The cordon sanitaire, a strategy that doesn't always work

Germany and Greece continue to veto the far-right, while Austria and Italy have normalized it

4 min
Leader of the Spanish far-right party Vox, Santiago Abascal

BarcelonaThe rise of the far right in state institutions is a very recent phenomenon. Until 2018 it did not even have a presence. Vox made its debut in Andalusia, where its xenophobic discourse and apparently simple solutions to complex problems seduced almost 400,000 Andalusians. And with the PP and Cs thirsty to unseat the PSOE from the government after forty years, the cordon sanitaire was not even considered. Since then, the triple right has also been at work in the regional governments of Madrid and Murcia, always with Vox outside the cabinet but as an indispensable partner. There are now 11 regional parliaments with a far-right presence, and on 14 February Catalonia left the group of those that are still holding on without them, including Galicia, Navarre, the Canary Islands, Extremadura, Castile-La Mancha and La Rioja. Vox is the fourth force and could aspire to a place at the Parliamentary table, but the cordon sanitaire that all the parties - except, once again, PP and Cs - propose makes it practically impossible. The Catalan parties now face a dilemma that has marked politics for years in many European states, which are torn between sharing power with the extreme right and the cordon sanitaire to isolate it.

The idea of the cordon sanitaire was born in the 1980s in France with the rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front. Jacques Chirac's right wing faced the dilemma of whether or not to make a pact with its right flank. "The conservative party considered whether it was better to try to contain the extreme right by allying with it to keep it under control or to make it clear that there was a moral ideological opposition that prevented any alliance", Jean-Yves Camus, director of the Political Radicalities Observatory at the Jean Jaurès Foundation in Paris explains. "They felt that if they allied with the National Front, they would be devoured by it. After all, Le Pen always said that voters preferred the original to the copy". In fact, in France the cordon sanitaire means not only not making government agreements with the ultras, but also a Republican front of all against one in the second round of the presidential elections, which meant, for example, that the Socialist Party asked citizens to vote for Chirac with a pincer on their noses to block Le Pen's way. Today Marine Le Pen's party, which has broken with her father and renamed itself Rassemblement National (National Rally), is stronger than ever electorally, but has not come to power beyond a few municipalities such as Perpignan.

The urgency of standing up to it

As political scientist Cas Mudde, one of the leading analysts of populism in Europe, explained to ARA, "the effects of the cordon sanitaire are not so obvious. What we see is that it basically helps if it is done in the early stages of the rise of a far-right party, before it has significant support in society. And also that it is much easier to do it against far-right parties, like Golden Dawn, than against radical right-wing parties like Vox, which have values that are more widely shared among both the elites and the masses".

The example of Greece is the most paradigmatic in this sense: the neo-Nazis of Golden Dawn obtained more than 400,000 votes and became the third force in Parliament in 2015 in the midst of the crisis caused by the austerity plans and with the polarization brought by Syriza in the government. Four years later and with a permanent street mobilization, they were left out of the institutions for not exceeding 3% and ended up convicted of criminal organization for their murders and assaults.

The cordon has also worked in Germany, although with tensions. The pact in the regional government of the eastern state of Thuringia between the conservative CDU and the local branch of Alternative for Germany (AfD) lasted only a few hours and its victim was none other than the woman who was to be Angela Merkel's successor.

Italy and Austria, without barriers

France, Greece and Germany are, after all, exceptions on the European political map. In Italy there have never been any vetoes against the far right: Matteo Salvini's League governed with the 5 Star Movement and will now also be present in Mario Draghi's rescue government. And if the Fratteli d'Italia, a post-fascist formation, have been left out, it has been out of their own free will.

Nor has the Austrian far right ever come up against any barriers. As the third political force for decades, both the Social Democrats and the Conservatives have reached out to them to govern. The coalition between the Conservatives and the Freedom Party collapsed in 2019. The former changed partners to agree with the Greens but kept the anti-immigration agenda.

In the Nordic countries the far right has also been strongly implanted for years. The True Finns were only one point behind the Social Democrats in 2019, and when the far right tabled a vote of no confidence just six months later, the prime minister, Antti Rinne, stepped back to avoid a rerun of the elections. In Estonia, by contrast, despite a campaign to exclude the EKRE ultras, the conservatives eventually welcomed them into a coalition government.

For Mudde, in the Spanish case "it seems too late for the cordon sanitaire with Vox, unless the PP and Cs openly admit that they were wrong to agree and denounce their authoritarianism and identitarianism. If they simply ostracise Vox but continue to adopt their agenda, the cordon will look like hypocrisy".

Euan Healey of Europe Elects warns that it is not so easy to tame the far right. Even if the traditional parties try to compromise them with the rules of the game of the institutions, the ultras will end up demanding "anti-democratic or anti-minority policies in exchange for their support".