Austria’s upcoming elections on October 15 will serve as another litmus test of far-right sympathies in Europe with the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) set to secure more than a quarter of the vote.
Opinion polls place the party in second place with as much as 27 percent of the vote, just six points behind the conservative frontrunners, the Austrian People’s Party.
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The vote comes just weeks after the far-right Alternative for Germany party made record gains in the German parliamentary election last month.
Its anti-immigrant, anti-Islam platform won it 94 seats in the Bundestag, making it the third-largest party in the country.
Al Jazeera spoke to political scientist Cas Mudde about policy, populism, and far-right parties in Austria, and more broadly in Europe.
Al Jazeera: Is far-right populism surging in popularity in Europe?
Cas Mudde: The far right isn’t really surging, at least not compared to 2016. Whenever we talk about a comeback, or rise, it depends on the timeframe.
Every single populist radical right party peaked in the polls in the latter half of 2016, and scored lower after.
If you compare the situation now to three months ago, yes – the Alternative for Germany (AfD) went up in the polls and the FPO are going back up. But, that has a very simple explanation. When elections are about the radical right, or issues they are broadly associated with, such as immigration, or terrorism, they generally tend to do better.
Al Jazeera: What is fuelling the far-right parties?
Mudde: The core of almost all of these parties is nativism, authoritarianism, and populism. The political breeding grounds for all three of these are abundant at the moment given the widespread discussion about the role of Islam (in society) and the refugee crisis in Europe.
Populism feeds off discomfort with the establishment, which has been very high for a while now, following the economic crisis. It’s also to do with political parties having less and less space to make decisions, particularly in the EU, because of a strict international framework and globalisation limiting the range of options available to them.
It was largely similar factors which drove many of these parties in the 1990s and they are not going to go away. The debate about immigration and Islam in Western societies is going to be with us for decades to come. Terrorism and populism have become structural within our societies.
Al Jazeera: What is the difference between populism and nativism?
Mudde: The difference between populism and nativism is that populism is all about the concept of pure people set against a corrupt elite.
Nativism, on the other hand, is about the ethnic ‘us’ and ‘them’, about wanting a [monocultural] state and seeing alien things and people as threatening.
The populist radical right tends to combine those two approaches, but technically nativism isn’t part of populism per se. We’ve seen examples in Europe of populist parties that are not nativist, such as Podemos in Spain.
We shouldn't just describe parties as 'populist' when actually we're predominantly focusing on their nativist elements. It's simply incorrect to argue all populist parties are anti-immigration.
I personally use the term “populist radical right” [when talking about parties such as the AfD and FPO] as it combines their elements of nativist populism and authoritarianism.
We shouldn’t just describe parties as “populist” when actually we’re predominantly focusing on their nativist elements. It’s simply incorrect to argue all populist parties are anti-immigration.
But almost all of the successes have been from a very specific part of populism, the populist radical right.
Al Jazeera: What effect do these parties tend to have in Europe?
Mudde: The effect of these parties is very indirect because they are rarely actually in government. As a result, in Europe, they rarely have a seat at the table at the council, they aren’t represented in the European Commission, and therefore, are relatively powerless in the EU.
Populist radical right parties are more successful now than ever, but on average, don’t get more than 12-15 percent of the vote throughout the EU. Very few of these populist radical right parties have created stable electoral support bases.
But the discourse around them influences other parties. That has been particularly evident since 2015 and, as a result, there’s been a debate about whether populist parties represent the spirit of the time and the voice of the people.
More mainstream parties have felt compelled not to push for more integration [because of the influence of the populist radical right] and have instead called for power to be brought back to the nation-state level.
But what is important is that mainstream parties decide the narrative, and if [after her victory in the recent German elections] Merkel can form a domestic coalition that wants to move forward with EU reform she can find a narrative to do that alongside French President Emmanuel Macron.
Al Jazeera: Are populist parties strengthening democracy by widening the political landscape?
Mudde: I think there are positive aspects to bringing non-voters back into the democratic system, as the AfD and some others have done, and there’s nothing particularly wrong with liberal democracy just because mainstream parties lose support.
But these parties don’t realign people, they have instead created a de-alignment. They’ve helped to loosen ties between the electorate and established political parties … these far-right parties fundamentally stand for a system that is not liberal democratic.
Assuming liberal democracy is the norm, this is problematic. Because these parties want to undermine minority rights and the rule of law, the FPO included.
Al Jazeera: How is the FPO different from the AfD?
Mudde: The FPO has been around for almost 60 years, it’s a well-established third party. So if people aren’t happy with Austria’s grand coalition the natural decision, assuming they’re on the right of the political spectrum, is to vote for the FPO party.
Austria has just had another grand coalition government [between the Social Democratic Party of Austria and the Austrian’s People Party], which is always good for protest parties. Two major parties of the centre left and centre right working together allows those on the outside of government to argue the main parties are the same as one another and that “left” and “right” are all the same.
They are well represented at the state level in various states, and to a certain extent, are a known quantity. They have a number of experienced politicians in their ranks who are pretty smooth operators, such as Norbert Hofer (who contested the Austrian presidential election in 2016).
The FPO is not just a protest party, it is an alternative party. Some voters clearly think “Let’s give them a try in government,” whereas most people who supported the AfD voted against the German government as a protest.
Very few voted for the AfD hoping they would be part of the next government coalition, but a sizeable portion voting for the FPO will be hoping and expecting the party will be the next partner in Austria’s coalition government.
The FPO are less openly anti-EU [compared with the AfD] because Austria has a very pro-European electorate. Being outspoken against the EU would be electoral suicide for the party.
Al Jazeera: What can we expect the FPO to achieve in the upcoming Austrian election?
Mudde: I don’t know if the FPO will come second or third, but it really doesn’t matter that much.
The most likely outcome is an FPO and Austrian People Party (OVP) coalition government. Whether they come in second or third during the elections, they will still be the junior partner in such a coalition.
Such a government would predominantly represent the OVP manifesto. However, that manifesto, under party leader Sebastian Kurz, has moved significantly towards the one put forward by the FPO.
The biggest effect has been over the last year or so, during which time both parties have moved strongly to the right on immigration, crime, and terrorism.
While Merkel made a few compromises on refugee policy [to counter the growing popularity of the AfD], this is nothing compared to Kurz. Some of his positions are almost identical to the FPO.
The FPO’s success in opinion polls has forced him to move right, and this is a very different threat to the one Merkel faced from the AfD. In part, that’s because he has always been more right-leaning than Merkel, but it’s also because Kurz chose this defence to a much stronger populist radical right challenger in Austria compared to Germany.
To a certain extent, Merkel is the outlier. In [the Netherlands], France and Britain, leaders have shifted more to the right as they seek to counter the political challenges posed by populist radical right parties.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.