Increasingly friendly? Radical Right Populist Parties and the Centre-Right

How should mainstream centre-right parties treat radical right populists? Should they consider them as potential coalition partners when they represent a sizeable section of voters or should they always ostracise them on the grounds that they promote an anti-liberal democratic and ethnically prejudiced vision of society?

And how should radical right populist parties treat mainstream centre-right ones? Should they consider them as a means to secure greater public legitimacy and access to government by allying with them or should they stay pure and shun them as part of the establishment?

Populism Populist Slogan Board Question School

These are dilemmas that centre-right and radical right populist parties in an increasing number of twenty-first century Western democracies have to grapple with, especially when accessing government requires cooperation.

The outcomes are extremely varied: running from the full inclusion of radical right populists in cabinet in Austria and Italy at the beginning of the new century to the long-standing refusal of all mainstream parties to have anything to do with them in places like Belgium and Sweden. Meanwhile, in countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark, we have seen the halfway-house solution of the centre-right and radical right striking parliamentary support deals.

In our new ARC Discovery Project, we aim to explain why some radical right-wing populists in Western democracies enter governmental alliances with mainstream parties while others remain as isolated pariahs. We will look in particular at two aspects of mainstream-populist collaboration.

The first is ‘Social and Political Acceptability’. Partnerships with radical right populists can be highly controversial. For example, although such cooperation was the only way the Swedish centre-right could have stayed in power after the 2014 general election, it was considered beyond the pale. Hence, regardless of office-seeking or other considerations, cooperation with radical right populists is simply not an acceptable option in some democracies. We will look at when and why that is – or is not – the case.

The second aspect is ‘Radical Right Populist Agency’. Given their denunciation of elites, radical right populists may prefer not to cooperate with mainstream parties or to do so only in strictly-defined ways. This was the case in 2015 for the Danish People’s Party, which despite being the larger party, chose not to take cabinet seats alongside the centre-right. Instead, it props up the government in exchange for policy concessions. In other words, for their own ideological or strategic reasons, radical right populists may choose complete or partial ‘self-exclusion’ over becoming full mainstream partners.

This is obviously a topic that is becoming increasingly important globally. The rise of radical right-wing populists and, in particular, their acquisition of governmental power is exerting considerable pressure on liberal democracy in many countries. Our project stems from the conviction that, if we want to understand this challenge, we need to understand these parties, the mainstream political, media and public reactions to them and the conditions under which they do (or do not) gain direct influence over government.

And it is also a topic of increasing relevance in Australia, which for most of the past two decades has lacked a strong radical right comparable to those in countries like France and Italy. Not only have we seen the (re)breakthrough of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party at the 2016 federal election but media reports have suggested that the Liberals may be willing to strike preference deals with One Nation ahead of state elections in Western Australia and Queensland.

2016 has been a good year for radical right populists. With elections featuring rising radical right parties in Western democracies like the Netherlands, France, and Germany, 2017 promises to be extremely interesting for those of us interested in how they interact with the mainstream.

Duncan McDonnell is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Government and International Relations at Griffith University. He is currently writing a book with Annika Werner about radical right alliances in the European Parliament. In 2017, he will begin work on three new grants from the ARC and the Swedish Research Council. 

Annika Werner is a Research Fellow in the School of Government and International Relations at Griffith University. Parallel to working with Duncan McDonnell on how radical right parties ally with each other and with mainstream parties, she works on multiple projects about the relationships between parties and voters.