European populism reshuffled as Orbán’s party quits ‘centre-right’ alliance

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has for years been seen as a leader of Europe’s populist right, while his party remained in the mainstream ‘centre-right’ bloc

The Fidesz party led by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán – seen as a leading force in the European populist right – has resigned from the main centre-right group in the European Parliament. This move will lead to a rebalancing of populist and anti-immigration forces, dependent on Orbán’s next move.

As regular H&D readers will know, international groups broadly representing ideological tendencies are an important feature of the European Parliament. Forming such a group is the key to unlocking substantial extra funds and representation on Parliamentary committees. (There is also a complicated difference between groups within the Parliament and extra-parliamentary political alliances that can also receive European funds and tend to cover much the same ground as the Parliamentary groups, but are technically separate.)

For many years ‘far right’ parties struggled to qualify for group status, partly because the rules were changed by Eurocrats, and partly because of internal divisions between populists and racial nationalists, or over sundry ‘petty nationalist’ or ‘national chauvinist’ issues that loom large especially in Eastern and South Eastern Europe.

Leading figures in ‘The Movement’, an alliance of European populists that preceded formation of the ID group – (left to right) former Trump adviser Steve Bannon; former Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini; and Brussels-based Jewish lawyer Mischael Modrikamen

The present situation is that (reading from ‘centre’ to ‘far’ right) the following Parliamentary groups exist covering a wide spectrum of right of centre views:

European People’s Party (EPP) – the largest group, covering the mainstream of Europe’s Christian Democratic and centre-right tradition who were the core of the European federalist project from its inception. The largest parties in the EPP are Angela Merkel’s ruling CDU-CSU from Germany, and the Spanish conservative Partido Popular (PP).

European Conservatives & Reformists (ECR) – comprises conservatives who are more ‘right wing’ on economics (i.e. anti-state, pro-market), and/or more sceptical about European federalism than their EPP colleagues, but who would wish to avoid being tainted by radical anti-immigration politics or by association with parties that have even faint historic associations with European fascism. Until Britain left the EU, the Conservative Party was the largest force in ECR alongside the Polish governing party Law & Justice.

Identity & Democracy (ID) – the greatly expanded populist rightwing / anti-immigration group launched after the 2019 European elections. The largest parties in this group are Lega, led by Italy’s former deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini; Rassemblement National, formerly Front National, led by Marine Le Pen, a leading contender for next year’s French presidential election; Germany’s anti-immigration party AfD; and Marine Le Pen’s original allies – the Austrian Freedom Party and the Flemish separatists Vlaams Belang.

Marine Le Pen with one of her original European allies Geert Wilders

Another group that was significantly more Eurosceptic than ECR but frightened of even mildly racial nationalist associations was Europe of Freedom & Direct Democracy, formed by UKIP / Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage and his allies. This dissolved after Brexit as it no longer had sufficient members.

And to the right of ID are an assortment of more hardline racial nationalists who are unacceptable to Mme Le Pen and Salvini because they are explicitly national socialist or otherwise deemed ‘extremist’. These have included Golden Dawn from Greece; the Slovak national socialist party led by Marian Kotleba – People’s Party Our Slovakia; and the Hungarian nationalist party Jobbik.

There have been several unexpected alignments, some the result of political calculation rather than ideological purity. Though a committed social liberal, UK Prime Minister David Cameron took his Conservative Party out of EPP and into alliance with far more right-wing parties in ECR. This was a cynical gesture designed both to secure Cameron’s election as party leader and to prevent voters (and even MPs) defecting to UKIP – it was part of Cameron’s political gamble that ended in his political ruin at the Brexit referendum in 2016.

Meanwhile Viktor Orbán (though far to the right of Cameron on all social issues) was in the more ‘moderate’ EPP. The surprise is that it has taken so long for this odd marriage to end in divorce. After liberal elements in the EPP forced through a rule change that would have allowed them to expel Fidesz, Orbán today chose to pull his party out of the group before he was pushed.

The big question now is whether he will bite the bullet and sign up with the Le Pen / Salvini group, or whether (like the Spanish ‘far right’ anti-immigration party Vox) he is too frightened of ‘fascist’ associations and opts instead for the ECR, which would then be dominated by a Polish-Hungarian axis, though curiously it also includes the ‘post-fascist’ Italian party Fratelli d’Italia.

Surge of support for Italian anti-immigration parties

The results of two regional elections in Italy show strong support for the parties of the populist and nationalist right, though the left clung on to power in Emilia Romagna, while losing calamitously badly in Calabria.

Lega strongman Matteo Salvini (affectionately known as “il Capitano”) had a mountain to climb in Emilia Romagna, which, despite being one of Italy’s wealthiest regions, has consistently returned left wing regional governments since 1945. Indeed, its principal city, “Red Bologna” (a pun on the famous red bricks of which it is built, combined with its preference for left wing parties) was notoriously anti-fascist even in the years of Mussolini’s rule, when opposing fascism took much more courage than it does to-day.

Il Capitano’s task was not made any easier by the choice of Signora Lucia Borgonzoni to lead the right-wing coalition. She is relatively unknown, whereas the centre-left’s candidate, Stefano Bonaccini, was the outgoing regional president who had, by common consent even of his political opponents, led a highly competent administration for many years.

Italy’s complicated version of proportional representation means that different parties find it helpful to group together in combined lists, while maintaining their separate identities by a process of allocation of seats within the list according to the percentage taken by each constituent party.

For each region there are moreover (confusingly) two sets of statistics, one for the election of the regional president, another for the elections to the regional parliament.

While Signor Bonaccini won the regional presidency by a convincing margin (51.4% of the vote to Signora Borgonzoni’s 43.6% and a paltry 3.47% for the Five Star (left populist) Simone Benini), voting for the regional parliament was much closer than predicted by the opinion polls.

In the event, the centre left list took 48.7% to the right’s 45.5%, Five Star’s list polling only 3.4%.

The votes cast for the left were apportioned between the Democratic Party (liberal-left) on 34.59%, a Bonaccini support group (left) taking 5.8%, and several smaller green or leftist parties making up the balance of the left’s vote (excluding the Five Star movement, which, as we have seen, presented its own remarkably unsuccessful list).

The lion’s share of the vote on the right went to the Lega on 31.9%, with fourteen seats in the 48 member regional parliament, while the Fratelli d’Italia (who do not disguise or apologise for their fascist heritage) polled a satisfactory 8.6%, so taking three seats in the regional parliament. The rump of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia took the one remaining seat allocated to the right-wing parties.

Lega leader Matteo Salvini (above right) with his party’s regional candidate in Emilia-Romagna, Lucia Borgonzoni.

While some on the left have sought to portray the results in Emilia Romagna as a major blow to Matteo Salvini’s hopes of returning to power, in truth his list ran the left to within less than 4% of the vote in the left’s strongest region in the face of a national mobilisation of leftist activists.

The big winner in Emilia Romagna was turnout at 67.67%, up from a very low 38% at the previous regional elections. The big loser was the Five Star Movement. It presented a joint list with the Communists (once a major political party in Italy) but polled only 3.4%, below the threshold for representation in the regional parliament.

Meanwhile in the poor southern region of Calabria, the left was routed. Here the centre left vote was very fragmented across multiple lists, so that Forza Italia’s candidate took the regional presidency with an impressive 55.3% of the total vote, while the second placed candidate took only 30%, and multiple other lists share the remaining 14.7% of the vote.

Forza Italia took 12.58% of the vote on the party list system, the Lega 12.21% and the Fratelli a pleasing 11.14%. The vote on the left was ever more fragmented over multiple parties.

Jole Santelli (above left), winner of the Calabrian regional election, with her Forza Italia party leader, Silvio Berlusconi. While Forza Italia is now very much the smallest and declining partner in the populist right coalition nationwide, it is the largest coalition partner in Calabria.

While il Capitano was denied the victory in Emilia Romagna that would probably have led to the collapse of the present Five Star/Democratic Party coalition that clings tenuously to power in Rome, both the Lega and the Fratelli continue to make encouraging progress, while Five Star is on the verge of collapse.

To put Five Star’s performance in context, it is still the largest party in the Italian parliament, but now faces annihilation whenever and wherever new elections are held. It was the future once, but is now given over to internecine strife so bitter that its former leader, Luigi di Maio, resigned a few days ago, saying that his real enemies were all elected representatives of his own party, which sounds even worse than our own, dear Labour party.

While nothing is certain in an uncertain world, it does seem likely that a Lega/Fratelli/Forza Italia coalition will at some point take power in Rome, but this time, unlike in 1922, by completely lawful and democratic means.

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