Pirate Parties and Populists – how the Greens can respond to new parties

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Despite existing in many European countries for over 30 years, the Greens are usually portrayed (and portray themselves) as a ‘new’ political movement. Linked to this is the idea that the Greens should be the automatic choice for disaffected, anti-establishment voters. How then do the Greens respond when new parties come on the scene, or when populist parties start to encroach on the Green’s anti-establishment space?

In the Campaign Handbook, we examine two Green parties that had to confront the sudden rise of new or populist parties. In both cases, the Greens struggled to come to terms with this new political landscape, but eventually managed to respond to this changed landscape and continue to grow as a party.

A response to the ‘True Finns’

The True Finns have existed in their current form since 1995, but for their first decade of existence they stood at the margins of Finnish politics. It was not until the onset of the economic crisis that, helped by a charismatic leader, they burst into the centre of Finnish politics. With a potent mix of anti-environmentalism, euroscepticism and a critical approach to migration, the party emerged as the biggest winners in the 2011 Parliamentary elections.

At the beginning of the election, the True Finns had a similar polling rating to the Greens. The Greens responded by attacking the party on a range of issues, suggesting for example that it wanted to take Finland back to the 1950s and wanted to undermine Finland’s environmental protection. This failed to halt the rise of the True Finns, and as their poll numbers increased, many began to speculate that they could win the Premiership. This resulted in some voters leaving the Greens to vote for one of the ‘major’ parties in order to prevent the True Finns emerging as the largest party.

As the Greens continued to attack the True Finns in order to halt their momentum, for some the Greens came across as arrogant and lecturing. And True Finns voters saw the attacks on their party as criticisms of them personally, which hardened their attitude against the Greens and made it more difficult for the Greens to win back lost voters.

In the parliamentary elections, the Greens suffered a loss of one-third of their seats while the True Finns had the largest gain in seats by a party in Finnish history. With a Presidential election due the following January, it was time to rethink their strategy.

This took two forms. The first was a decision by the Finnish Greens not to attack every statement that the True Finns made. Clearly the more outrageous claims by True Finns had to be responded to, but it wasn’t the role of the Greens to rebut everything they said. Especially as the Green attacks weren’t succeeding in their objective of blunting support for the party.

Copyright Katr

The Presidential campaign of Green candidate Pekka Haavisto was a chance for the Finnish Greens to re-calibrate their message

The second aspect of this new strategy was to reach out to the True Finns, in order to find common ground. Their nomination of Pekka Haavisto, a respected conflict negotiator, certainly helped in this respect! The Finnish Greens began to build up a working relationship with the True Finns, including with their most conservative and extreme representatives.

An example of this effort included a visit by Haavisto to the sawmill of a True Finn MP, to see his perspective on raw products manufacturing in sparsely populated areas. In return, the True Finn MP visited an immigration centre, to see first-hand the human aspect of this problem.

When possible, The Greens have also tried to find common ground with the True Finns for example in regards to both parties trying to protect Finland’s generous welfare system or bringing more openness to governance. Of course, there was still a clear ideological gap between the parties and cooperation is difficult, but it was also an opportunity for the greens to present themselves as willing to work across party lines, and put policies ahead of personality. What helped in this strategy was that the Greens, and Haavisto in particular, came across as sincere and genuine in their commitment to work with others.

A response to the ‘Pirate Party’

Although there is a world of difference between the right-wing True Finns and the digital-rights Pirate Party in Germany, there are a lot of similarities in how Greens in the respective countries responded to them. After all, both parties challenged the Green’s position as radical and anti-establishment.

Copyright Sara Rasmussen

The Pirate Party presented new challenges to the German Green Party.

The German Pirate Party were formed in 2006, but for several years failed to make an impact on the German political landscape. This changed in the past year, as they gained entry to a number of state Parliaments, undoubtedly benefiting from both general political disillusionment and the debate around internet freedom. A distinct brand of anti-establishmentarianism, right-wing libertarianism and open democracy, the Pirates began to increase their level of support and even overtook the Greens in one election result on state level. The Greens responded by attacking the Pirates, in the hope of undermining their support.

To begin with, a lot of Pirate Party voters were new and first time voters, who were put off by the Greens critical approach to this new party. As the Pirates continued to grow, the Greens stepped up their attacks on the party. This proved to be counterproductive, as every time the Greens talked about the Pirates, they weren’t talking about their own policies and vision.

Like in Finland, the German Greens had to rethink their strategy. In the Schleswig-Holstein state elections, the Greens reduced their attacks on the Pirate Party. It wasn’t essential that the Greens used every occasion to have a go at the party. Dropping the attitude that the Greens were superior to the Pirate Party meant that they came across as more humble.

Instead of attacks, the party used is media presence and resources to promote a positive image of the Greens. The Greens accepted that they were no longer the ‘new’ party on the scene, and that having been in Government at State and Federal level, they no longer could portray themselves only as anti-establishment. But the Greens did have a positive message – they were the original party of open democracy, with a proud culture of internal debate and discussion and a topic that made them unique: the fight against climate change and its consequences and the finite nature of our natural resources. The Greens can learn from these new players on the political scene, and follow their lead in some areas, but they needn’t obsess over new arrivals.

As a result, the Greens have been restored as the third party in national polls, and the Pirates have fallen back a little bit. The Greens and Pirates will still compete for votes ahead of Federal Elections, but the Greens have learned to ‘box clever’.

Finland and Germany are leading examples of successful Green Parties, with Greens in both countries having experience in national government on more than one occasion. This success brought with it the new challenge of adjusting to being part of the mainstream, and how to exist as ‘establishment Greens’. In both cases, the answer was to accept and take ownership of this new status, but to ensure that what really made people vote for the Greens – the positive outlook, the party of ideas – remains at the centre of their message.

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