Muslim Voters and the European Left: When Inclusion Leads to Populism

Over the last few years, well over two million mostly Muslim refugees have arrived in Europe, a fact that has come to dominate headlines and elections across the continent. This large-scale inflow has bolstered right-wing populism and pushed some mainstream conservative parties to the right on migration in order to protect their share of the vote. But while the refugee crisis has led to shifts on the right, it has also highlighted a strategic problem for the left: how to approach immigration and immigrant voters without driving away their working-class base.

By Rafaela M. Dancygier for Foreign Affairs

Over the last few years, well over two million mostly Muslim refugees have arrived in Europe, a fact that has come to dominate headlines and elections across the continent. This large-scale inflow has bolstered right-wing populism and pushed some mainstream conservative parties to the right on migration in order to protect their share of the vote. But while the refugee crisis has led to shifts on the right, it has also highlighted a strategic problem for the left: how to approach immigration and immigrant voters without driving away their working-class base.

For instance, although much has been made about how German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open embrace of refugees cost her center-right Christian Democratic Union precious votes in the 2017 German election, parties on the left lost supporters to the anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland in nearly equal numbers. In part because of these losses, the election was a historic defeat for the Social Democrats, who received 20.5 percent of the vote—their worst showing since 1949.

In Austria, meanwhile, the center-right Austrian People’s Party recently agreed to govern with the fiercely xenophobic and nationalist Freedom Party (FPÖ), leaving the defeated Social Democrats out in the cold. In an election in which voters ranked immigration as their top issue, an astounding 59 percent of the Austrian working class voted for the FPÖ, while only a paltry 19 percent cast their ballots for the erstwhile workers’ party.


The left faces a dilemma: over the past several decades social democratic parties have increasingly drawn support from cosmopolitan, middle-class voters who welcome diversity, but large parts of their traditional working-class base reject immigration, especially from Muslim-majority countries. Recognizing this dilemma, some parties have begun to more aggressively court immigrants and other underrepresented minorities in the hope of building a broad, cross-class coalition of socially liberal voters. The Democratic Party has adopted this approach in the United States, albeit with uneven success.

In Europe, however, my research suggests that this path will be much more difficult. In fact, as I explain in my recent book, the ways in which European parties recruit immigrant voters may in fact deepen the dilemma.

The central problem for the European left is this: the largest and fastest-growing groups of immigrant voters originate from Muslim-majority countries and often bring with them the socially conservative traditions of their homelands. This comes just as left-wing parties have rebranded themselves as champions of secularism, cosmopolitanism, and feminism in order to appeal to their increasingly liberal middle-class base. The result is a clash of values, which plays out most often in cities, where Muslim communities have replicated the village ties, patriarchal structures, and religious practices of their home countries next door to secular, progressive middle-class enclaves. In Brussels, to give just one example, more than 80 percent of Muslims think that women should work less “for the sake of their family,” while only 37 percent of non-Muslims agree.

The European Muslim electorate is not monolithic. It contains religious voters who are socially liberal, secular voters who feel culturally rooted in their religious background, and voters who don’t feel much connection to their religion at all. When recruiting Muslim candidates and voters, parties therefore have a wide range of strategies to choose from.


To understand how European parties incorporate Muslim candidates and voters, I analyzed thousands of electoral campaigns in nearly 300 cities across Austria, Belgium, Germany, and the United Kingdom. My research found that parties pursued different strategies based on the size and strategic importance of the Muslim vote.

Many center-left parties want to recruit Muslim candidates who fit their constituents’ secular and socially liberal preferences. They want to have it both ways: appeal to their cosmopolitan base by appearing tolerant while signaling to the Muslim electorate that they are interested in their vote, a strategy that I call “symbolic inclusion.” Parties usually try to achieve symbolic inclusion by selecting secular, progressive, and feminist Muslims. These candidates are frequently female, since simply by running for office, a Muslim woman can convey she is assimilated and not held back by patriarchal norms—a signal that is reinforced when she doesn’t wear a headscarf. A Muslim man cannot so easily convey that he is progressive, and previous research has shown that such shortcuts matter when voters evaluate candidates.

Symbolic inclusion of this kind is likely to occur when the Muslim vote isn’t critical for winning elections. It is targeted instead at non-Muslim voters who don’t feel comfortable voting for an all-male, all-white, all-Christian party—appealing to Muslims is a plus, but it is a secondary goal. Symbolic inclusion explains why Muslim women often appear in visible appointed positions, even in countries and parties with low overall numbers of Muslim politicians.

It also explains why local parties in Austria and Germany nominate disproportionately more female Muslim candidates than do their counterparts in Belgium and the United Kingdom. In all of these countries, Muslim integration is a highly politicized topic and Muslims make up a roughly similar percentage of the population. But Austria and Germany have more restrictive citizenship regimes, meaning that lower shares of Muslims are citizens. As a result, they are a less important part of the electorate. Since most parties are driven by the goal of winning elections—as opposed to, say, upholding ideological commitments to inclusiveness—parties in Austria and Germany include fewer Muslim candidates. They generally do not need the Muslim vote; rather, they pick a few Muslim candidates to send symbolic messages to their progressive base.

In Belgium and the United Kingdom, by contrast, the percentage of elected Muslim candidates is several times higher than in Austria and Germany, yet the share of female Muslim candidates is much lower. For instance, nearly half of Muslim local politicians in the Austrian and German cities I studied were women, but in British cities only 14 percent were.

Why this discrepancy? Muslims in Germany and Austria are not significantly more secular or progressive than those in the United Kingdom. Rather, in many British and Belgian cities, parties have moved on to what I call “vote-based inclusion.” This occurs when parties have an incentive to actively court the Muslim vote. By prioritizing clan over class, the European left is highlighting points of cultural difference.
Thanks to their more permissive citizenship laws, Belgium and the United Kingdom have relatively more Muslim voters. British electoral boundaries, moreover, are drawn in a way that rewards spatial concentration: groups whose members settle in proximity—often religious minorities such as observant Muslims in Europe or Orthodox Jews in the United States—can have a big influence on elections. What’s more, religious minorities tend to have dense social networks that can effectively get out the vote on election day—and left-wing parties have not shied away from tapping into them. In London, Brussels, and Rotterdam, electoral contests are frequently won by leaning on clan leaders and imams who can turn out their followers.

Yet vote-based inclusion presents problems of its own. Seduced by the allure of the Muslim bloc vote, left-wing party leaders turn a blind eye to the controversial stances adopted by Muslim candidates and their supporters on subjects such as religious education or the treatment of women and girls. (This tradeoff is not unique to the political recruitment of European Muslims but applies to religious minorities in liberal, secular democracies more generally.)

Indeed, relying on ethnoreligious ties for voter mobilization empowers socially conservative traditionalists (as both candidates and voting blocs) whose stances on social issues collide with the official positions of the party and the views of its secular, liberal base. For instance, Muslim local politicians have in the past failed to cooperate with law enforcement when it comes to combating domestic violence or forced marriage in their communities. They have also sabotaged the entry of Muslim women into politics. Muslim women in Birmingham recently lodged an official complaint with Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, alleging that Muslim male politicians, with the complicity of the local Labour Party, have for years engaged in “systematic misogyny” and smear campaigns against Muslim women who aspired to be political candidates.

In fact, because vote-based inclusion produces Muslim candidates that are almost always men, when party leaders pursue this type of inclusion, they effectively—and deliberately—reduce the number of women who win elected office. Left-wing parties (but also those on the right) promote gender equality within their ranks only when it doesn’t hurt their electoral bottom line.


Vote-based inclusion has repercussions beyond ethnoreligious enclaves. By prioritizing clan over class, the European left is wasting an opportunity to build a new, ethnically diverse class-based coalition and instead highlights points of cultural difference. This strategy plays into the hands of right-wing populists who are all too eager to use cultural issues to peel off working-class voters from left-wing parties—a problem that the left has been facing in the United States as well. However, because European parties are often appealing to socially conservative minorities, they, unlike the Democrats, run the risk of alienating their socially liberal base as well.

Finally, neither symbolic nor vote-based inclusion necessarily advances Muslim social and economic integration. Parties frequently use symbolic candidates as tokens that are meant to please non-Muslim cosmopolitans but that are not supposed to act as agents of real change. Vote-based inclusion of religious traditionalists comes from different motives, but it also does a disservice to the many Muslim voters who want to elect representatives who will fight for good schools, jobs, and housing. Research consistently shows that European Muslims face severe and widespread discrimination in each of these areas. Yet when left-wing parties pursue the Muslim enclave vote, their primary goal is to pick candidates on the basis of their voter mobilization skills rather than their economic policy or antidiscrimination positions.


Europe’s left-wing parties have important choices to make. If they continue to engage in symbolic inclusion, giving their cosmopolitan base the illusion that integration is progressing without actually effecting much change, they risk alienating Muslim voters. If they keep up the type of vote-based inclusion that has characterized enclave politics thus far, they will likely fan the flames of populism while pushing away progressive cosmopolitans.

One way out of this dilemma is for the left to return to its roots and fashion a coalition that brings together voters on the basis of egalitarianism and shared economic concerns. Such a strategy won’t mobilize the traditional-enclave bloc vote, and it could lose the left some support among middle-class voters whose economic interests outweigh their commitment to social liberalism. But a focus on addressing widely shared economic challenges would appeal to majority and minority voters alike and potentially help put the brakes on populism.