Rise of the ultra-right: Elections survey 2023

Jan 14, 2024
Liberal or conservative, concept of choice Image: iStock

2023 saw a disturbing rise in support for extreme right-wing parties across several European countries. With a series of major elections in large and significant countries due in 2024, including the USA and Russia, it will be interesting to see whether parties in the established democracies respond effectively to the rise of the ultra-right, and whether more countries rise to the challenge of a peaceful transfer of power.

It is always difficult to predict future election results.

It is sometimes equally difficult to properly analyse past election results.

2023 was a case in point. There were some obvious and dramatic successes for the right. The success of Geert Wilders party in the Netherlands sent shock waves through the mainstream European political parties. The success of the ultra-populist Milei in the Argentinian presidential election was certainly startling.

There are explanations for at least some of these. In Argentina, the excesses of the previous regime in allowing huge inflation to run unchecked while evidence of official corruption grew. An alternative offering “more of the same” was easy for even Milei to defeat.

The explanation for Wilders’ victory clearly lies in dissatisfaction with the status quo, including issues around immigration. I don’t expect Wilders to be able to form a sufficient coalition to be able to govern, but the surprising strength of his support should be a lesson to the other parties. In 2023 Wilders’ party increased their vote from 10% to more than 23% and increased their representation from 17 seats to 37. Whether the other parties are capable of responding to this challenge to the status quo will determine whether the Wilders surge is a one-off or a lasting trend.

There were other less controversial victories for parties of the right around the world. In New Zealand the Labour government was defeated by a right-wing coalition, in Greece the right-wing government was re-elected with an increased majority. The right or centre-right also did well in Paraguay, Bulgaria, Cyprus and Finland.

However, there were some major electoral setbacks for the right as well. Notably in Poland where Donald Tusk’s coalition ousted the ultra right-wing PiS government despite the influence of the stacked right-wing government media. The left or centre-left also prevailed in Slovakia, Spain, Ecuador and Guatemala. In Thailand, the election saw the biggest vote go to a progressive party but they were prevented from forming a government by the military dominated senate. An alternative opposition party formed government and it will take time to see its true character. However, it is noteworthy that the right-wing governing party lost 76 seats. In Timor L’Este Xanana Gusmao was returned as Prime Minster replacing the Fretilin led government and in French Polynesia the pro-Independence party led by Oscar Temaru ousted the more conservative government. In Guatemala the Centre-Left presidential candidate defeated the right-wing candidate in an election which could be significant if the new President can really crack down on corruption.

There were some other notable elections which are difficult to assess in left/right terms.

In the Americas, Ecuador featured a contest between the Centre-Left and the Left which was won by the Centre-Left candidate In the small Caribbean state of Antigua and Barbuda the ruling Labour Party was returned with a reduced majority.

In Europe, the Spanish election produced a curious result. The right-wing party PP won the most seats but was unable to win a majority to form the government. The Centre-Left PSOE then did an unexpected deal with the Catalan secessionists which won their support for a minority government for another term. It was notable that the ultra right-wing party, Vox went backwards at the election.

This cut across what was otherwise a disturbing trend of extreme right-wing parties making gains. Not only did Wenders’ party do well in the Netherlands but the extreme right entered the Greek parliament and the right-wing Finns party managed to do well enough to form part of the government in Finland.

Although there were many other elections held in 2023 there were many which were compromised or distinctly unfair. However, there were some noteworthy improvements in electoral management and responses.

In Liberia, for many decades a basket-case democratically, the incumbent was narrowly defeated and subsequently enabled a peaceful transfer of power.

In the Maldives, for the fourth consecutive election the incumbent president failed to be re-elected. There was a history of serious democratic deficit in the Maldives prior to this series of what have been assessed as free and fair elections.

Overall, there was no sweeping global narrative. Nor would I expect there to be.

The most significant trends were:

1)A disturbing rise in support for extreme right-wing parties across several European countries

2)Some improvements in democratic performance in countries where it has been desperately needed and

3)Some lessons in the peaceful transfer of power which should be an embarrassment to the USA and Brazil where previous serious attempts to thwart the peaceful transfer of power have been evident

2024 is being seen as a major election year with elections due in many very large and significant countries.

It will be interesting to see whether the parties in the established democracies respond effectively to the rise of the ultra-right and whether more countries can rise to the challenge of a peaceful transfer of power.

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