11 April 2024

Rural Europe turns to the far-right triggered by 'political neglect'

Lorenzo Buzzoni
Lorenzo Buzzoni
Marta Portocarrero
Marta Portocarrero
Paulo Pena
Paulo Pena
Far-right parties are set to win big in June’s European elections. Populist support is on the rise, not least in rural communities, as a “geography of discontent” sweeps the continent.
This article is part of EU under pressure, an Investigate Europe series examining major issues ahead of European elections in June 2024.

On the surface, São Vicente e Ventosa is an unlikely setting for political disruption. A sleepy village with whitewashed buildings and clay roofs, like much of rural Portugal it has an ageing population and an economy reliant on farming. Yet it has become a bellwether of the Portuguese electorate’s surge in support for the far-right.

Almost half of those who voted in the village (population 730) in March's general election opted for the populist Chega party. In the wider municipality of Elvas, an area near the Spanish border, famed for its military history, it was 36 per cent. Nationally, Chega won 18 per cent and a record number of seats.

Village mayor João Charruada is a socialist but even he is not surprised by the area’s rejection of established politics. "People feel disgusted with the central government," says the 38-year-old, who shares an office building with the post office and community centre. "Here in an agricultural area there aren't the same conditions as in Lisbon.
São Vicente e Ventosa mayor João Charruada. Credit: Investigate Europe

Almost half of its 730 residents voted for the far-right Chega party in March's general election. Credit: Jesús Corrales

Similar sentiments abound across Europe. Investigate Europe analysis of the latest national election data from 11 countries found that far-right parties achieved their highest percentage of votes in rural districts. IE reporters travelled to four of these rural communities to understand what is driving voters to side with far-right parties. It is a trend likely to continue with the European Parliament predicted to take a “sharp right turn” in June’s elections.

"A broad 'geography of discontent' is on the rise in long-term declining regions of Europe as well as in many small cities, towns and rural areas," said a February report delivered to the European Commission by an expert group of academics, politicians and civil society. “The sense of despair is not just limited to economic hardship but also expands to a feeling of being politically disenfranchised and socially alienated.”

This feeling of isolation, both geographically and politically, is not unique to rural areas but it is often amplified there. Chega, Germany’s AfD, PVV in the Netherlands, France’s Rassemblement National and others have played on such fears to pitch policies with broad appeal, beyond hardline stances on migration and social issues.

Europe’s far-right has been buoyed by various factors. Be it eroding support for mainstream political parties and the waning influence of leftist movements still tarred by past financial crises, or an ever-favourable media landscape and their ability to exploit polarising culture war issues.
“Living in rural areas is not associated with voting for the radical right because individuals there feel more economically deprived or have more socially conservative views,” says political scientist Pedro Magalhães, who co-authored a paper last year about Portugal’s voting habits. “Instead, living in rural areas is associated with feelings that the area where one lives is neglected by the government and its public policies, and that, in turn, is what drives support for the radical right.”

Such malaise, according to the report sent to the EU Commission, “is not merely a backdrop but a fundamental driver of mounting support for ideologies that either seek to undermine the EU or, in their most radical form, advocate for its demise.”

One of these advocates is the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders, the Eurosceptic firebrand recently described by Politico as “the EU’s worst nightmare”. His far-right Party for Freedom (PVV) won the most votes in November's general election with 25 per cent and is expected to be the largest Dutch party in Brussels come June.
Geert Wilders' PVV party won the most votes in November's general election.Shutterstock

Denounced by many for inflammatory rhetoric and past anti-Islam policies, Wilders managed to attract millions of voters, many in rural areas, by tapping into everyday concerns as well as anti-immigration sentiment. Not least in Sint Willebrord, a quiet town near the Belgian border, where sheep and horses graze and cottages with manicured gardens line the streets. Here, almost three-quarters of those who voted in the town, which has around 9300 residents, voted for Wilders. In the wider Rucphen municipality it was 53 per cent - the party’s biggest share in any district.

“We are a closed community, made up of hard workers, house builders and entrepreneurs,” says Jan Roks, a mechanic in the town for 40 years. “I did not vote for the PVV, but I understand why people support Wilders.”

Manuela Lambrechts, owner of a gluten-free bakery, says Wilders is popular among locals because “he is a normal person. A person like us”. Concerns over housing and public services were also unifying issues. “Young Dutch people cannot leave home because no houses are available, and the few available are too expensive. Wilders wants to fight the lack of housing by stopping immigration,” Lambrechts adds.
Manuela Lambrechts, a bakery owner in Sint Willebrord. All credit: Investigate Europe

The town of Sint Willebrord near the Belgian border.

Almost three-quarters of the town's 9300 residents voted for the PVV.

PVV supporter Geert Lambregts.

In the Netherlands, net migration reached more than 220,000 in 2022, a 10-fold increase in 20 years. The topic dominated the election campaign, and it was one of the reasons why pensioner Geert Lambregts gave Wilders his vote. He stresses that those in the town who voted for Wilders are not racist but believe “immigration must be controlled, and only those fleeing war should enter the Netherlands,” he says during a break from an afternoon game of pool in the high street bar.

Even in a place like Sint Willebrord where immigrant numbers are low, Wilders’ claims that slashing migration would transform the country get attention. “The far-right narrative says 'take back control, zero migration', promising that this is going to solve all the problems, which is a lie. We know that's a lie, but it's an easy story. A story which people want to believe,” says Tom Theuns, a politics professor at Leiden University.

The far-right narrative says 'take back control, zero migration', promising that this is going to solve all the problems, which is a lie.

Tom Theuns, Leiden University

In Portugal, the rapid ascension of Chega, a party formed in 2019, came from similarly populist promises to cut taxes, raise pensions and fight corruption. Leader André Ventura has also stoked fears among minorities with incendiary remarks about the Roma community, migrants and allegations of racism.

In rural areas like Elvas, a Unesco town which has suffered economically since its military base closed in 2006, votes for Chega were double those it won in the 2022 election. “I explain the growth of the extreme right in Elvas because of political populism,” says Almerindo Prudêncio, a cultural mediator who works in schools to improve relations with young Roma. “People have unfortunately been brought up with a stigma about the Roma. And this construction, this narrative, is built by the populism of the extreme right, without any shame.”
Almerindo Prudêncio works in schools to improve relations with the Roma community in Elvas. Credit: Investigate Europe

Residents of Elvas, a Unesco town famous for its military history, voted in huge numbers for Chega. Credit: Shutterstock

But assumptions that voters in rural districts favour more anti-immigration or nationalistic policies are wrong, say some experts. “The propensity to vote for a far-right party decreases with higher public service supply and higher share of immigrants,” wrote Jonna Rickardsson, a Swedish academic and author of The urban–rural divide in radical right populist support. “Individuals in shrinking areas with lower access to public services are likely to respond to the deterioration of their location by casting a vote on the far-right.”

Inside the council building in São Vicente e Ventosa, a group of south Asian men who have come to pick olives are having their paperwork finalised. Not long ago, staff proudly recall, the village helped Moroccan farm labourers who had been cheated by their boss, collecting clothes and food for them. Mayor João Charruadas insists that Chega’s success here is not fuelled by xenophobia, but rather hopes that a shift in politics will improve daily life, including its neglected public services.

"There's only one bus to Elvas [10 kilometres away], in the morning and one in the afternoon, and people who need healthcare have to go there often." It's quicker for someone in Elvas to get to Madrid by train, more than 400 kilometres away, than to Lisbon (200km away). The maternity hospital in Elvas closed around 20 years ago. The nearest one is now in Spain.

The propensity to vote for a far-right party decreases with higher public service supply and higher share of immigrants.

Jonna Rickardsson

In France, the Rassemblement National is conquering this same kind of vote. Marine Le Pen’s party are a favourite for June’s elections and she has vowed to tackle “authoritarian” bureaucracy in Brussels. It could prove a timely tactic with far-right groups eyeing further inroads into rural Europe by sweeping up support of protesting farmers, themselves angry at EU officialdom.

The economist Thomas Piketty reported that a “new class conflict” has emerged “in which not only income or social class, but also place of residence plays an important role”. This sense of “inequality” is driving voters in rural areas to judge the quality of public infrastructure, “things like access to state-of-the-art hospitals and universities” at a time when investment is scarce. “Voters in these regions have been much more affected by the acceleration of globalisation, but also by European integration.”
Marine Le Pen at a campaign event for the European elections in Marseille, March 2024.Shutterstock

Rural unease has helped anti-establishment parties capture voters who feel forgotten by decision-makers at home and in Brussels. Alternative for Germany (AfD), another Eurosceptic, anti-immigration party, is tipped to make gains in June’s parliamentary elections. It has won nationwide support but no more so than in Görlitz, a rural district near the Polish border renowned for its gothic and baroque architecture, where it received 32.5 per cent of votes - its highest margin in the 2021 federal elections.

Frank Seibel, a former newspaper reporter who now runs a synagogue-turned culture centre in Görlitz, says AfD has harnessed local dissatisfaction with authorities. “There is this perception that there are people sitting in Berlin who decide something that has influence on my everyday life and who have absolutely no idea of how I live here and what is important to me. I think that certainly plays a role,” he says.

AfD’s broad support is "a colourful mix, partly protest, partly concrete things that have frustrated citizens over the decades," says Octavian Ursu, a classical musician-turned-politician who has been mayor for almost five years. As elsewhere, bureaucracy and public service issues were factors. Ursu, who was born in Romania, cites the unfinished motorway and an un-electrified railway line as examples why residents "don't get the feeling that there is really the will to finalise these transport connections".
Görlitz, a rural district near the Polish border renowned for its gothic and baroque architecture. All credit: Investigate Europe

AfD won 36 per cent of votes in the district in the 2021 federal elections.

Far-right surges are happening in Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Hungary, Sweden and across the EU. A pivotal moment came in 2022 with Giorgia Meloni’s election as Italy’s first far-right premier since the second world war. Her Brothers of Italy party succeeded in garnering huge support, thanks largely to strong anti-migration policies and Meloni’s own anti-establishment appeal.

The northern municipality of Verona gave almost 30 per cent of its votes to Meloni, and in the town of Salizzole the figure was almost 50 per cent - a national high. A small, ageing town centred around a 12th-century castle, Salizzole has voted far-right for decades.

In 2022 support stemmed from familiar concerns around immigration and the area’s perceived long-term decline. The closure of its furniture factories has left an economy largely dependent on tobacco, rice and vegetable production - and increasingly migrant workers. “Young people are no longer willing to do certain jobs, so foreigners are indispensable … many work hard, others do not work and are maintained by the Italian state, and this is not good,” says Filippo Scioni, a former councillor in Salizzole.
The small town of Salizzole, Verona. All credit: Investigate Europe

Filippo Scioni, a former councillor in Salizzole.

Andrea Castagna, a regional president of the National Partisans’ Organisation (Anpi).

Almost 50 per cent of residents in Salizzole voted for Brothers of Italy.

The backing for Brothers of Italy, which has roots in neo-fascism (Meloni herself was a MSI Youth activist), is striking in an area with its own long history of emigration. Thousands of Venetians migrated to South America in the 19th century to escape desperate poverty. While the region is now largely affluent, the ever-powerful forces of globalisation have raised fears that a new wave of economic deprivation could be around the corner.

Andrea Castagna, a regional president of the National Partisans’ Organisation (Anpi), thinks such concerns are part of the reason why voters “seek security and stability in the narrative of the extreme right”.

Meloni’s success in a place whose history has been shaped by Nazi occupation and the huge resistance movement that followed is a sad reality for Castagna. "The far-right wins because memory is fading", he says, showing the military valour medal for liberation awarded to Vestenanova, a small mountain town in the Verona area. "You should know that in this town, razed to the ground twice by the Nazi fascists, in the last election Brothers of Italy took the most percentage votes in Italy, second only to Salizzole.”

For Debora, who owns a stationary shop in Salizzole, the reason she voted for Meloni is simple. “Honestly, I don't know why I voted for Brothers of Italy. All I can tell you is that I eat with my right hand, I write with my right hand, and in this area, we have always voted right.”

Additional reporting by Nico Schmidt.
Editor: Chris Matthews


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