Why centre-right parties adopt hardline positions on immigration at their peril

To guard against vote loss, parties of the centre right are taking a tough stance on immigration. James F. Downes, Matthew Loveless and Andrew Lam argue that such parties risk bringing far-right ideology into the political mainstream, and undermining the very tenets of liberal democracy they profess to uphold

Political parties and the immigration issue

The European refugee crisis began, and peaked, in 2015. It has posed significant challenges for political parties across Europe and for the governance of the European Union. In 2015, more than a million migrants and refugees arrived in Europe. This wave continued into 2016, following which there was a substantial reduction through 2017 and 2018.

Immigration has, therefore, remained high on the list of issues the public say is important to them. This public focus on immigration has created electoral opportunities for European far-right parties. The far right is laying claim to immigration as a political issue, and using it to capture disaffected voters.

public focus on immigration has created electoral opportunities for European far-right parties

The refugee crisis presents challenges for traditional centre-left and centre-right parties across Europe, forcing them to update their party strategies. Far-right parties are often seen as ‘owning’ the immigration issue at the expense of other political parties. But our recent paper in the Journal of Common Market Studies shows that this is not the case.

We analysed data on party competition in national parliamentary elections across 28 EU member states from 2015–2018. We found that centre-right parties which adopt stronger anti-immigrant positions can increase their electoral success.

Most significantly, we found that such a strategy benefited centre-right parties more than far-right parties throughout the crisis. It's a phenomenon we call 'strategic positioning'. Our research also revealed that centre-left parties do not generally benefit from adopting stricter anti-immigrant positions.

The refugee crisis and strategic positioning

To illustrate centre-right success on immigration during the refugee crisis, we examined the cases of Austria and the Netherlands.

In Austria’s 2017 General Election, the centre-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) adopted a robustly anti-immigrant position. This helped ÖVP increase its electoral success and, after the elections, it formed a coalition government with the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ).

By adopting more restrictive positions on immigration, the centre right in Austria and the Netherlands has alleviated the far-right threat

In the 2017 Dutch General Election, a more complex pattern emerged. The governing centre-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) took a strongly anti-immigration stance. But the party’s vote share decreased, and Geert Wilders' far-right right Freedom (PVV) party made electoral gains.

Although the VVD performed worse, it still managed to form a coalition government after the election. Adopting tougher positions on immigration is therefore likely to have reduced further electoral losses to the far-right PVV. By adopting more restrictive positions on immigration, the centre right in both countries has alleviated the far-right threat.

Mainstreaming effect

Our analysis also identified a ‘mainstreaming effect’ that has important implications for the future of liberal democracy across Europe. In Hungary, the formerly traditional centre-right conservative Fidesz has now become a fully fledged far-right party, with tough anti-immigrant policies. Under Viktor Orbán, Hungary has experienced democratic backsliding, and many now regard the country as a non-democracy.

We see the same ideological transformation in Poland, with the rise of the Law and Justice (PiS) Party. None of this bodes well for the future of European politics, particularly given the rightwards shift of several Central-Eastern European parties.

The dangers of centre-right parties adopting hardline positions

Why have centre-right parties so often adopted hardline positions on immigration? Some scholars have noted that the centre right is often ideologically pragmatic. Governing centre-right parties generally pursue electoral strategies that will maintain and consolidate their political power.

The answer, therefore, may be simple. The rationale for centre-right parties adopting such positions is one of political survival. Strategic positioning may ensure a centre-right party remains in power despite opportunities during the refugee crisis for far-right challengers to increase their electoral success.

Strategic positioning may ensure a centre-right party remains in power despite opportunities during the refugee crisis for far-right challengers to increase their electoral success

For the duration of the refugee crisis, a number of centre-right parties across Europe have proved electorally resilient. Such parties have adopted anti-immigrant positions to outmanoeuvre the far right on this emotive political issue.

However, by shifting to the right on immigration, centre-right parties may have opened a Pandora’s box, unwittingly bringing far-right ideology into the mainstream.

‘Strategic positioning’ on immigration, therefore, is a double-edged sword for centre-right (conservative) parties in Europe. It's a strategy that may benefit the centre right in the short term but could favour the far right more as time goes on. This has worrying implications for the future of party competition, and for liberal democracy across Europe.

This is an amended version of an article originally published by the JCMS blogsite as Centre Right Party Electoral Success on Immigration

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of James F. Downes James F. Downes Assistant Professor (Senior) & Head (Programme Leader) Politics & Public Administration Programme, Hong Kong Metropolitan University More by this author
photograph of Matthew Loveless Matthew Loveless Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Bologna More by this author
photograph of Andrew Lam Andrew Lam Associate Lecturer, Open University of Hong Kong / Hong Kong District Council Member More by this author

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