23rd May 2022


We won't stop the extreme right (if we continue like this)

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There is widespread relief about the re-election of Emmanuel Macron as president of France. As with the 2020 US presidential election, this was another high-stake election that was, in fact, a referendum on democracy.

And, yes, the winner of the Slovenian elections last Sunday had also called the poll a referendum about democracy.

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  • If we do not change the approach, we will not stop extremism's rise. I am sceptical that we will. There are too many people who think they benefit from it

As welcome as it is when democratic forces win elections, this is not how democracy should function. Voters should have a choice between candidates or parties that accept the rules of the game. They should not feel the need to vote for somebody they don't like, to avoid the election of an extremist.

Instead of plebiscites on democracy, there should be democratic choice.

For a decade we have been watching the extreme, mostly from the political right, growing, or at least entrenching itself, and turning elections into democracy plebiscites. And it seems that nobody has found a convincing recipe to stop them.

Who is to blame? Leftists accuse 'neoliberalism', but things are not so easy. The electorate of extreme right-wing parties include many more voters than economic losers. And yet, the economy plays a role.

The right blames 'liberal elites" that have lost touch with 'ordinary people', especially on cultural issues. That's too easy as well. There is a reason that Le Pen turned her party to the economic left.

The truth is that these parties draw on many motivations and the mix of reasons differs from country to country. Simplistic explanations have not helped us understand what works against the rise of political extremism.

For most people 'populism' has become the key label and explanatory framework. Unfortunately, it is not fit for purpose and has contributed to democracy's weak responses to extremism.

Why? Because it obscures the line that should be the most important in a democracy. The one that divides parties that are against democracy from those that work within the rules of the game. The many remedies against 'populism' do not work, because the malady is not clearly described.

Many liberals rail against 'the right'. They make the line between the right and the extreme right invisible.

This lack of clarity is baked into many definitions of populism and much literature on "illiberal democracy". For example, the leading scholar Cas Mudde says that populists typically claim that they represent 'the people' while railing against an elite.

Now, pretending that only one party represents the people is an extremist, anti-democratic position. It rejects pluralism. It suggests that some voters are more relevant than others and that election results do not tell the real story.

In this vein, Hungary's Viktor Orbán once remarked: "It may be that our parties and our representatives are in opposition in the National Assembly, but we cannot be in opposition, because the homeland cannot be in opposition."

The other side of the definition — being against elites — is not problematic. Democracy is not an elite-protection system. Indeed, many leftist parties demand elite change and better representation of minorities. Emmanuel Macron's rise was premised on the idea of replacing traditional political parties.

'Me, or the Devil'

Unfortunately, the vague problem description is useful to all sides: parties on the left or liberal side of the spectrum can paint any conservative opinion as 'populist' or extremist.

In majoritarian elections, like the US presidential election, or the second round of the French presidential election, it helps candidates to be able to say: It's me or the devil.

Extremists can also be used to divide the right. Indeed, the Front National gained traction in the 1980s thanks to a Machiavellian move by then president Francois Mitterrand of the Socialist Party.

He changed the electoral system so that the Front National won seats in parliament and thus divided and weakened the political right.

Parties on the right also think they can benefit from the extremist upswing, even if they may not be extremist themselves. Think of how long it took for the European People's Party in the European Parliament to expel the Hungarian Fidesz party, because it wanted its votes.

Or consider how Valérie Pécresse, the candidate of the centre-right Republican Party, started musing about the "great replacement", a conspiracy myth about migration, spread by the extreme right (the only politician working on great replacements is Vladimir Putin, beloved by the extreme right. Five million Ukrainians have fled to the EU.)

It did not work for her. People voted for the originals: the racist Éric Zemmour and Marine Le Pen.

The media also like the vagueness of the 'populism' label. It sounds suitably negative for a party one does not like, but does not require the argumentative depth one would need to call a party anti-democratic or extremist.

It is mostly left to courts and other legal institutions to police the border between extremists and democratic forces.

Think of the European Court of Justice and its decisions about the rule of law in Hungary and Poland, or the German domestic security agency's analysis of the far-right party Alternative für Deutschland [Alternative for Germany].

Certainly the French courts would have become involved if Le Pen had become president and launched her planned attack on the constitution through plebiscite.

Leaving the policing of extremism to a few judges and legal experts is not good enough. Democracies will not master the extremist challenge without a critical mass of politicians, analysts, scholars and journalists being willing to distinguish between extremism and political positions they do not like.

Our societies lack resilience to political extremism, because we do not name the problem. If we do not change the approach, we will not stop extremism's rise.

I am sceptical that we will. There are too many people who think they benefit from it.

Author bio

Michael Meyer-Resende is the executive director of Democracy Reporting International, a non-partisan NGO in Berlin that supports political participation.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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