The World

Can the Far Right Win Where It Really Counts?

Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party.

Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images

The success of far-right parties in the recent European parliamentary elections was treated as a “political earthquake.” But there’s a countervailing view, which I largely agree with, that it’s a mistake to read too much into EU voting. Voters, largely skeptical of European institutions, tend to use these elections as protest votes before moving back to the center for national elections, which are—rightly—perceived as more important.

The U.K. Independence Party may have taken the most votes when the British public chose its EU representatives, but it’s worth keeping in mind that Nigel Farage’s anti-immigrant, euroskeptic party still has precisely zero MPs in Westminster.

Today, the Conservatives defeated a UKIP challenge to win a closely watched by-election (what we call a “special election” in the U.S.) for a parliamentary seat in Newark. The election is being covered as a setback for the party and evidence that its parliamentary win may have just been a flash in the pan.

On the other hand, the British political establishment probably shouldn’t be too smug. With 26 percent of the vote, UKIP finished well ahead of Labour, the Green Party, and the Liberal Democrats—part of Britain’s ruling coalition—which finished a humiliating sixth.

Britain has another general election coming up next year, and it’s clear that while they’re unlikely to take a majority, voters now at least consider UKIP a viable alternative, and perhaps a more viable one then several long-established parties.

Meanwhile across the channel, Marine Le Pen’s National Front—riding high on its first-place finish in the European vote—has its eyes on the 2017 presidential election. Outright victory seems unlikely, but it’s worth remembering that her father, Jean-Marie, came in second in the 2002 election, forcing a runoff with Jacques Chirac. The elder Le Pen’s views were more blatantly toxic and less polished than hers, and he was running before the Eurozone financial crisis provoked widespread anger against established parties.

Meanwhile, President Francois Hollande’s socialists are deeply unpopular. The opposition UMP is in disarray after a drawn-out and ugly leadership battle. The National Front seems, at the moment, to be the only French party that has its act together.

Despite periodic waves, we haven’t actually seen a far-right prime minister or president of a European country in the EU era, though the Austrian Freedom Party and Italy’s Lega Nord have been part of coalition governments. It still seems like an unlikely prospect in the near future, but not quite as outlandish as it used to.