Analysis - Political realities snare Europe's populists
PARIS (Reuters) - Europe's economic and debt crisis has boosted populist parties in many countries, making government harder, but political realities are catching up with the angry brigade. Some have hit an electoral ceiling while others are on the way back down.
From Amsterdam to Athens, anti-establishment groups of the far right and hard left have stormed from obscurity by blaming the euro and the European Union for the crisis and rejecting either austerity or bailouts for debt-laden states.
Far-right Marine Le Pen, who advocates leaving the euro and reversing immigration, and hard leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon, who rejects Europe's budget discipline pact, are set to win nearly one-third of the votes between them in the first round of France's presidential election on April 22.
"These people may not have taken power anywhere in Europe, or headed a government, but they have a real, profound impact by redefining the terms of the debate," said Jean-Yves Camus, a French political scientist who specialises in the extreme-right.
He cited a backlash against immigration, Islam and multiculturalism in many countries, as well as a rise in nationalism and hostility to European integration.
Conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy has vowed to halve immigration, expel radical Muslim preachers and introduce compulsory labelling on halal meat in a bid to claw back rightist voters from Le Pen.
For her part, Le Pen said she wanted to "get France out of the prison of the euro zone in which its economy has been incarcerated for 10 years".
In Greece, suffering the fourth year of a deep recession amid harsh austerity measures as part of a second international bailout, opinion polls show a majority of voters may back radical fringe parties in a May 6 general election.
Nine parties, from the communist KKE to the extreme-right Golden Dawn, could jump the 3 percent threshold for seats in parliament. Most reject the steep pay and pension cuts imposed by the EU and the International Monetary Fund.
That could make it hard for the mainstream conservative New Democracy party and centre-left PASOK socialists to form a viable coalition and implement the austerity programme, although that is seen as the most likely outcome.
THREAT TO DEBT
Greece is not the only country where political fragmentation and the rise of protest parties pose a threat to efforts to overcome the euro zone's debt crisis.
Among the most influential groups is Geert Wilders' Dutch Freedom Party (PVV), which holds the fate of the minority centre-right government - and possibly of Europe's budget discipline treaty - in its hands in tough budget negotiations.
The charismatic, silver-haired Wilders wants out of the euro and has vehemently opposed using Dutch taxpayers' money to rescue Greece, Ireland and Portugal, making it hard for Prime Minister Mark Rutte to support the bailouts.
The Eurosceptical, anti-immigrant PVV, which supports Rutte in parliament except on the bailouts, risks losing support whether it accepts unpopular budget cuts that would hit welfare and mortgage tax relief or scuppers a budget deal and risks bringing down the government.
"Part of the PVV voters are dissatisfied with the economic situation and also think that the PVV will agree with measures which cost them money," said Dutch pollster Maurice de Hond. "Those who left the PVV give Wilders low marks. So the chance that they come back is low."
Latest opinion polls show the PVV losing ground at about 13 percent, only enough to win 19-20 seats in the 150-seat parliament, down from its current 24.
"Even if the government survives on the budget, it could well fall over the (EU) fiscal compact," said Alastair Newton, senior political analyst at Nomura in London. "Given the Euroscepticism of the Dutch electorate, it could make any further euro zone support impossible."
Italy's populist anti-immigration Northern League, which was an influential junior partner in government until Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was forced out last November, is in turmoil over allegations of corruption against its iconic founder.
Firebrand leader Umberto Bossi, who has long denounced "Roma Ladrona" (Rome, the big thief), resigned last week over charges that taxpayers' money was used to pay for renovations at his villa and holidays for his children. His 24-year-old son, Renzo, was also forced to quit as a regional councillor in the wake of an investigation by Milan magistrates into misuse of funds the party received from the state for election campaigns.
The investigation involves recycled mafia money, offshore companies in Tanzania and Cyprus as well as alleged misappropriation of public funds, tarring the regionalist League's image as a cleansing force in politics.
Bossi, renowned for his rabble-rousing rhetoric, launched the party in the late 1980s and had managed to preserve its popularity despite sharing responsibility in government, which has often hurt populist parties elsewhere.
Although he has not been indicted so far, his disgrace seems bound to weaken the League, which has been the most vocal opposition party against reforming Prime Minister Mario Monti.
A populist wave may also have peaked in Finland, where hostility to financial aid for Portugal propelled the Finns Party out of the blue to third place in a general election a year ago, more than quadrupling its score.
The surge of Timo Soini's Eurosceptical nationalists forced the government to set tougher terms for participating in euro zone rescues, insisting on collateral from Greece. But Soini came a distant third in this year's presidential election and the party's poll scores have ebbed, partly due to its refusal to share government responsibility.
One crucial country - Germany - has so far remained largely immune from the populist tide, partly due to its tortured history with Nazism and Communism in the 20th century.
Despite opinion polls showing strong public opposition to bailouts, the German parliament has approved rescues for Greece, Ireland and Portugal and increases in euro zone contingency funds by big, bipartisan majorities.
No Eurosceptical party has emerged to capture those protest votes, and the surprise new political force that is gaining ground, the Pirate Party, has no clear left-right orientation but campaigns for Internet freedom.
"People are voting for the Pirates out of displeasure with the big parties, which have been steadily losing the trust of the electorate for decades," said Manfred Guellner, head of the Forsa polling group.
"Voters are looking for alternatives. That used to be the Greens, now it is the Pirates."
In neighbouring Austria, on the other hand, the hard-right Freedom Party (FPO) is neck-and-neck with the government coalition Social Democrats as the most popular party, with 28 percent of the vote, despite a glitch earlier this year when its leader appeared to make light of the Holocaust.
Heinz-Christian Strache faced a barrage of criticism in January for likening attacks on him and his backers to the treatment of the Jews in Nazi Germany, but has bounced back.
"We are ready to take responsibility and play a role in government," Strache told Reuters in an interview last month. In 2000, the FPO became the first far-right group to get cabinet seats in an EU country, prompting a short-lived boycott by other European governments.
Spain and Portugal are also notable exceptions to the populist trend, partly because both countries suffered long periods of fascist rule in the 20th century and associate EU membership with democracy and prosperity.
In the Nordic region, the Danish People's Party lost the special power position it had held for a decade, forcing a hardening of Denmark's immigration policies as the condition for supporting a centre-right government.
The party's support has stagnated despite the weak start of Helle Thorning-Schmidt's Social Democratic government, elected last year.
(Editing by Giles Elgood)
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