In this 2014 photo, leader of the Party for Freedom (PVV) Geert Wilders greets a little dog at a market in The Hague during campaigning.
Dutch politics have gotten colorful. In this 2014 photo, leader of the Party for Freedom (PVV) Geert Wilders greets a little dog at a market in The Hague during campaigning.
Credit: Koen van Weel

LISBON, Portugal — Europe's plethora of political parties has always been baffling, especially for Americans used to the simplicity of their eternal Democrat vs. Republican duels.

Now, after six years of unprecedented economic crisis, disgruntled voters from Greece to Great Britain are fast reshaping the continent's political landscape, blurring traditional left-right divides and throwing up surprising — and disturbing — new alignments.

Take France. Politics there is now a three-horse race between the Socialists of President Francois Hollande, the center-right led by his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy and the radical right National Front party.

In local elections held across the country last week, the Front came second with 25 percent of the vote, behind a mainstream right coalition headed by Sarkozy with 29 percent, but ahead of the Socialists who scored just over 21 percent.

"The people are reinventing politics. You had better get used to it," the Front's leader Marine Le Pen told rivals at a rally this week.

"This is just the beginning ... next we'll target the Elysee," she promised, referring to the presidential palace in Paris.

Then there's Spain. Since democracy was restored in the mid-1970s, the conservative People's Party has alternated in power with the Socialists. Now, with national elections coming in December, opinion polls point to a victory by the radical left We Can (Podemos) party, founded just last year.

The We Can upstarts are, however, no longer Spain's fastest growing party. Today's trending movement is a bunch of radical centrists who call themselves Citizens.

Originally set up in Catalonia to oppose the regional government's separatist ambitions, the party went national last year and has seen its poll ratings soar. The December elections could be a four-way fight.     

That political fragmentation is happening across the continent.

In provincial elections in the Netherlands last week, the top six parties each received between 10 percent and 16 percent of the vote. Smaller groups representing animal lovers, voters over 50 and Calvinist traditionalists also made gains. 

Nine parties are expected to win seats in Finland's parliamentary election in April. Four parties already share power there in a government coalition that includes two center-right factions, the Social Democrats, and a group representing the Swedish-speaking minority.

In Britain, where the Conservative and Labour parties have dominated politics since the end of World War II, the general election on May 7 is set to erode the two-party system — even if support for the centrist Liberal-Democrats is in free fall.

Big gains are expected for the radical right UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the Greens.

However, with Labour and Conservative running neck-and-neck in the polls, it's the Scottish Nationalist Party that could hold the balance of power. It's expected to pull off a near sweep of seats in Scotland.

Blurred lines

So far, it's Greece that has produced Europe's biggest political earthquake. The elections in January that brought the far-left Syriza party to power drew a line under the conservative v. socialist politics that had been the norm since the end of dictatorship in the 1970s.

In 2009, Greece's last election before the country became the epicenter of the euro zone debt crisis, the Socialists and the conservative New Democracy party won a combined 77.4 percent of the vote. In January they got just 34 percent.

Parliament is now packed with radical leftists, old-school Communists, ultra-nationalists, neo-Nazis and 17 members of another new radical centrist party, snappily named The River.

Hours after winning the election, Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras was able to secure his place as prime minister by striking a coalition deal with an unlikely partner — the ultra-conservative nationalist Independent Greeks party.

That deal illustrates how Europe's economic crisis has muddied left-right dividing lines.

Although they are poles apart on social issues like immigration, Syriza and the Independent Greeks have united in their opposition to austerity policies imposed on Greece in return for the 240 billion euro ($260 billion) bailouts from the European Union and International Monetary Fund that have — just about — kept the economy afloat.

Restoring national sovereignty over the economy and weakening the influence of the EU have become a rallying call for radical parties on the left and right, and not just in Greece.

France's far-right leader Le Pen gave vocal support for the far-left Tsipras during the Greek election campaign because of his opposition to EU economic policies.

At home, she combines nationalist rhetoric against immigration and the importance of restoring French influence on the world stage with leftist-style economic pledges — like trade barriers to protect French companies from international competition, state support for industry, and defending cherished welfare benefits.

That's enabled the National Front — and populist right parties elsewhere in Europe — to capture votes from the left as well as center-right rivals. Le Pen thrives in the struggling industrial heartland of northern France that was once a socialist and communist stronghold.

"Mdme. Le Pen has the same economic program as the far left, I have nothing to do with them," Sarkozy told French TV this week. "She has a crazy economic policy ... we have nothing in common with them, they are aligned with the far left."

Parties on Europe's radical right and far left also see eye-to-eye on Russia.

Observers from Germany's The Left party teamed up with envoys from the National Front and far-right parties from Italy, Belgium, Austria, Hungary and Bulgaria to offer approval for Russia's annexation of Crimea last year.

Such parties have maintained vocal support for Russian leader Vladimir Putin throughout the Ukraine crisis.

In the European Parliament on Wednesday, lawmakers on the far left and far right united to vote against a 1.8 billion euro ($1.96 billion) aid program for Ukraine — which passed with the support of conservatives, Christian democrats, liberals, socialists and greens.

If not power, influence

Despite emergence of the new radicals, most of Europe's traditional parties aren't likely to suffer a Greek-style collapse just yet.

Le Pen was actually disappointed to be beaten by a resurgent Sarkozy in the first round of the French local elections. She is unlikely to win more than a couple of counties, or “départements,” in Sunday's second round, as moderate voters on the left and right unite to shut her out.

Spain's Podemos was also disappointed with its results in elections last week in the southern Andalusia region, where it finished third behind the Socialists and the People's Party. Its rating in national polls has started to level off.

Far-right parties in the Netherlands, Belgium and Finland have seen support stagnate or start to fall.

The peculiarities of Britain's electoral system will stop UKIP from winning more than a handful of seats, at best.

Even if they are not poised to grab power, the new forces will continue to exercise influence, shaping political debate, pressuring mainstream politicians to take on more radical positions, and making it harder for moderates to form stable government coalitions.

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