Greece's extremist, anti-immigrant party Golden Dawn gained an electoral foothold in Parliament for the first time in 2012. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
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The fortunes of far-right parties, a number of which campaigned using anti-immigrant messages, have varied in elections around the world during 2012, with notable albeit small advances in Greece. For the most part, however, extreme-right politicians continue to struggle to build sizeable support; and in Europe, the anti-immigration discourse has been overshadowed by anti-Brussels rhetoric and anger over high unemployment and austerity measures.
Greece's Golden Dawn in a Class of its Own
The Greek far-right party Golden Dawn jolted public attention in 2012 by gaining a first-ever electoral foothold in Parliament, winning 18 of 300 seats with an explicitly anti-immigrant platform. Suspected followers of Golden Dawn, which campaigned on the motto "Get the Stench out of Greece," have been accused of acts of violence against immigrants, including stabbings, beatings, and attacks on immigrant-owned shops.
According to Frontex, the EU external border agency, Greece accounted for a significant portion (40 percent) of all detections of illegal border crossings to the European Union in 2011. Border crossings between Greece and Albania, previously a major illegal entry route to the European Union, have significantly dropped since the introduction of a visa-free regime for Albanians in December 2010. However, the border between Greece and Turkey is "very likely to remain one of the areas with the highest number of detections of illegal border-crossing along the external border," Frontex reported in its 2012 Annual Risk Analysis. Unauthorized migrants hail from Asia and the Middle East, mainly Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Bangladesh.
Since 2009, Greece has also struggled with Europe’s most severe economic downturn. The stark fiscal austerity plan required of Greece’s international donors – which has resulted in job and wage cuts, increases in the retirement age, and a rise in already startlingly high unemployment rates (55 percent of young workers are unemployed) – has altered the country’s economic, political, and social environments, both for native-born and immigrant populations.
Founded in the 1990s, Golden Dawn has capitalized on the anti-immigrant sentiments that have surged as a result of the economic crisis and the sense that the European Union has left Greece to deal alone with what are ultimately European migration challenges. A September poll indicated that nearly 22 percent of respondents expressed "positive" opinions about Golden Dawn, up from 12 percent in May.
Facing Dwindling Support, Other European Far-Right Parties Shift Focus
Other far-right parties exist across Europe, with policy platforms that shift according to the national context. In some countries, these extremist parties have trained their sights on national minorities, such as the Roma; in others, the focus is largely on vocal opposition to the European Union and anger over economic conditions and high unemployment.
Like Golden Dawn, Hungary's extreme-right Movement for a Better Hungary (known as Jobbik) made gains in recent elections and is currently the second-largest opposition party in the Hungarian Parliament. Jobbik's focus, however, is on actively excluding Hungarian minorities (not immigrants) and leaving the European Union. In the Netherlands, the far-right Freedom Party of Geert Wilders (Partij voor de Vrijheid, PVV) surged in popularity in 2010 only to sustain heavy losses in Dutch elections last fall. The PVV has since made leaving the European Union and the euro its top priority — a move which, in addition to Wilders' refusal to back budget cuts intended to bring the deficit in line with EU rules, caused the party to lose considerable ground.
Losses for the far-right, anti-immigrant, and Europhobic Danish People's Party (DPP) in the 2012 parliamentary elections have been attributed to the country's economic difficulties, which overshadowed the debate over migration and border controls. In France, the National Front (Front National, FN) gained 1 in 5 votes in the first round, but not enough to prevent Socialist Party candidate François Hollande from winning the May election. However, FN candidate Marine Le Pen, who has made opposition to immigration a key plank of the FN's platform, will likely remain a prominent player in French politics.
And in the United Kingdom, the far-right British National Party lost all six seats it was defending in local councils and failed to win any new ones.
Longevity of Far-Right Parties in Europe
Extreme-right parties have yet to prove their longevity, and there is little evidence overall that the recent economic crisis has led to a clear and steady rise in extremist politics. Indeed, some EU countries are moving or have moved back to center-left governments. Still, the mix of high unemployment and immigration presents political opportunity for some. In Belgium, the far-right Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) in 2012 launched a website inviting people to anonymously report crimes committed by immigrants believed to be in irregular status, mirroring a similar initiative undertaken in the Netherlands by the PVV.
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