Considering the Unthinkable: Towards a Normalization of Relationships between Social-Democrats and Right-Wing Populist Parties in Western Europe?

Comparative Politics
European Politics
Political Competition
Political Parties
Eric Miklin
Universität Salzburg
Eric Miklin
Universität Salzburg

West-European ‘mainstream’ parties have shown quite some variation in their responses to the electoral successes of their countries’ right-wing populist parties (RPP) – not only in terms of programmatic adaptations, but also when it comes to their willingness to cooperate with these parties in the political process. Initially, they often jointly set up a ‘Cordon sanitaire’ aiming at excluding RPP from any participation in government (e.g., Belgium, or Austria until 1999). Over time, however, this Cordon sanitaire cracked in several countries. Either, mainstream parties and RPPs indeed entered a formal government coalition (e.g., Austria from 1999 to 2006, or right now Norway), or the former parties set up minority governments, which did not include, but relied on the latters’ support in parliament (e.g. The Netherlands from 2010 to 2012 or right now Denmark).

For most of the time, both these forms of collaboration have taken place almost exclusively between RPPs and (centre-) right mainstream parties, and were harshly criticised by social democratic parties. In their view, any (formal) cooperation with RPP would involve the risk of legitimizing (and hence contributing to a normalization of) these parties’ policy positions and political strategies. Recently, however, this ‘dogma’ has started to become challenged, and led to intense internal discussions, in some social democratic parties. In Austria, this even resulted in the formation of a coalition between Austrian Social Democrats and the Austrian Freedom Party on the regional state level.

Based on the results of a qualitative comparative study, this paper therefore seeks to explore and explain potential variation in the respective discussions and strategies within social-democratic parties from four West-European countries, and discusses the reasons for them: Are these developments driven (primarily) by social democrats’ pragmatic office-, vote- and policy-seeking considerations? Or rather by the rising acceptance and acknowledgement of RPPs’ policy positions as a legitimate part of the political process that no longer should or could be simply dismissed?
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