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


In the European elections yesterday, 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, from Euractiv) 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’s excellent 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.

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

  1. ying

    Reblogged this on 落書き帳 and commented:
    But 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.
    ーーhow about income gap?
    Immigration and law and order.
    “They appeal to people who have something that they donnot want to lose, rather than to to people who have lost everyting”

  2. TomTom

    This is an interesting remark. Switzerland with 27% for SVP (far right) and 4% unemployment would fit nicely there.

    Your last note on insider vs outsider is particularly interesting. People who have voted overwhelmingly for the far right ,low-skilled and low-intermediate workers, are often seen as outsider but are actually insiders on the verge of become outsiders. Even unemployed (also overrepresented in FN voters in France for instance) are often “just quite outsiders”,and were insiders not so long ago. A more detailed study’d be interesting…

    All of this makes me think that a sense of risk of “social declassification” (not sure about the english here) is a bigger marker than actually being an outsider.

  3. dartthrowingchimp

    I think the data in this plot are too coarse to tell us much about the relationship you’re interested in for two reasons.
    First is the ecological fallacy. If we want to look at the effects of unemployment on voter behavior, we really need to look at data on individual voters. Absent that, though, a local-level analysis would be much better than a national one. Neither unemployment nor votes for the far right are evenly distributed across countries, so this analysis is ripe for Simpson’s paradox.
    Second is the static vs. dynamic issue. The theories I know that relate economic crisis to ethno-nationalist mobilization focus on change over time within cases, not cross-sectional comparisons. We can also imagine that there would be other path-dependent features of a country’s national politics that would shape this result. To deal with those concerns, I think we’d really want to use measures of change in both of the key variables (vote for far right and unemployment), ideally in a hierarchical model that would account for some of the other underlying sources of cross-sectional variation.

    1. Dr. Theory and Numbers

      You’ve said it all, parsimoniously and cogently! I am surprised you are not in Academia. You should be. Afonso’s erroneous arguments have been reproduced widely in Greece by right-wing commentators, given the rise of the far (fascist) right there, in order to disassociate its success from the effects of the deteriorating Greek economy and society.
      I have directed many nuanced Greek readers to your comments here. I’d wish some of the Greek commentators/journalists had taken an intro course in methods/statistics.
      As an analyst are you aware of any post-world war II relation between economic growth and the rise of the far (fascist) right? Either individual, national or international comparable data? Where? I have been busting my head and I have not found a single historical example or any evidence. If you do find any, would you please post it on your page?

      1. alexandreafonso Post author

        I am afraid I cannot be held accountable for the way people use these arguments, and I have been made aware of how this has been cited to argue that fiscal retrenchment has no role in the the rise of the far-right. Now saying that it doesn’t have an *automatic* and positive relationship doesn’t mean that it plays no role at all in conjunction with something else. In Greece, the collapse of the mainstream parties and a general feeling of betrayal towards the political class certainly played a role in conjunction with the economic situation. The question is to know why it happens in Greece but not in Spain or Portugal. If there was an automatic relationship, we should observe strong far right parties in these countries as well.

    2. Nikolaos Zisimos

      Interesting critique. My objection: I don’t see how the author asserts that the correlation on the country level applies on the level of the individuals, and consequently, it is not very clear to me how the ecological fallacy applies here.

    3. alexandreafonso Post author

      Thanks for the comment. I agree that there might be an ecological fallacy here because we don’t know how the interaction of unemployment and far right power works within countries, or whether people who are unemployed are more likely to vote for far-right parties. I am not sure if I expressed it clearly enough, but what I wanted to point out, considering countries as the unit of analysis, is the lack of automatic and monocausal positive relationship between economic crisis and the success of far-right parties that one sometimes hears in the media. Research that I have seen tends to point out to the interaction between a number of factors, for instance the economic context and political opportunity structures:

      The graph is of course simplistic (which I said in the piece), but it pointed out something that I thought was worth noting.

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    For France, remember that the 25% are over 46% of people who voted. In the end, they do not represent more than at the last elections and even less. What is noticeable is that the left wing voters presumably supporting the government did not vote, and the right wing voters voted less than usual.

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  8. DM

    In France, the National Front has had successes for the past 30 years; it’s not like it is a recent phenomenon.
    Yet, one feels compelled to explain the particularly high score of the last election.
    Several elements:
    1) Many people don’t see the point of European elections, which do not seem to have any influence on their lives. Even educated people say they are pointless, “because all power belongs to the Commission”.
    2) The main political parties ran lists headlined by political have-beens (e.g. former ministers who had been moved out of office due to lackluster performance).
    3) While the ruling Socialist party is blamed for disappointing governance, the Right is embroiled in a political funding scandal (involving one of headliners for the European elections).
    In a nutshell, you have all the ingredients so that the traditional far-right vote (against foreigners, Roma, people living off the dole, etc.) gets amplified.

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  10. Phill

    An excellent read thank you, with some interesting discussion in the comments too. Whilst there is no direct relationship as you’ve described above there are issues of migration in individual countries combined with unemployment which comes into play here. The UK is seen as a rich nation to much of Europe (I’ve heard the term ‘promised land’ more than a few times) so come to work and prosper which leads to the ‘stealing our jobs’ view which leans toward the right in voting patterns. Other parts of Europe (such as Spain and Portugal) receive a fair amount of immigration that brings retirement cash but doesn’t consume jobs, whether these are statistically supportable isn’t as important as how they feel to an average voter. I’m tempted to go and do the stats now, what have you done to me?


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