Interview #31 – The Contagious Effect of the Radical Right

In this interview, Tarik Abou-Chadi explains that when radical right parties are successful (and especially when they enter parliament), mainstream parties shift toward a more anti-immigrant position. This is hardly surprising. However, according to his studies, this is a totally counterproductive move, and established parties should not go in pursuit of anti-immigration discourses because that would make them lose votes. If there is an “original” nativist and anti-immigration party, why voting an imitation?

Moreover, he claims that the shift toward more anti-immigrant positions of established parties that we have witnessed in the past 20 years is not simply a representation of public opinion, but a strategic move towards the success of radical right parties. In fact, in most Western European countries attitudes toward immigration have become more positive.

In other words: would we have seen the same anti-immigrant shift by established parties had the radical right not been successful? 

Enjoy the read.


POP) Tarik, you studied how parties react to each other’s behavior. In particular, how mainstream parties react to radical right ones. When a radical right party gains representation in the parliament, do other parties adopt more anti-immigrant and culturally protectionist positions?

Tarik Abou-Chadi) We find a very clear pattern: when radical right parties are successful, established parties shift toward a more anti-immigrant position. This is particularly pronounced when radical right parties enter parliament. In fact, for similar vote shares of radical right parties we find strong differences in the reactions of mainstream parties when the radical right party entered parliament or not.

POP) One would expect the mainstream right to react to the success of radical right parties. But you find that, quite surprisingly, also the mainstream left respond to radical right success by shifting toward a more cultural protectionist position. Why do you think this is the case?

TAC) Mainstream reactions to radical right success are driven by how parties think their actions will affect voter transitions between their party and the radical right. Mainstream right and mainstream left parties exchange voters with the radical right. There is a strong narrative that the mainstream left has lost its former core clientele the working class to the radical right. Many people in those parties think that moving toward a more anti-immigrant position will potentially win them back those voters. (Editor’s note: Matteo Renzi, in the Tweet below, argues that his policies about migrants have been correct and he has no self-criticism to do. However, he followed the far right and paid the political price for it.)

muslim woman

Sign indicating a women-only wagon of the metro in Tehran, Iran, 2018.


POP) You write that “radical right success is not simply a by-product of a right-turn in Western Europe but in itself a driving force of this process”. When mainstream parties shift “to the right” on the cultural dimension by proposing tougher measures on immigration, are they doing so in response to a shift in the electorate’s preferences or as a reaction to the success of radical right parties?

TAC) It is most likely that established parties react to both, shifts in public opinion and changes in the competitive space. What our study can show though is that – independent of public opinion – radical right representation plays a role for the positions of mainstream parties. That means that there is a strategic reaction by established parties in response to radical right success. In other words, when we simply observe a correlation between radical right success and party policy shifts, this could be spurious because public opinion can affect both radical right success and party policy shifts. Our study allows us to disentangle the two and to demonstrate that there is an effect of radical right success independent of public opinion. This matters because it demonstrates that the shift toward more anti-immigrant positions of established parties that we have witnessed in the past 20 years is not simply a representation of public opinion. In fact, attitudes toward immigration in most Western European countries have become more positive.

POP) It is plausible to imagine that mainstream parties change their position also because they interpret the success of radical right parties as a change in the public opinion they have to take into consideration. Is that the case? Or do they change their position independently of public opinion?

TAC) What we can demonstrate is that parties react to the presence of a credible radical right challenger for their votes. We compare situations where radical right parties received similar vote shares but in some situations they made it into parliament and in others they did not. Since mainstream parties react much more strongly in the former case, we interpret this as a reaction that goes beyond a signal of public opinion.


POP) Which countries did you include in your study, and in which period of time? Is there any country in particular that stands out by showing a very strong or a very low influence of the radical right success on the position of mainstream parties?

TAC) We look at 23 European countries between 1980 and 2014. Our design is really not suited to determine where influence is strong or weak – in-depth case studies can certainly tell you much more about this. With our analysis we want to tackle a counterfactual: would we have seen the same anti-immigrant shift by established parties had the radical right not been successful. Our answer is no. The radical right causally contributed to this shift.

POP) If radical right parties gain representation in the parliament, mainstream right parties will shift even more to the right. We got that. But is it a good strategy? Do they actually steal votes from more radical parties? And what about mainstream left-wing: do they get any advantage by adapting their discourse to the success of radical right parties or should they rather propose a credible, clear, alternative?

TAC) This is a very important question. When you look at the current debate, many politicians and commentators seem to be convinced that accommodating the positions of the radical right should help mainstream parties electorally. However, it does not.

In another project together with Werner Krause (WZB) and Denis Cohen (Uni Mannheim) we investigate this question in more detail. What we find is that moving toward the radical right actually does not help to weaken it electorally. What happens is that moving closer to the radical right increases competition, i.e. there is more exchange of voters. However, if anything the radical right is the net winner of this exchange.

There are countless examples of this. In Austria or Denmark for example, mainstream parties have taken much more anti-immigrant positions. However, the FPÖ (see tweet above) and the Danish People’s Party (DPP) are as strong as they have ever been. And not only have those strategies not weakened the radical right electorally, they have contributed to normalizing and legitimizing their discourse. This helps them, for example, to recruit more competent personnel.

For mainstream parties (left and right) that means that usually accommodating radical right positions is a losing strategy. In addition, to losing out to the radical right they lose some of their former voters who are unhappy about these positional shifts. 

POP) What happens when radical right parties have established themselves as parliamentary actors or even participated in governments? Do they still influence the position of mainstream parties? And how do radical right parties react to the shift of mainstream parties? Do they become even more radical?

TAC) Radical right parties continue to influence public discourse when they are in parliament. In fact, they become more visible and get a broader audience for their message. There is a general idea that radical right parties become more mainstream after they enter parliament. There is however very little evidence that this is the case. Instead, they erode the democratic process on a quasi-daily basis. In a way the positions of the radical right have become more mainstream. That is not however because they have changed but because mainstream parties have adjusted their position toward them.

Tarik Abou-ChadiTarik Abou-Chadi (here on Twitter) is assistant professor at the department of political science at the University of Zurich. He holds a PhD in political science from Humboldt University Berlin and during his PhD and Post-Doc time worked as a visiting researcher at New York University and the University of Amsterdam. His research focuses on elections, political parties and public policy. He currently investigates how the socio-economic transformations of post-industrial societies have affected European politics. A main focus here lies on radical right and social democratic parties.

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