Svenja O'Donnell and Mehul Srivastava, Bloomberg, March 16, 2015
Not so long ago, the U.K. Independence Party was dismissed by a future prime minister as a bunch of “closet racists,” Danes were embarrassed to admit that they voted for the anti-immigration Danish People’s Party and France’s National Front finished third in 2011 local elections.
How quickly the tide rises.
This year, UKIP could win about 15 percent of the vote in the U.K.’s May polls, while forcing a national reckoning on immigration. The Danish People’s Party will probably be the largest political party in soon-to-be-announced elections. And polls show the National Front running neck-and-neck for first in the popular vote in local elections that begin March 22.
How in Europe, a bastion of western liberalism, have a handful of stridently anti-immigration and anti-European Union leaders managed to burst from the margins of civil discourse to the gates of political power?
The common threads are a sense of voter insecurity in the aftermath of the European debt crisis, the failure of established leaders to create an alternative vision and, most important, the decision by the extremist parties to begin speaking in more muted language. They rely on code words to evoke surrogate issues such as welfare or national identity.
They criticize immigration, not immigrants. They speak of national values, not of religion. In Denmark, the People’s Party used halal food to raise questions about Danish values. In the U.K., stopping immigrants from perceived abuse of the National Health Service has become an electoral linchpin.
For Catherine Bernard, a 43-year-old housewife who said she may vote for the National Front in elections for assemblies of 97 of France’s 101 departments, immigration is a winning issue.
“There are too many foreigners in France,” said Bernard as she headed to the bakery, adding that she likes Le Pen because she is a female candidate. “Someone has to say it, and no else has the guts to.”
An hour away from Copenhagen, at the end of a dirt road, Soren Espersen, the deputy chairman of the Danish People’s Party, pours coffee and offers a sliced donut in the kitchen of his six-bedroom, 237-year-old home. His first pangs of unease at the idea of large Muslim communities within Europe came in the late 1980s, he said, when, as a freelance journalist, he watched Muslim groups in London protest Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel, “The Satanic Verses.”
After he returned home, he joined the newly formed party in 1995. It had begun as an anti-tax movement and evolved into opposing unchecked immigration by the late 1990s. In the 2001 elections, when Espersen was in charge of the party’s media department, it came in third and helped prop up a minority government.
Exit polls under-represented the party’s support vote by as much as five percentage points. That’s because people were convinced by the party’s message but embarrassed to admit to voting for it, according to Espersen.
That’s when he realized that the party’s message could easily be muddied, and thus disregarded, if leaders weren’t careful to avoid opportunities to be dismissed as racist.
“The opinions we have on limiting immigration can very easily appeal to total extremists–where else would they go? Who else would they support?” he said. “With immigration, it’s such a sensitive area to be in that you have to weigh every word you say on a golden scale, and it’s difficult for some people to understand that.”
The party started expelling the most extreme and indelicate of its members. Leaders reshaped their argument around whether Denmark can remain Danish if it keeps letting in immigrants who share completely different ideologies than native Danes.
In local elections in 2013, the party seized upon a very visceral image: halal meals were being served in a few nurseries around the country to accommodate the religious needs of Muslim toddlers. For meat to be halal, the animal has to be culled while conscious, and the process has to be approved by an imam.
The party won 10 percent of the overall vote, and several mayoral races, including Copenhagen. In national elections planned for later this year, the party is currently polling at 20 percent of the national vote, ahead of its opponents.
In 2014, Denmark’s parliament banned both kosher and halal meat production.
“People haven’t branded us racist, the elite have,” Espersen said. “I never hear that when I am out, but I certainly read that in the newspaper. It’s a brand mark you put on people in order to silence them.”