The strong right-wing forces of Austria, Britain and Italy have come under pressure. September will show whether they can be sidelined for good.
Europe’s right is not invincible after all.
In Austria, the far-right Freedom Party still suffers from the Ibiza scandal, when former party chairman Strache was caught on tape promising public contracts in return for party donations, and faces allegations of bribery. Italy’s deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, pushed by his record heights in popularity polls, made the coalition implode but looks set to end up on the opposition benches. In the UK, Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson is playing a high-stakes gamble by proroguing parliament which could potentially backfire.
Only potentially, though.
One should not be too quick to predict the right’s demise, since the weakness of the right is not the result of the left’s strength. To the contrary, the current woes of the political right are entirely self-inflicted. The Ibiza scandal, Salvini’s failed attempt to become Italy’s head of government and Johnson’s hardliner approach to Brexit all are the consequences of deliberate actions of the respective party figures.
These actions give the remaining parties a unique opportunity to offer a political alternative, yet such opportunity has to be ceased before right-wing parties can be declared defeated. To do so, it takes a proactive and well-organized party landscape.
In Italy for example, socialists and the Five-Star Movement were able to overcome their animosities and defeat Salvini’s power grab. Socialist leader Zingaretti even conceded the post of Prime Minister to Giuseppe Conte and did not demand it for himself or his party in order to make the new coalition happen. Would Jeremy Corbyn be willing to make a similar concession in the UK?
Yet just north of the Italian Alps, Austria’s opposition has so far been unable to shatter the Freedom Party’s image of the “small man’s party”, the party of the ordinary citizen, despite Ibiza. The Green and Liberal Parties are expected to make gains in the upcoming parliamentary elections at the end of this month, however internal disagreements within the largest opposition party, the socialist SPOE, undermine any attempts of attacking and marginalizing the Freedom Party.
Meanwhile, the British opposition might suffer from its own fragmentation, unable to agree on a common goal. Implement a soft Brexit? Call for another EU referendum? Revoke Article 50? And crucially, is Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn fit to lead? Even many remainers doubt the latter.
If the opposition parties continue to disagree on a comprehensive and realistic plan to own the Brexit process, Johnson might get what he wants: Brexit, and victory in a snap general election. Both cases might become reality sooner than Johnson’s enemies can coordinate.
To paraphrase the late historian AJP Taylor, the next few weeks will show whether the political landscape has not only reached a turning point but also managed to turn in favour of more moderate or left-wing forces.
Italy’s centre and left-wing parties have demonstrated how the political right can be cleverly, and perhaps even sustainably, sidelined: viribus unitis. Austria’s and Britain’s opposition parties should take note.