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European Politics Moves to the Right - 2002-04-24


The political shock from the first round of results of France's presidential election Sunday has brought attention to a broader swing to the right in parts of Western Europe. The strong showing of extreme-rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen in France was credited to a number of factors including fears about crime, a poor economy, immigration and voter apathy as well. From Spain to as far as Denmark there have been shifts to the right in varying degrees in recent years.

Rightist governments have come to power in at least five Western European countries in the past couple of years. It began in Spain in 2000 when the center-right Peoples Party won an outright majority after a long period of socialist rule.

This was followed the same year by Austria, where Joerg Haiders hard-right Freedom Party joined a government coalition with the conservative Peoples Party. Then Italy joined the rightward swing in 2001 with the rise of Silvio Berlusconi's coalition.

In Denmark in 2001 gains by an anti-immigration party helped push the Social Democrats out of power for the first time since the 1920s. This year it was Portugal's turn, when in March, the center right emerged victorious.

Analysts credit voter fears over issues including immigration, unemployment, crime and security. Political science Professor Pascal Delwit, at Brussels Free University, says Europe has changed and its political structure is under heavy pressure. "For [the last] 20 years," he said, "there have been a lot of changes - a lot of changes in the economical point of view, social life, the question of territory, the question of security, the question of education. And for some parts of the citizens, there are a lot of fears toward the future."

Some analysts say it is not so much the strength of the right, but the weakness or inability of the left to deal with people's changing needs. Europe's social welfare states have long promised substantial benefits to people. But a lagging economy has meant a lack of jobs, a lower standard of living, and a lack of opportunity for many.

Daniel Gros, director of the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels, says the left is on the retreat, but this may only be a cycle. He said, "The main problems of European citizens right now are the ones in which the left does not have a very convincing recipe for solving them which is crime [and] lots of unemployment - because people are waiting for left policies to deliver lower unemployment, which has not happened. And since the left starts to look bad on both of these issues, it is natural that the population moves a bit to the right."

Meanwhile, the trend appears to be continuing. In the Netherlands a liberal government resigned this month over a 1995 massacre in Bosnia, and opinion polls show a rightist anti-immigration leader Pim Fortuyn is making a strong showing ahead of the May general election.

Political observers also have their eye on Germany. In April, an election in the state of Saxony-Anhalt, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats lost 16 percentage points while the opposition center-right Christian Democrats gained almost as much. General elections in Germany are set for September.

Whether this is temporary voter dissatisfaction or the foundation of a deeper rightward swing remains to be seen.

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