The electoral successes of right-wing populist and extreme right-wing parties in Europe are annoying. But so is the indignation and mockery with which centrist and left-of-centre forces are reacting to the results, which stretch from Sweden in the north to Italy in the south.
Because they are ignoring one important aspect. Elections fulfill an important function in democracy, in addition to the practical purpose of bringing into office a government legitimized by free elections. They indicate which goals citizens support and which do not.
Even a dedicated protest election that expresses anger at the course taken by the previous rulers, but not necessarily sympathy for the populist to extreme forces revolting against it, has a constructive effect. It makes it clear what the next government should correct from the point of view of these voters.
Elections force democracies to correct course
This touches on the core of the system advantage of democracies over autocracies: the correction of mistakes. Governments that are democratically elected are not immune to mistakes. They don’t even automatically make fewer mistakes than dictatorships. But because open societies allow criticism of those in power, they are more capable of course correction than autocratic systems that suppress criticism.
Viewed in this way, electoral successes by populists can even advance a democracy. Because they force course corrections, whether Sweden, France – or now Italy.
The growing share of votes for the right-wing Sweden Democrats in Sweden over the years shows what voters dislike about social democracy there. A similar thing is happening in France, where Marine Le Pen lost again in the presidential run-off to Emmanuel Macron, but with a much improved result: 41.5 percent in 2022 compared to 33.9 percent in 2017.
Whether it’s a victory for the right, as in Sweden, or a defeat with a significantly improved performance in France: both increase the pressure on the center and the left to review their previous policy offers. And now this is also emerging for Italy.
But whether Sweden, France or now Italy: the worried to outraged reactions to the votes drown out the fundamentally legitimate question of whether there might be good reasons for the desire of so many voters for a correction. Parties that are massively losing votes should first look to themselves for the causes, instead of complaining about the populism, opportunism or pied pipers of the victorious competition and demonizing their top candidates as neo-fascists.
Some sympathizers of the left-wing forces also draw conclusions from their disappointing performance that sound implausible: the progressive parties would have done better if they campaigned more vehemently for more climate protection, more liberal asylum and migration laws, the expansion of the social system, gender, colonialism – and anti-racism issues would have arisen.
Italy and Sweden are not going to be fascist right away
But isn’t a good deal of the protest directed against such attitudes – unfortunate as that is for all those who consider these concerns to be urgent?
In Italy and Sweden, fascism is not immediately waiting at the door when right-wing populists and the extreme right are involved in the government. In democratic constitutional states, high hurdles stand in the way: the constitution, laws and courts, plural media and, last but not least, civil society with its right to demonstrate and the opportunity to make corrections again at the next election.
Democratic elections are sometimes a brutal lesson for parties as to what they are doing right and wrong from the point of view of the citizens. Measured against one’s own ideals, the findings may be bitter. But those who permanently ignore them are punished even more by the voters.
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