Political Extremists Boost Clout Amid Europe’s Downturn

Support for extreme political movements is building across Europe as the economy starts worsening again – and analysts and anti-extremist organizations are increasingly worried that parties on the left- or right-wing fringes will gain more political power.

Greek riot policemen clash with protestors in the center of Athens on May 5, 2010.
Dimitar Dilkoff | AFP |Getty Images
Greek riot policemen clash with protestors in the center of Athens on May 5, 2010.

The continent has a worrying precedent in the rise to power of fascist dictatorships in Germany, Italy and Spain during the 1930s, following the Great Depression, and the rise of the Soviet Union before then.

Now, increased support for far-right political parties in countries such as France and Greece, which are due to hold elections later this year, is causing concern.

The euro zone is currently headed towards the second part of a double diprecession – the first part of which began in 2008 and lasted for 18 months.

“Economic downturn is a recruiting sergeant for these organizations,” Haras Rafiq, director of Centri, the UK-based counter-extremism organization, told CNBC.com. “If people haven’t got jobs, or money, or food for their children, the natural human tendency is to look to blame somebody: the government; other people or society itself.”

The proportional representation system used by many European countries can also help fringe parties gain a voice in government more easily than the almost entirely dual-party system used in the United States.

Growing nationalism and disillusionment with the European Union itself is a key part of the shift in support to parties that were previously on the fringe of the mainstream, according to Alastair Newton, senior political analyst at Nomura.

“A lot of the parties branded as extreme left or right wing are very often oversimplified. You have parties which have all sorts of views, but the thing which tends to set them apart is usually being strongly anti-EU,” he told CNBC.com.

Some of the “right-wing” parties have economic policies that don’t fit into traditional right wing ideas about the free market – France’s National Front party’s protectionist policies are a case in point.

TheFrench Presidential election in April is expected to be a key indication of how much power the far-right is gaining.

Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, is getting higher numbers in the polls than incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy at the moment.

Discontent with mainstream politics has also been seen through the support for the Occupy movement, which began in Spain in 2011.

There has already been a significant changing of the guard at the top of European politics. In 2011, Italy and Greece swapped elected governments for technocratic equivalents as fears about their debt burdens sent their bond yields to unsustainable levels. Ireland, Portugal and Spain all replaced the governments that were in power at the start of the euro zone debt crisis.

In Greece, where anti-austerity protestors have lined the streets of Athens, the two main political parties – left-wing Pasok and conservative New Democracy – currently command less than 40 percent of the vote between them, according to polls cited by newspaper Ekathimerini. Two small parties, the extreme right-wing Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn) and anti-austerity Independent Greeks, set up by a former New Democracy politician, are gaining ground in the polls. They are still hovering around the 3 percent threshold that they must reach in order to get seats in parliament.

“Pronounced public dissatisfaction with political elites is evident. Two trends are emerging as a result: growing public protests and a proliferation of new political parties and movements. Both pose challenges to the prevailing political order,” Tina Fordham, senior global political analyst at Citi, wrote in a note.

Three years worth of economic downturn is the key point at which countries risk turning toward extreme right-wing governments, according to recent research by Oxford and UC Berkeley academics.

“Countries on the losing side in the First World War, who had a shorter experience of democracy and a negative growth rate – they were the most fertile grounds for nationalists to gain support,“ Alan de Bromhead, a researcher in economic & social history based at Mansfield College, University of Oxford, told CNBC.com.

He added that the risk was greatest when depressed economic conditions continued.