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Engaging with right-wing populist parties

Letter to the Editor of the Irish Times printed on 18th December 2013

Sir, – Paul Gillespie’s article (“Much regional variation in performance of European populist right parties”, World View, December 15th) undermines certain received truths surrounding the populist right and the present crisis. He cites the EU Democracy Observatory conference, which “heard how economic voting has punished incumbent governments held responsible for the crisis and rewarded opposition parties”, but uses the examples of Finland and the Netherlands to show how voters of the populist right are motivated by fear of potential economic decline rather than the actual effects of the existing crisis. This is an evidence-based nuance often overlooked in media commentary.

However, research by the Brussels-based Foundation for European Progressive Studies, the Italian Centro per la Riforma dello Stato and Italianieuropei runs contrary to Mr Gillespie’s contention that right-wing populists “need to be engaged by established parties, stimulating greater debate and voter choice”.

The historical experience has been that right-wing populists, in fact, undermine public debate and weaken liberal democratic practice. He describes the French Front National as exceptional but its rise can be traced to mainstream engagement since the 1980s. This has simultaneously increased the salience of Eurosceptic and xenophobic issues in the French public sphere in a trend also evident in Austria, the Netherlands and elsewhere.

Flames of hatred in Athens rise from “opportunity structures” allowed to smoulder by the mainstream parties since the Junta. In the UK, Conservative Party attempts to “engage” with the UKIP narrative on immigration are dragging the whole political system through the gutter. The wiser approach would be for mainstream parties to engage honestly with their citizens, and the fears they hold, rather than with the harbingers of undemocratic chaos who would play on such fears. – Yours, etc,

DAVID KITCHING,

Policy Adviser,

Foundation for European

Progressive Studies,

Rue Montoyer,

Brussels, Belgium.

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