VISEGRAD BLOG: Rise of far right in CEE's European elections is a worrying sign for the future

VISEGRAD BLOG: Rise of far right in CEE's European elections is a worrying sign for the future
Krzysztof Bosiak of Poland's far-right Konfederacja. / bne IntelliNews
By Robert Anderson in Prague June 10, 2024

At first sight, last weekend’s European Parliament (EP) results confirmed the predicted populist authoritarian surge in Western Europe but disproved it in Central Europe.

A closer look, however, shows that the voting shift only appears less marked in the east because radical right-wing parties or their fellow travellers are already in charge or sharing power in four of the 11 member states (Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia and Bulgaria) and hence cannot benefit from being insurgents. EP elections have typically provided an opportunity for voicing discontent with incumbents.

Moreover, many of the traditional centre-right parties that are currently in power have moved to the right themselves, becoming more populist and eurosceptic, and sometimes combining with far-right parties that are now an established part of the political spectrum (for example in Bulgaria and Croatia).

Across the region the far right did worrying well but at least they are not yet topping the polls, as in the eye-catching results in France, Belgium and Austria in Western Europe.

Another reason to count one's blessings is that after regularly registering the worst voter turnouts in Europe, there were big surges in voting this time around, even if they reflected  feverish domestic politics rather than a sudden enthusiasm for Brussels. Hungarian turnout rose from 43% to 59%, while Slovakia’s soared from 23% to a still unimpressive though record 34%. There were also big increases in turnout in Czechia and Slovenia.

The Polish election grabbed all the attention in the east, with Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s centre-right Civic Coalition (KO) – part of the European People’s Party (EPP) in the European Parliament – defeating the radical right-wing Law and Justice party  – part of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) grouping – by 37% to 36%. KO now hopes to repeat the feat at the key presidential election next year.

But as our Warsaw correspondent Wojciech Kosc points out, the margin of KO’s success was tiny – less than one percentage point in current estimates – and there was also a very strong showing by the far-right anti-EU Konfederacja with 12%, while Tusk’s coalition partners, the conservative Third Way and the Left, fared badly.

Hungary also offered room for optimism, as Peter Magyars’ new Respect and Freedom party (Tisza) came from nowhere to win 30%, within “shooting distance” – writes our Budapest correspondent Tamas Csonka – of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s long-ruling Fidesz party on 45%, the radical right-wing party's worst ever EP election result. If Tisza continues to build momentum, Magyar could mount the first real challenge to Orban at the next general election in 2026.

Magyar, a Fidesz turncoat, has expressed vague Eurosceptic views but his Tisza party looks like it will join the EPP. Meanwhile Fidesz is trying to join the ECR, though the Sweden Democrats – a party with neo-Nazi roots – is among several members who think Fidesz is too extreme to join (!) and is threatening to block it.

There was also good news from Slovakia, writes our reporter Albin Sybera, where Progressive Slovakia (part of the liberal Renew Europe group) came first again with 28%, beating Prime Minister Robert Fico’s Smer party on 25%. Smer has been suspended from the Socialists and Democrats grouping for forming a government including the far-right Slovak Nationalist Party after last September’s general election. However, in a worrying sign for the future, another far-right party, Republika, ran in third at this election with 12.5%.

In Czechia there were also some crumbs for comfort as billionaire Andrej Babis’s “technocratic populist” ANO party (part of Renew Europe, but possibly not for much longer) beat the ruling SPOLU coalition (which includes EPP and ECR members) by a less than expected 26% to 23%.

However, that was where the good news ended. In a shock result, the other parties elected to the European Parliament included a ragbag of different far-right parties in two coalitions (3 seats), and a far left/nationalist coalition (2 seats). Even SPOLU’s six MEPs includes three Eurosceptic rightwing deputies from the ruling ODS party (part of the ECR grouping).  In short, only five Czech MEPs out of 21 are fans of the EU. That is not a good sign ahead of the general elections next year.

In the Baltic states the ruling centrist parties were able to beat back the right-wing challenge by focussing on the security threat from Russia. However, the elections failed to demonstrate any great enthusiasm for the European Union, with turnouts all below 40% of eligible voters.

In South-eastern Europe, ruling centrist parties did well in Romania and Croatia, but populist right-wing parties triumphed in Bulgaria and Slovenia. In Bulgaria, the Gerb party (EPP) came first with around 25%. In Slovenia, former premier Janez Jansa’s  Slovenian Democratic Party (EPP) finished well ahead of the government parties with 31%.

In another worrying sign for the future, far-right parties did well in Romania, where the Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR) came second after the grand coalition list with 15%, and in Bulgaria, where Vazrazhdane came third with 14%. AUR is expected to join the ECR grouping, while Vazrazhdane is expected to go for the far-right Identity and Democracy grouping.

All in all, then, a mixed bag, with some reasons for optimism and some causes of worry, particularly  the rise of the far right, who could provide at the very least a prop to keep future radical right-wing governments in power and push them further to the extreme.