The Korea Herald


[Pankaj Mishra] Europe's far right in the ascendant

By Korea Herald

Published : July 25, 2023 - 05:30

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A global upheaval looms as Donald Trump strengthens his candidacy for the next US presidential elections. Ukraine and its European allies need to start considering the prospect that by the end of next year, they could face a US no longer invested in resisting Russia’s aggression.

We should also start bracing ourselves for a geopolitical earthquake in Europe itself. In Spain, which holds national elections on July 23, and across the continent, far-right demagogues are in the ascendant.

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s first postwar leader with fascist roots, was not exaggerating when she told a far-right rally in Spain last week, “The hour of patriots has arrived.”

Meloni’s ideological ally, Vox, is already the third-largest party in Spain’s national assembly and rules, together with the center-right People’s Party, several big Spanish cities. It could gain power in a coalition government next week despite, or perhaps because of, an election manifesto that calls for the repeal of laws on violence against women, as well as the party’s vigorous denial of climate change in a country struggling against a historic drought and extreme heat.

The European far right has long prospered by stoking hatred of immigration and Islam. It now also feeds on the anger and resentment of voters who think governments are asking them to sacrifice too much in the battle against climate change.

The siren song of demagoguery has become more alluring during a cost-of-living crisis resulting from an uneven recovery from the pandemic and Russia’s war on Ukraine. Far-rightists also benefit from the general disorientation caused by swift social transformation.

Consequently, unthinkable things have started to happen: In polls, the Alternative for Germany party has overtaken the governing Social Democratic Party to become the second-most popular party in Germany. In Austria, the pro-Vladimir Putin Freedom Party, which was once led by a former Nazi, is polling at 28 percent a year ahead of elections, higher than its center-right and center-left rivals.

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his party Fidesz seem well-ensconced after a landslide victory last year. In Poland, the other long-delinquent right-wing member of the European Union, the ruling Law and Justice Party continues to stoke the antisemitic embers of Polish chauvinism in its bid to win elections due this fall.

In Greece, Spartans, a party established weeks before recent elections and supported by luminaries of the now-defunct neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, unexpectedly won 4.7 percent of the vote. The pro-Russian Greek Solution party won 4.5 percent -- enough to make it into the national parliament. Come September, Slovakia might be led by Robert Fico, a pro-Russian demagogue with a record of floating conspiracy theories about George Soros.

The normalization of vicious prejudice is the most immediate consequence of Europe’s far-right upsurge. Last month, Finnish Economy Minister Vilhelm Junnila had to resign after revelations that he had joked about Hitler at a neo-Nazi event and called for mass abortions in Africa to combat climate change.

Meanwhile, Riikka Purra, the leader of Finland's far-right party and the country’s finance minister, remains in office even after being revealed as the apparent author of such online comments as, “Anyone feel like spitting on beggars and beating n----- children today in Helsinki?”

One can keep hoping that the political responsibility that comes with high office would diminish some of the far right’s venom. But history tells us that political pragmatism or ethical principle stand little chance against extensive radicalization of the kind we are witnessing today. The last time so much of Europe lurched to the far right -- in the 1930s -- the most extreme racists benefited the most.

The Nazis flourished partly because they had sympathetic or collaborating parties and regimes in almost every country across the continent. A figure such as Putin can only feel more secure as his active and potential allies in Europe gain strength.

Against this bleak backdrop, the Spanish elections offer a test case for the health of democracy, not to mention the good sense of voters.

Inflation has come down faster in Spain than in any eurozone country. Gross domestic product is growing at a higher rate than in the US, Germany and France. Employment is at its highest level since 2007. And Spain will soon become the first major European country to generate more than 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources.

An election that nevertheless elevates Vox to power not only threatens each one of these gains. It would also endanger, among other projects, the EU’s ambitious green new deal; Spain heads the rotational EU presidency this year.

Greater disasters would await in the longer term. It may seem a cliche to invoke, as during its civil war in the 1930s, Spain as the crucial battlefield for the struggle for democracy. But that’s what it looks like -- at least for now, before Trump’s reelection campaign really gets going.

Pankaj Mishra

Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. -- Ed.

(Tribune Content Agency)