Fringe parties tilting Europe left and right

Extremists exploit economic turmoil, affect mainstream politics

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BERLIN — Elections across Europe this spring are giving former fringe political parties a boost, as voter anger in Greece, Germany and France translates into bigger gains for the far left and far right.

“What these populist extremists in the left and the right try to exploit is a lack of community, cohesion and [sense of] belonging in people,” said Henning Meyer, a political scientist at the London School of Economics.

Economic turmoil in Europe is bringing political upheaval in its wake, analysts say.

The significant turnout for Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front in the first round of the French presidential election April 22 has been read as a protest against French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s complicity in the ongoing eurozone sovereign debt crisis. Ms. Le Pen won about 18 percent on a platform of scrapping the euro currency and quashing “Islamization” in France.

Meanwhile, the anti-European Union far left won about 11 percent of the French vote.

In Greece, three extreme right-wing parties are predicted to win as much as 15 percent of the national vote Sunday as reaction to growing poverty and unemployment blamed on severe austerity measures imposed by the EU, analysts say.

The Golden Dawn Party, with a distinct neo-Nazi agenda, has become synonymous with anti-immigration extremism in Greece.

The strident anti-austerity policies of the nationalist Independent Greeks party - formed barely two months ago but already attracting 10 percent of the vote in public opinion polls - illustrates the key source of voters’ disillusion with the major parties.

Analysts say it is not clear whether the rise of these minor parties amounts to a long-term challenge to the political mainstream.

“[It’s] globalization, and the fact that people feel detached from what’s happening [politically and economically],” said Roman Gerodimos, a senior lecturer in international current affairs at Bournemouth University in Britain.

“They feel powerless, and when they feel powerless they tend to rally for the extremist parties.”

The far right has made tremendous political gains in Switzerland and Austria in the past decade.

In Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse, fringe parties are starting to attract long-disillusioned and politically disengaged citizens, Mr. Gerodimos said.

Support for the single-issue Pirate Party in Germany, which opposes government regulation of the Internet, has jumped in the past year after attracting voters through simple political slogans promoting Internet freedom and political transparency.

The Pirate Party won provincial parliamentary seats for the first time in two German states in the past six months. It is now polling at 14 percent of the national vote.

Hans-Peter Bartels - a member of parliament from the center-left Social Democratic Party that will challenge Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union in 2013 federal elections - expressed dismay at the rise of the Pirates, whom he calls “laptop-Marxists.”

“They are a reaction to what the mainstream parties are offering,” Mr. Meyer said.

The far left and right also are affecting the campaigns of mainstream candidates.

Since the first round in the French presidential election, Mr. Sarkozy has tilted even more to the right to try to win over Ms. Le Pen’s voters. Socialist presidential candidate Francois Hollande said last week that he would not revoke France’s law banning full-face veils worn by some Muslim women, long an issue for the right.

In Greece, the far-right Independent Greeks, the anti-bailout and anti-immigration party, have made massive gains in a short time. This may serve to shift the center further to the right.

This could be bad news for the EU, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank. Those institutions want to be sure that any ruling coalition in Greece has the political support to comply with stringent loan requirements.

“The question is not whether the two main parties are going to form a government or not. It’s whether they are going to have the political legitimacy to actually implement these things on a day-to-day basis,” Mr. Gerodimos said.

Meanwhile, the EU is worried that the success of minor parties is linked to rising anti-EU sentiment, according to European Commission spokesman Olivier Bailly.

Pro-EU forces are alarmed that this trend means more nationalism and protectionism, not a united Europe.

“Politically speaking,” Mr. Meyer said, “this is the fallout from the economic crisis that haunted us now in different guises for the last five years.”

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