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Voting Extremes – A New Form of Popular Protest in Europe360°CONTEXT

Over the past decade Europe has witnessed a rise in right-wing activism and sympathies. More recently, people have not only been going extreme concerning right-wing parties, they also seem to endorse extreme left or even small parties without a detailed program at all.

Background

Examples can be found in a number of European countries, the most prominent ones in France, Greece, Italy, Germany and Hungary. In the French presidential elections, right- and left-wing extremes found themselves in third and fourth place. In Greece, the radical left-wing coalition Syriza managed to become the third force in the country and the right-wing populist party Chrysi Avgi is not to be neglected either. In Italy, where people are tired of the years under Berlusconi, the latest communal elections gave rise to Beppe Grillo, a local activist more known as an actor and humorist. In Germany, the Pirate Party, whose only truly defined goal is internet liberty, is about to become a mainstream party. And in Hungary, Victor Orban's nationalist Jobbik party managed to make such disagreeable changes to the Hungarian Constitution that some stated that not the economic crisis is the European Union's most important menace, but the democratic one. 

Why are Protest Votes relevant?

Today, there is a crisis not of interest in politics, but of the established centre parties. The discourse which is common to all the more or less new political movements is characterized either by highly nationalist content, including closing of borders, farewell from liberalism or else free trade restrictions along with labor related issues. High profile politicians of the established parties are decried as corrupt and purely career oriented. The new interest in these rather small and unknown protest parties results from the people believing them to be idealists, dedicated and, what is more, "real". These positive and seemingly intricate characteristics attributed by the masses gratuitously to emerging "protest parties" may derive from frustration and a sentiment of being left alone by the establishment in times of crisis. There is a lack of trust and an unwillingness to longer accept a system where change is no option.

In earlier times, this feeling was translated through ignoring the urns on election days. The resulting high abstention rates were often misinterpreted as a lack of interest. Ultimately, the people simply felt left out by what they saw as rhetoric games amongst full-time politicians or power-games amongst technocrats. Young people certainly engage less in political parties. However they are active in social organizations which offer the opportunity to actually change something.

The protest parties have discovered and taken profit out of this trend. For instance some extreme right-wing parties offer day-care for working women or run youth centers. They make use of the supposed lack of transparency of the representative democratic system, and plead for more direct democracy or as the Swedish Pirate Party calls it: "liquid democracy". At first sight, this seems to be an interesting approach. However this kind of discourse is not innocuous. 

The German Constitution of 1949 – which was the model for the new democracies emerging after the fall of the iron wall – as an opposition to the failure of the Weimar Republic, put a hold on too many direct democratic voting opportunities. The reason was that the masses could be too easily influenced by strong rhetors with dubious aims utilizing the fears of people. Another fear was that important but complicated reforms could be misinterpreted, delayed or simply be ignored by pure lack of understanding. The emerging protest parties profit from the static system. Hopefully, the major parties will take this trend as an invitation to action.