Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


When (Local) Government Restrains Radicals

Fred Paxton

Populist radical right parties and their threat to European democracies continue to develop at the local level of politics. A recent episode highlighted the importance of events in this often ignored arena: the unprecedented electoral victory of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) in the East German district of Sonneberg in June 2023. Securing 53% of the vote, they gained their first-ever elected Landrat – the head of a district, akin to a mayor. This position grants the party direct decision-making powers. Alice Weidel, the party’s national leader, has called this a significant ‘milestone’ and has pledged to use these powers to halt the acceptance of refugees in Sonneberg. While the AfD’s victory is noteworthy, it’s important to recognize that other, more established populist radical right parties have long since surpassed such a milestone. Across the border, the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) has already participated in several national government coalitions as a junior partner, and currently leads in the polls ahead of next year’s legislative elections.

The successes and subsequent actions of populist radical right parties in local politics are of utmost concern for European democracies. Events at this level can yield significant consequences for local inhabitants and institutions, and shed light on wider party developments. While local government is often overlooked as mere bureaucratic management, it can grant considerable policy powers to parties and serve as an influential platform for shaping public perception. My book ‘Restrained Radicals’ traces the local trajectories of populist radical right parties in Western Europe, specifically in Austria, France, Italy and Switzerland, and demonstrates how these parties have used their positions of local power to impact local communities, while strategically leveraging these positions in an attempt to expand their influence more broadly.

Different routes to local power. The book focuses on four cases where the populist radical right gained local power in the past decade. These towns were once strongholds of the social democratic left and had long been governed by left-wing mayors. Their transformations exemplify a broader electoral shift, driven by shifting socio-economic and demographic factors and sparked by short-term contingencies, including local responses to the migration crisis of 2015-16. Yet there were significant differences between the contexts, in terms of both economic and demographic changes undergone locally. The populist radical right not only triumphed in locations facing severe socio-economic decline (Hénin-Beaumont, France), along with demographic change (Wels, Austria and Cascina, Italy), but also in a location of greater stability (Thun, Switzerland). Across these cases, the parties exhibited varying degrees of moderation during their campaigns and differed in how much they reached out to other mainstream parties. These variations in party behaviour can be explained by the institutional setting: a higher degree of moderation arose from a more proportional system that incentivized coalition negotiations and closeness among parties post-election. Moreover, due to these institutional differences, the victories in these four contexts resulted in different form of ‘local power’ gained by the populist radical right.

Radical policy impact. Once in local power, we could expect populist radical right parties to pursue policies in line with their ideology, rooted in nativism, authoritarianism, and populism. The widespread concern about these parties entering government arises from the perceived threat their ideology poses to liberal democracy. Considering a wide range of policy data, including agendas and budgets, the extent of radical impact varies between the cases and is somewhat limited. The Italian (Lega), Austrian (FPÖ), and French (Rassemblement National, RN) parties did prioritize law and order policies. However, major shifts in other core ideological concerns, such as anti-immigrant policies or populist institutional reform, were insignificant compared to the emphasis on fiscal conservatism – with a focus on balancing budgets and reducing debt levels. On the one hand, this shows the parties’ aim to project governing performance and competence, driven by a desire to establish a more mainstream status. On the other hand, it demonstrates the constraints placed on (ideological) policy change by limited local government autonomy. That being said, further qualitative analysis of their policy outputs uncovers more subtle ideological influence. The framing of target populations, policy tools and policy rationales all contribute to specific social constructions that align with party ideology. However, this is only evident in the three cases in Austria, Italy, and minimally in France, while the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) does not exhibit such influence even in these terms. The populist radical right’s leadership of local government, therefore, leads to significantly different forms of policy impact across these contexts.

Mainstreaming effects of government participation. Does the newfound responsibility of governing lead to the moderation of these radical parties? The existing literature presents several theoretical reasons why such an outcome might be expected, ranging from the pressures of cooperation with other mainstream parties to the necessity of delivering concrete policy changes rather than mere oppositional rhetoric. Analysing data from council meetings and social media, the extent of ‘mainstreaming’ in local power is shown to vary across the four cases. In Cascina, Italy, there is the least evidence of mainstreaming. Instead, Lega maintained a radically anti-immigrant stance and remained conflictual in its relations with opponents. The majoritarian Italian system grants significant autonomy to the populist radical right party in its leadership role vis-à-vis other parties. Conversely, in Wels, Austria, there was a more pronounced moderating shift. This is evident in a greater emphasis on non-ideological policy delivery, a more moderate framing of core issues, and somewhat less conflictual relations with other parties. This change can be attributed to the Austrian Freedom Party’s participation in a multi-party coalition. In Hénin-Beaumont, France, there was an even stronger mainstreaming shift, despite the majoritarian system and autonomy held by the RN mayor. Here, the partial mainstreaming is better explained by a change in aims rather than constraints upon radical aims. This can be attributed to the influence of the central party over the town as a showcase of ‘dédiabolisation’ (de-demonisation). In Thun, Switzerland, there has been a division in the party between the radical members of the council and an entirely de-radicalized executive. This phenomenon is due to a proportional system that generates multi-party executives and a firmly rooted consensual culture. The impact of mainstreaming on these radical parties in local government varies significantly depending on the institutional and contextual factors at play in each case.

Reacting to the migration crisis. The analyses in ‘Restrained Radicals’ took place against the backdrop of the migration crisis in Europe. When the crisis reached its peak in 2015-16, populist radical right parties in Western Europe responded with a universally hostile stance. During this period, the international co-ordination and sense of unity between the parties increased, leading to high-profile meetings among the leaders. However, the same parties that formed a common front against migration at the national level responded to the crisis very differently when in leadership positions at the local level. The local government responses to this episode shed light on the workings of the institutional and partisan factors that hold explanatory centrality in the book. The episode also highlights the significance of linkages between local parties in government and their national counterparts in explaining these differences. This aspect is particularly evident in the Austrian and Italian cases. The FPÖ in Wels and the Lega in Cascina pursued a radically hostile approach to the migration crisis. Initially, when they were in opposition to mainstream parties at the national level, their local opposition was ignored. It was only later, after they entered national government, that their local anti-asylum aims were realized through newly formed multi-level linkages. These findings demonstrate that the consequences of populism in power cannot be assumed to be consistent across the entire polity. There is a particularly exclusionary impact in localities where the same parties also hold mayoral power. Such localized consequences would not be identified through the typical analysis of their policy actions at the national government level alone.

Conclusion.Restrained Radicals’ contributes to the study of populist party politics with a novel focus on the subnational level. Through a close comparative study of cases across Western Europe, it offers fresh insights into the paths these parties take to attain power and, once in post, the variation in their subsequent policy impact and the mainstreaming effects of being in power on the parties themselves. Moreover, it sheds light on the subnational arena as a testing ground for national parties to develop and try out new strategies and alliances. The book opens up a number of avenues for future research regarding the subnational roots of radical parties and the intricate connections between their activities at local and national levels of politics. Scholars should particularly consider party actions in specific, heavily mediatized localities, encompassing both campaigning and governing activities. ‘Restrained Radicals’ reveals significant cross-national variation in these actions, as well as their consequences. While some populist mayors have been booted out after their first term, others remain in post more than a decade later. Moreover, the number of such cases continues to grow in the meantime, even in countries previously considered ‘immune’ to the populist threat, such as Germany and Spain. The recent local election victories of the AfD have been labelled a ‘watershed moment’ for German politics and raised concerns about the consequences which may follow. At the same time, recent (national) electoral losses of Vox in Spain have been attributed in part to unease at their unpopular actions in local government. To comprehend the diverse trajectories of populist parties, their underlying causes and subsequent consequences, a multi-level, comparative approach is essential. By delving into the dynamics of populism at different levels of governance, including the local level, we gain a more comprehensive understanding of this complex phenomenon.

Restrained Radicals by Fred Paxton

About The Author

Fred Paxton

Fred Paxton is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Milan. He was awarded his Ph.D. at the European University Institute. His work has been published in various acad...

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