The juxtaposition of stories one day last week on the BBC was irresistible. In one, Marine Le Pen, leader of the French far-right National Front, has moved to prevent her father and party founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, from representing the party at regional elections, due to his increasingly embarrassing extremism. (He has now withdrawn from the attempt.)
In the other, observers of Ukraine are concerned at the appointment of Dmytro Yarosh, leader of the far-right nationalist party Right Sector, as an adviser to the Ukrainian army chief-of-staff, acting as liaison with volunteer forces that the Ukrainian government is trying to bring under official control.
The ironic link, of course, between the stories is that the Russian government uses Yarosh as evidence for its claim that Ukraine is run by a gang of fascists rather than a normal democratic government. Yet at the same time the Le Pens’ National Front is treated by Russia as a valued ally, immune from criticism.
But then the question of who counts as a “fascist” was raised with greater urgency on Sunday in Hungary, when its far-right opposition party, Jobbik, narrowly won a key by-election in the seat of Veszprém 3 (based on the town of Tapolca). It already has a substantial parliamentary contingent, but this is the first time it has won in an individual first-past-the-post constituency.
It’s the second by-election defeat in two months for Hungary’s right-wing government. In February it lost the neighboring seat of Veszprém 1 to the centre-left opposition, who ran a prominent free-marketeer as their candidate. This time it was Jobbik’s turn.
In last year’s general election, Veszprém 3 gave the ruling Fidesz party 43.1% of the vote, almost 7,000 votes clear of the centre-left on 27.3% and Jobbik on 23.5%. But following the death of sitting MP Jeno Lasztovicza, Fidesz’s new candidate could manage only 34.4%, 261 votes behind Jobbik’s Lajos Rig with 35.3%. The centre-left vote barely moved, down slightly to 26.3%, although as one expects at by-elections, the overall turnout was well down.
Jobbik, which could be translated “right choice”, rings alarm bells in a way that the National Front does not. As I remarked last year, it is “probably the most successful European party located quite so far down the fascist road.” But like Marine Le Pen, Jobbik leader Gábor Vona is a moderniser, trying to present a mainstream image for his party and disowning some of the more extreme attitudes for which it had become notorious. The BBC quotes him saying “I will not accept any crude or extreme views in the future. I want this to be party which everyone can calmly and honourably vote for.”
Reacting to Sunday’s result, a Hungarian think-tank, Political Capital, said that “The taboos associated with the party that had kept previously undecided voters away from Jobbik have been broken.”
But odd things happen in by-elections. It’s one thing for Jobbik to take advantage of the government’s unpopularity at a time when nothing in particular is at stake; it would be quite another for it to mount a serious challenge for office at the next general election, due in three years time.
And there is always some danger of cultural stereotyping. There’s a tendency for the eastern half of Europe to throw up parties that look more “fascist” or “neo-Nazi” than their counterparts in the west: Jobbik, Attack in Bulgaria, Golden Dawn in Greece, Svoboda in Ukraine. Certainly Golden Dawn justifies the appellation, but in the other cases perhaps they look more threatening only because they are less familiar and their countries less stable.
The likes of the National Front and the Sweden Democrats, by contrast, have a more respectable air, but it’s not clear that there’s much of substantive difference in ideology or intentions. “Neo-fascist” serves quite well as an umbrella term. Different again are the right-wing anti-immigrant parties of north-western Europe, which can also be located on the far right but lack many features associated with the fascist heritage.
Right Sector is a prime bogeyman for the Kremlin’s propaganda machine, but the evidence for putting it at the extreme end of the spectrum seems pretty thin. It is a coalition of far-right and nationalist groups, but most of them look as if they would be more comfortable in a party with the style of Marine Le Pen rather than the more overt racism of her father. (It should also be pointed out, contrary to the propaganda view, how low its actual support is: Yarosh got only 0.7% of the vote in last year’s presidential election.)
As with pretty much any sort of extremism, the danger that fascism or quasi-fascism poses is inversely related to the stability of the regime that it’s challenging. In western Europe, there’s a high degree of confidence in the robustness of democratic institutions: French democracy, for example, would probably survive a National Front government. That’s not to suggest that the experiment should be tried, but it would almost certainly be less dangerous than an attempt to use undemocratic means to prevent it.
In Hungary, one would be less confident. In Ukraine, much less. But in due course, as democracy becomes more secure and the trauma of the mid-twentieth-century recedes further into the background, it seems likely that far-right parties will take their place as minor but semi-legitimate political actors in the same way that far-left parties by and large already have.