Local and regional elections in France and Spain over the weekend showed radical parties on both the left and the right are now a major threat to mainstream political parties.
In France exit polls in local elections put Marine Le Pen’s Front National in third place with between 23-26% of the vote. Although it failed to hit its target of becoming the first party of French politics by overtaking the governing Parti Socialiste and the centre-right UMP, it was nevertheless its best performance in local elections in history and confirmed its place as the third party in what French newspaper Le Monde is now calling a political “triangle”.
Elsewhere, elections in the Spanish region of Andalusia elicited equally strong results for the erstwhile political outsiders in the form of anti-austerity party Podemos. A long-time Socialist party stronghold, Podemos had been downplaying its chances ahead of the vote. However, in the event it took 15 seats — some way short of the 47 seats taken by the Socialists but still a credible performance that will be a warning against complacency by its rivals.
Prime minister Mariano Rajoy’s People’s party came in second with 27% of the vote, winning 33 seats. That, however, marked a loss of 17 seats the party had previously held.
“The change has begun and will continue,” Podemos candidate Teresa Rodríguez said, according to the Guardian.
The similarities between the two polls should not be overplayed. After all, Podemos is a new player in Spanish politics having only been founded last year by Pablo Iglesias, a political science professor at the Complutense University of Madrid, coming out of protest movement against inequality and corruption in the country.
Support for the party surged soon after its foundation as frustrated Spanish voters finally found a political outlet to voice their opposition to policies that have left the unemployment rate over 23% more than six years since the financial crisis began. However, the party’s youth means that its support has yet to be properly tested against a traditionally strong two-party system in the country with a general election scheduled for December.
By contrast, support for the Front National in France has been building since the 1970s. Although it saw peaks and troughs of popularity over the decades under Jean-Marie Le Pen, since his daughter took charge of the party in 2011 it has attempted to shed its racist image and court disaffected voters who feel marginalised by mainstream politics.
Unlike Podemos, FN now has something of a track record of electoral success having taken its largest share of the vote ever in the 2012 presidential election and the 2014 European parliament elections.
While the two are therefore at quite different stages of development and political maturity, it is of interest that support for non-traditional parties has been increasing across Europe just as officials continue their attempts to get the engine of the region’s growth restarted. The particular complaints may differ from country to country, but one clear message is that there are increasing numbers of people who have become disillusioned with the way that traditional parties are representing them in negotiations with their European partners.
That said, third place for both FN and Podemos is not the earthquake that either would ideally have wanted. But it should be a warning against complacency that things will simply revert to form in Europe following the crisis.
After the victory of the radical left Syriza party in Greece, the rise of anti-austerity Podemos in Spain, Italy’s Five Star Movement and the resurgent Front National it seems that “triangular” politics is something that Europe is going to be seeing a lot more of. But they will need to turn their poll gains into electoral results if they are to shift the political discussion and force a change of tack among Europe’s elites.
The struggles of Syriza in negotiating a new deal for Greece with international partners does not offer much hope in this regard. At least not yet.
As the French journalist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr once wrote: “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (“the more it changes, the more it’s the same thing”). The survival of Europe’s anti-establishment parties relies on him being wrong.
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