parliament, tightening his already vise-like grip on power.

In a speech after the results were mostly in, the Hungarian leader claimed that his win had come despite overwhelming opposition from an almost non-existent ‘woke’ left in his country, the Western press, the European Union and even the embattled president of its neighbor, Ukraine, saying,”We will remember this victory until the end of our lives because we had to fight against a huge amount of opponents and the Ukrainian president too — we never had so many opponents at the same time.”

That the actual political opposition within the country didn’t seem to be a major part of this equation is a reminder that this type of leader almost always obsesses over ‘outside’ forces that have no real ability to shape events but are perfect foils to project their own and their followers’ grievances onto. During Orban’s last campaign, in 2017, George Soros, a minuscule number of Muslim refugees and the always useful EU mostly served this purpose.

On the North American right, Orban is very popular with television talking heads like Tucker Carlson, who broadcast his primetime show from Hungary for a week in early August 2021 and sang his praises to his Fox News viewers. The Hungarian Prime Minister’s promotion of ‘illiberal democracy’ often used interchangeably with ‘Christian democracy’ is seen as a model by those who style themselves as intellectuals on the far right.

Orban made his feelings about the kind of liberalism that promotes the rights of the marginalized known a few years ago, if vaguely, “Liberal democracy is liberal, Christian democracy by definition is not liberal, or if you prefer, it is illiberal” 

In talking about models for this type of governing philosophy, Orban has referred to two main countries: Russia and Turkey. In terms of the former, while he has criticized the attack on Ukraine itself and has not used his veto power in regards to EU sanctions, he has yet to criticize Putin personally and says he wants to remain neutral in regards to the conflict.

Part of the reasoning for this is Hungary’s reliance on Russian oil and gas, the purchase and use of which he has said will continue despite the EU sanctions.

In regards to this, as Orban explained in a recent radio interview, “It’s not about us putting on a sweater, turning up the heating a bit as some in the West think. This is a question about the functioning or non-functioning of the economy.”

Another friend of Putin, who also softened her rhetoric after the invasion of Ukraine seemed to jeopardize her and her party’s electoral prospects, is France’s Marine Le Pen. Her National Rally party, rebranded in 2018 from the more polarizing National Front in part to distance itself from its founder, her father, who has a well deserved reputation as an anti-Semite, received an almost $12 million loan from a Russian-Czech bank in 2014 that it’s still paying off. This, as much as the Russian president’s authoritarian style, might have had an impact on her sympathies.

Despite coming out in opposition to the so-called ‘special operation’ in Ukraine, Le Pen has already called for France to look to partner with the Russian Federation after the war ends and for her country to leave NATO.

According to a report from the Center for European Reform (CER), “Le Pen and her party colleagues in the European Parliament have consistently opposed sanctions on Russia. During this year’s campaign, even though she has criticised the invasion of Ukraine, she has also said that Putin could become an ally of France again if the war ended.” 

As an interesting side note, the party has taken a new loan from a Hungarian bank to help pay for Le Pen’s presidential campaign this time around, with the candidate claiming that no French bank will provide the funds. 

Seemingly undamaged by her long record of praising Vladimir Putin, Le Pen managed to win enough votes on April 10th to force a second round runoff against the favorite, current President Emmanuel Macron, with French voters slated to go to the polls again on April 24th.

In what any honest observer might deem a suspiciously timed setback, just this week, Le Pen and several of her colleagues were accused of “misusing funds” for campaigning in France when she served in the EU’s parliament from 2004 until 2017.

Although she hasn’t abandoned her long standing anti-Muslim bias, recently calling for the hijab to be banned altogether in her country,  President Macron has already claimed some of this ground for himself by supporting this European culture war with his own paranoid calls claiming that French institutions of higher education are being ‘Islamized’, Le Pen, like most far right populists, has advanced more traditionally left wing ideas to counter Macron’s economic conservatism.

As reported by CNN, “[Le Pen] has campaigned hard on pocketbook issues, promising measures that she claims will put 150 euros to 200 euros ($162 to $216) in the coffers of each household, including a pledge to remove sales tax from 100 household goods.” 

While the headlines, especially in the English language press, ignored this, Jean Luc Melenchon, who launched a new leftist party Le France Insoumise (“France Unbowed”) in 2016, was less than 1.5% behind Le Pen in the first round election at 22% to her 23.2% (Macron received 27.8%), demonstrating that the French left remains powerful if divided between multiple parties in the country. In what could turn out to be a strategic mistake, some progressive voices in the country are calling on their fellow leftists to boycott the runoff election this coming Sunday.

Anyone who followed the campaigns of Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn understands the disappointment felt by Melanchon’s followers at his near miss, especially when the the only other option to the neo-fascist Le Pen is former investment banker Macron, who has been called “the president of the rich” and has consistently moved to the right while in office, but the former still seems like the greater short term threat.

In the bigger picture, Le Pen’s first round win, her second in two elections, and Orban’s 4th in Hungary show that rightwing populism remains a potent force in European politics.

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