Although far-right parties have surged across Europe, the response to their gains has varied widely. In several countries, including France, Denmark, and Sweden, mainstream center-right and center-left parties attempted to curb the far right’s ascent by adopting some of their language and policies—particularly on potent issues such as immigration—with the hope of attracting voters back from the fringes. In others, the mantra of “if you can’t beat them, join them” won out, resulting in the emergence of far-right parties in coalition governments in countries including Austria and Italy. (Though it’s worth noting that few of these coalitions have survived full terms.)
In Germany, however, the tactic has always been a simple one: complete exclusion. The reason for this is primarily historical. As a country deeply conscious of its Nazi past, the mere thought of allowing a far-right party like the AfD into government “would be a historical minefield,” Sudha David-Wilp, the deputy director of the German Marshall Fund in Berlin, told me. This is the reason that the country’s mainstream parties have mostly ruled out working with the AfD, and it also helps explain why the events in Thuringia reverberated in the way that they did. Though the candidate for governor wasn’t himself a member of the AfD, fears abound that the emergence of the far right as kingmakers, even at the local level, could put the party on a path to national dominance. After all, it was in Thuringia that the first Nazi politicians assumed office in the waning days of the Weimar Republic—then, too, with the support of conservative parties—before ultimately advancing to the national stage.
Not all of these strategies have been effective, though. Across Europe, mainstream parties’ tactic of imitating their far-right counterparts in a bid to undermine them hasn’t been proved to work: Not only do these parties fail to attract enough far-right voters (as France’s former far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen put it, “Voters always prefer the original to the copy”), but they also risk alienating their more traditional supporters in the process.
“There is no evidence that shifting to the right diminishes the electoral support for the radical right,” Werner Krause, a research fellow at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center, told me. By copying their positions, he added, mainstream parties risk “legitimizing and normalizing” them instead.
Nor is there evidence to suggest that far-right parties, once in power, necessarily lose support (the theory being that inviting them into government would dull their extremism, or otherwise reveal that extremism to the wider public). In Italy, for example, Matteo Salvini’s League maintained its strength while in government, momentum it has kept since being booted from the governing coalition last year. Even in Austria, although the scandal-ridden Freedom Party has fallen in the polls, its core base of supporters remains intact.