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  • Writer's pictureVladimir Chlouba

The Rise of Protest Parties in Europe

So-called protest parties have seen a considerable surge in public support througout Europe. Beppe Grillo’s MoVimento Cinque Stelle ( Five Star Movement ) did so well in Italian elections in 2013 that it had to be recognized as a serious political contender by the established parties. Another example is Czech Republic’s ANO which was founded in 2011 and placed second in the 2013 election. This success catapulted the movement into the government and secured influential seats ranging from the finance minister to the minister of defense. The aforementioned protest parties are compared and sometimes equated with movements of a more extremist kind such as France’s Front National or Netherlands’ Party for Freedom. Despite the fact that these two kinds of parties share certain characteristics and often answer to similar sentiments within the electorate, there are significant differences that should not be overlooked.

Whereas increasing support for so-called protest parties evidences a general lack of trust in the political system and the ability of its representatives to perform their basic duties, improving results of extremist parties reveals the electorate’s preference for a more radical set of political solutions. Both phenomena have no doubt a lot to do with the economic difficulties that had swept Europe in the last couple of years. However, it is important to recognize that there are other variables in play when it comes to assessing the long-term impact of protest and extremist parties. As I will argue throughout this article, protest parties cannot provide a compact set of political solutions that would enable them to establish themselves as traditional political parties. Extremist movements, on the other hand, can become a stable component of a country’s political system as long as the variables causing their viability remain in place. In other words, extremist parties have more staying power. Three factors explain this phenomenon. First, protest parties owe their upsurge to a diverse electoral coalition. Second, protest parties often lack well-defined political goals as well as detailed policy proposals that would enable them to achieve these political goals. Third, protest parties’ organizational structure is often much weaker than that of established extremist parties.

Both of the protest parties mentioned in the introduction of this memorandum saw rapid growth of electoral support. The Five Start Movement was founded in 2009 and ANO started its journey in 2011. Both parties taped into the growing dissatisfaction with the political system of their respective countries. Voters have chosen to support these parties not only because they simply did not see a choice among the more traditional political forces but also because the did not think that there was a significant difference between the established parties or that their vote really mattered anymore. They rejected to vote for the lesser evil and looked for an opportunity other than staying at home. Protest parties recognized this and came with slogans that aimed at differentiating them from the established political parties. In the case of ANO, we can identify a clear narrative that attempts to portray the party as non-political. ANO’s marketers are careful to call it a movement, not a party. In other words, protest parties do not want to be seen as a new political option, they want represent an alternative to “politicians,“ which is now an overarching term of pejorative connotations. Naturally, protest parties will disappoint someone. Despite its criticism, the left-right spectrum of political opinions cannot be erased with the arrival of protest parties. Certain voters will realize that the catch-all rhetoric does not fit their beliefs.

For this reason, protest parties are often ambiguous when it comes to political ideology. They claim that political ideology is an outdated concept that led to all the political mess voters voted against. For instance, Czech Republic’s ANO spreads the myth of what I call political objectivism. This is the assumption that there are objectively good and correct answers to political questions. It is the belief that the country can be run as a business or an efficient machine. All that needs to be done is to find the intelligent specialists that will then find the solutions. Naturally, this is not the case, many decisions are inherently political. Experts can calculate what the effect of a progressive income tax will be but they cannot determine whether the society considers its benefits more significant than its costs.

Lastly, protest parties often lack the local infrastructure, membership and a clear system of internal democracy necessary for long-term survival. The Five Stars Movement is centered around a blogger and comedian, ANO is run by a successful billionaire. If the long-term staying power of a political party at all depends on its internal democratic structure, these protest parties face another challenge.

As has been demonstrated throughout this article, extremist parties are quite different. They represent a relatively stable force within their countries’ political system, stand for relatively well – defined political ideologies, dispose of a core coalition of political supporters and a history of regional infrastructure. Because extremist parties answer, to a certain extent, similar demands as protest parties, these two kinds of political movements can grow together. However, when it comes to staying power, extremist parties have a brighter future than their protest counterparts.

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