“‘A party of skinheads has turned into a party of old, bald men’ is a quote I once heard that I think symbolizes the transformation several populist right-wing parties in Europe have gone through”, says Anders Hellström, Ph.D in social science with focus on European nationalism at Malmö Högskola.
The existence of political parties with controversial ideas is not a new phenomenon, neither is the fact that they seldom miss out on a chance for populistic flirtation. What is new, however, is the need for a more adequate and adjustable language concerning these groups and parties, since today words such as radicalism, nationalism and extremism are often used synonymously and on groups and parties with crucially different form and nature. The radical right movement is large in scale and covers everything from parliamentary parties such as the Danish Dansk Folkeparti to paramilitary groups such as the Hungarian Magyar Gárda, the English Defence League and the SMR – Svenska motståndsrörelsen ( Swedish defence movement).
“There are several terms that can be used when discussing these kinds of parties and groups, you always have to pay attention to the political context the party or group you are getting at is operating in. In general there is a trend that political scientists now more often talk about the radical right than the extreme right when discussing parliamentary parties”, says Anders Hellström.
According to Daniel Poohl, editor in chief at the democratic and anti-racist magazine, Expo, the extreme-right ideology came into being at the same time as the other larger established political ideologies. After the end of the Second World War until the 1970s and 80s, the political climate did not tolerate these kind of ideas, but during that era they continued to exist, more or less undercover. In the latest decades they have gained space in the public discourse again.
“These kind of groups and parties build their ideology on thoughts about purity and a uniform culture as being the defining forces in society. They also state that the people are the foundation for a nations wealth. These ideas exist in most societies”, he says.
Daniel Poohl uses the word “extreme-right” reluctantly.
“It gives an illusion that you are talking about a party or group whose sympathies are to be found further to the right of the mainstream right-wing on the political spectrum. This is false, as these groups sometimes hold economic ideas which are located on the left-wing”, he continiues.
A way to define whether a party can be considered extreme or not is, according to Anders Sandström, to examine what means a group is willing to use to reach its goals. He also sees it problematic to term parliamentary parties “extreme”. Contrary to this, Daniel Poohl emphasizes the importance of defining a party or group by looking at its values more than its form.
“If you make this distinction between parliamentary and non-parliamentary groups, what would you then call the neo-nazi-party that just entered the Greek parliament? With that distinction, they would not fall under the definition ‘extreme'”, says Daniel Poohl.
Since the scale of the populistic and radical right movement in Europe today is large, it may seem difficult to find mutual themes without making blunt generalisations. Nevertheless, some common factors may be found, such as cultural conservatism fused with nostalgia for an always better and often imaginary national past as well as an aversion for mass immigration, globalisation and the EU. Anders Hellström also mentions themes such as nativism, authoritarianism and the idea of a close bond between territory and people.
“Quotes such as ‘we have nothing against immigrants, but they have to integrate themselves!’ are typical for right-wing parties with these kind of sympathies”, he says.
Anders Sundström also argues that one obvious reason that radical right parties are gaining power today is that there is a growing demand for them, due to for example increased immigration and the economic crisis which has created a need for a scapegoat, something that these groups and parties easily offer.
“Since 1989 we face a lack of political debate and economic polemic. When the Berlin wall fell the idea of planned economy fell with it and the political debate had to find different topics, such as migration. A new political landscape that benefited radical right movements was formed”, adds Daniel Pool.
What impact radical right parties have on other parties in the parliament is sometimes obvious, sometimes harder to asses. A recent example was the French presidential election debate where especially president candidate Nicholas Sarcozy tried to attract the former voters of the right-wing party Front National in order to win the election.
In Sweden Sverigedemokraterna – a social conservative party that entered the parliament in autumn 2010, have not succeeded with their aim to impact Swedish migration policy. Due to a legislative decision concerning migration made by the government and supported by Miljöpartiet – the green party, the Sweden Democrats have been paralysed. This is, according to Anders Hellström something that is cruicially weakening SD, as they are failing to influence their most important policy area.
“To me, the most important thing is not whether a party is extreme or not, it is about their views about humanity”, says Daniel Poohl.
The future holds what direction the content of the word extremism will take. Let us hope it will be the non-parliamentary one.