(Bloomberg) — To a backdrop of hard rock and fireworks, the hundreds of people gathered in the Polish city of Olsztyn on a hot late August weekend liked what they heard: Hardworking Poles deserve a “house, a garden, a grill, two cars and a vacation” — and the current political leaders can’t deliver.
The message from the Confederation Liberty and Independence party to its supporters may be simple, but for Poland it could get complicated. With double-digit support in the polls, the upstart alliance looks set to sway the outcome of what promises to be one of the tightest elections since the end of communism.
The groups are a mix of nationalists and parties with neo-Nazi roots to Euroskeptics and Donald Trump-style populists — and they are having a moment. Put together, polls show they now place among the top three most popular political groups in almost half of the 27-member European Union.
None of these parties are going to take power outright. But in Europe’s increasingly fragmented politics, they are likely to get outsized influence, either by joining coalition governments — or not joining and triggering a political impasse — as the EU tries to keep united over its response to Russian aggression.
“European mainstream politicians have for a long time thought that such parties aren’t dangerous, and they underestimated the situation,” said Jiri Pehe, director of New York University in Prague and a former adviser to late Czech President Vaclav Havel. “Unfortunately, the level of unease and frustration among people has grown.”
Alarm bells are ringing in Brussels. A senior EU diplomat said he was worried that radical parties could try to exploit potential public fatigue over support for Ukraine to their advantage in elections across Europe.
The coming weeks will bring two key electoral tests, the one in Poland on Oct. 15, the other in Slovakia two weeks earlier. Nationalists are also on course to win ballots in Austria and Belgium next year. In Germany, the far-right AfD is now the second-strongest party, forcing Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats to change policy and strategy to challenge it.
In Greece, the conservative New Democracy party retained power with a landslide election victory in June, but three groups from the far-right gained enough support to enter parliament.
The Vox nationalists in Spain lost ground in a July vote, but the country is in limbo in part because the winner, the People’s Party, said it would team up with them and now don’t have enough backing to form a government. Italy, meanwhile, already has the most right-wing leadership since World War II.
The trend isn’t confined to Europe. Trump is gaining support for his bid to return to the White House with every indictment against him. In Argentina, a far-right outsider who promised to shut the central bank and dollarize the economy, won a shock victory last month in a vote ahead of the country’s presidential election.
Europe, of course, has been here before, most recently in the aftermath of the global financial crisis and the continent’s former communist east has been at the forefront.
Widening income disparities in Poland helped propel Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s incumbent Law & Justice party — with its nativist message of defiance toward the “elites” in Brussels and Berlin — to power in 2015. That followed the EU’s disruptor-in-chief, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, capitalizing on the refugee crisis that year. Both leaders have also fueled a culture war over women’s rights and the LGBTQ community.
Yet the pandemic provided fodder for less mainstream groups, some with dark histories of homophobia and racism, to advance as disgruntled voters questioned lockdowns and vaccinations. Now aid to Ukraine is playing into the narrative that voters are being neglected, along with the traditional opposition to immigration and environmental policies.
“Definitely we will continue to rise,” said Martin Helme, leader of the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia, or EKRE, that’s leading some opinion polls. “The immigration problem has deteriorated, and the green transition is annihilating liberal politics because it is destroying people’s welfare and living standards,” he said in an interview on Sept. 6.
A former Estonian finance minister who flashed a White supremacist sign when being sworn in, Helme wants to stop more refugees arriving from Ukraine and to force those in the country to leave. He said he wants to keep Estonia for Estonians. “The political system will not survive if the elite decides to make their people’s lives a hell,” he said.
Championing the conservative Catholic working class has been the cornerstone of success for Poland’s Law & Justice party, which is seeking a third straight term. On Sept. 6, the central bank sent the currency tumbling by chopping interest rates more than expected, a move the governor — a party ally — said would be welcomed by ordinary Poles.
Yet Confederation’s leaders say they are the ones looking out for those interests. They want to focus on the long term, to build up their following to disrupt the establishment in a deeply divided nation. They have targeted their campaign around issues such as reducing the size of the state and simplifying the tax system.
There was definitely a buzz in Olsztyn rather than the hate and anger associated with far-right events of the past. The choreographed rally felt more like a comedy sketch. The crowd laughed as Kaczynski and his main challenger Donald Tusk, the chairman of the largest opposition party and a former Polish premier and European Council president, were ridiculed.
Confederation, a four-year-old amalgamation of three smaller parties around since the 1990s, has ruled out becoming kingmaker and being part of a coalition government. That means a rerun of the election may end up being the outcome unless they slip further in the polls.
Backed by a slick social media machine, the party’s main goal is to make people feel they are “masters of their own destiny,” Krzysztof Bosak, a member of the Polish Parliament who leads the party alongside tax adviser and entrepreneur Slawomir Mentzner, said in an late-night interview at a hotel after the rally. “We want a generational change, a policy change.”
The message worked for Patrycja Krajewska, a pregnant business owner who says the war in Ukraine and influx of refugees is Poland’s biggest financial burden. She found a party that she can relate to, even though Bosak said it’s been careful not to exploit Ukrainians.
“I’m not very pro-Ukrainian,” Krajewska, 35, said on the warm summer evening. “The main problem is that all the money goes for them. We are in Poland. Polish people pay taxes, so we are first. We can help, but not that much.”
Mainstream parties argue that inflation and the flight of refugees aren’t caused by Ukraine, but by Russia’s invasion, and that the region’s far-right leaders frequently parrot Kremlin talking points.
Yet the perception remains, particularly in Poland’s southern neighbor, Slovakia, where the population is among the most pro-Russia in the region. Former three-time Prime Minister Robert Fico, who has promised to veto “pointless” sanctions against Russia that harm EU members, is headed for another win in the Sept. 30 election.
In the background is the far-right Republic party, whose support has swelled to almost 9% from less than 1% when it was founded in February 2021, a year before Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s only fourth in the polls yet may end up in his ruling coalition.
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Teaming with the far-right would strengthen Fico’s resolve to end military aid to Ukraine and reject some of the EU’s policies on green energy and immigration. Republic leader Milan Uhrik said NATO was “a relic of the Cold War, an extended arm of American interest in Slovakia.”
Party chiefs everywhere have worked hard to shake off their extremist background, wearing crisp suits and speaking mainly about economic issues. But the past casts a shadow.
In 2017, Uhrik, currently a member of the European Parliament, refused to condemn the deportation of Jews to Nazi death camps during World War II, saying he didn’t know what the historical circumstances were. A judge convicted party colleague Milan Mazurek of racism after remarks about Roma in a radio interview two years later.
“Critical thinking” brought Uhrik to the conclusion that the EU wasn’t what was promised and NATO is obsolete, he said in an interview in Bratislava on Aug. 28. “I didn’t come to my patriotic and conservative views through Sieg Heil salutes and some marches in uniforms,” he said.
Indeed, Slovakia, Poland and the Netherlands are “key signposts” before European Parliamentary elections in next summer, according to Hugo Brennan, head of EMEA research at risk analysis company Verisk Maplecroft.
The threat of the far-right is overblown, though, even if it’s enjoying a high point, he said. “A strong showing for far-right parties would strengthen the rising tide narrative, but the political center will likely remain the dominant force.”
That center is shifting its strategy in Germany to focus more on the economy and less on the green transition in an effort to address the rising popularity of AfD, which has strengthened to about 20% support in the polls.
While Germany’s next federal election is two years away, regional votes in three eastern states next year might deliver victories for the AfD. Rivals have ruled out governing with the party, raising the prospect of political stasis.
There’s a debate within political circles about banning the AfD, but the move is seen as risky by Scholz and his advisers as it might further fuel radical forces, according to people close to the chancellor. The plan is to counter the AfD’s narrative of halting immigration and reversing European integration. In a speech to parliament on Sept. 6, Scholz attacked the party, calling it a “demolition squad.”
Back in the Polish city of Olsztyn, it was the simplicity of the messaging that resonated with the crowd. “We are the good ones, they are the bad ones,” Confederation co-leader Mentzen told supporters.
Whether a jump in the polls translates into actual votes will become clear next month in Poland, the EU’s biggest eastern economy. What’s already clear is that people are listening, said Rafaella Tenconi, chief economist and founder of ADA Economics in London.
“They’re picking up on the malaise among people,” she said. “These elections are about the human touch, because people feel uncertain.”
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–With assistance from Daniel Hornak, Ott Tammik, Slav Okov, Michael Winfrey, Krzysztof Kropidlowski, Arne Delfs, Iain Rogers, Marton Eder and Natalia Drozdiak.