Radical nationalist parties are deeply unreliable coalition partners.
Political parties of the far right make unreliable, even disastrous, coalition partners. The history of governments that involve them, the latest of which has just collapsed in Italy, should be a warning to their mainstream rivals.
The center-right Christian Democrats in the German state of Saxony would do well to pay particular attention. It’s possible they may form a minority government backed by the Alternative for Germany (AfD) after an election on Sept. 1.
In the last 20 years, far-right parties have occasionally entered into governments or supported center-right minority administrations. Arguably, these deals have worked well in only two cases: Italy, where the Northern League held three or four portfolios in a string of governments led by Silvio Berlusconi, and Denmark, where the anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party supported minority cabinets led by Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
But in both these cases, the far right was kept at a certain distance from the center of power, merely getting a chance to push through some of their favorite policies.
More ambitious experiments have failed miserably. In the Netherlands, a 2002 coalition that included the anti-immigrant Pim Fortuyn List only lasted 87 days, and a second attempt at cooperation, in which Geert Wilders agreed to support liberal Mark Rutte’s cabinet in 2010, fell apart spectacularly at Wilders’ initiative. Rutte never attempted a similar alliance again.
In Austria in the 2000s, Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel presided over a scandal-ridden government with the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) that didn’t last a full legislative term; then, during a second iteration of the coalition, the FPOe broke apart. In 2017, Sebastian Kurz made another attempt to work with the FPOe, but it ended in a spectacular scandal earlier this year.
In Finland, the nationalist Finns party got into government in 2015, only to leave the coalition in 2017 after splitting in two.
Matteo Salvini deserves a place of honor on this list. The leader of Italy’s League party stabbed his coalition partners from the anti-establishment Five Star Movement in the back earlier this month. Then, when it became apparent Five Star could form an alternative government with the center-left Democratic Party, he begged them to come back, even offering their leader Luigi di Maio the prime minister’s post. I doubt, however, that they will ever want to play ball again: More likely, they will write off Salvini as Rutte wrote off Wilders.
Back in 2003, Austrian political scientist Reinhard Heinisch discussed the roots of the far right’s sorry performance in public office in a paper aptly titled “Success in opposition — failure in government.”
“Their nature as relatively de-institutionalized parties oriented toward charismatic personalities and as organizations seeking to maintain ‘movement character’ while engaging in spectacular forms of self-presentation is a poor match for the specific constraints of public office,” he wrote. “Populist parties frequently lack both the proper mechanisms of resolving intra-party disputes and experienced policy makers capable of translating the programmatic agenda into policy. The situation is usually exacerbated if such movements are forced into a coalition.”
In one way or another, the far-right parties’ failures are all ones of execution. They find it hard to implement what they preach, their charismatic leaders lack the checks and balances to prevent miscalculations, while their internal conflicts are too public and too emotional. A lack of ideological moderation translates into instability and errors of strategy. What helps these parties to win elections — the emotional connection they make with voters, the simplicity of their slogans — tends to undermine them in government.
Heinisch recently remembered his old paper in connection with the Austrian and Italian far-right parties’ fiascos:
All this should be a warning for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union in Saxony. The east German state is home to some of the most vocal AfD supporters, and the CDU faces a powerful challenge from the anti-immigrant, nationalist party.
The latest polls show the CDU more or less comfortably ahead. Even if it wins, however, there is no comfortable path for it to form a majority coalition. While a straight alliance with the AfD is impossible because the CDU’s central leadership would never allow it, the two parties have close ties on the local level. Deep down, many of the CDU’s more conservative supporters sympathize with much of the AfD’s agenda. That could lead the CDU to form a minority administration that would be “tolerated” by the AfD, along the lines of Rasmussen’s Danish governments or Rutte’s 2010 experiment in the Netherlands.
Usually, I’m in favor of trying to draw the far right into the political mainstream. Doing so helps to overcome radical voters’ sense of being excluded from democratic politics while educating them about the impossibility of some of the promises their favorite politicians make. But any center-right politician trying their hand at this game should be aware it has an abnormally high probability of failure: The very nature of the far right resists, if not completely precludes, success in coalition government. The CDU certainly doesn’t need a failed experiment on its hands before the 2021 general election.