The far right vote in the European elections: It’s not the economy, stupid

This is a guest post from Alex Afonso. Alex is a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in the Department of Political Economy at King’s College London. He works on welfare state reform, immigration politics, labour markets, populist radical right parties and the connections between them. You can find out more about him at his website and  Twitter.


In the European elections, the far right has done extremely well in the UK, in France, Austria and Denmark (four fairly affluent Northern countries) while – Greece set aside – it has stayed non-existent in the countries most severely hit by the crisis, Portugal and Spain. Golden Dawn in Greece is the exception, but it is nowhere near UKIP, the Front National or the Danish People’s party. The idea that crisis and unemployment feed the far right is appealing, but it does not seem to be supported by facts.

I have made a quick scatterplot plotting together the share of votes for the biggest far right party in each country that took part in the EP elections 2014 yesterday (on the y axis, fromEuractiv) and the harmonised unemployment rate (on the x axis, from Eurostat) (Stata datafile here). Any mistake in the coding of far-right parties is mine (I am not overly confident about central and Eastern Europe), and this classification is surely an always contentious issue. There seems to be a small to moderate negative correlation between these two variables (the lower the unemployment, the bigger the far-right vote), but of course there may be a myriad intervening variables, and this is a much too coarse analysis. There are many countries where there is no or only an insignificant far right party, and one doesn’t know how this relationship would look over time, namely with different levels of unemployment across time within the same country. However, the fact that the strongest far right parties stem from countries that are doing relatively well economically (in the upper left corner) is quite significant.

There are a number of possible explanations for this, outlined notably in Cas Mudde’sexcellent book on the far right, where I took the tile for this post. First, far-right parties may not do that well when the economy is doing badly because they are generally not considered very competent in terms of economic and social policy: their main selling point is immigration and law and order. France is surely not doing great at the moment, but the FN vote has surely more to do with anger at the current government than a genuine belief that the FN is the best choice to restore economic growth: when unemployment and growth come centre stage, far-right parties tend to be eclipsed because they do not “own” these issues. By contrast, high economic growth tends to be accompanied by higher immigration, the topic that far-right parties can capitalise on.

Second, the move to the right of well-off countries who have directly or indirectly bailed out poor countries during the crisis may be understood as another sign that far-right parties are insider rather than outsider parties. They appeal to people who have something that they don’t want to lose, rather than to people who have lost everything.

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