The Populist Right-Wing Mayors of Europe

While far-right candidates running for high positions steal headlines, city halls are just as vulnerable to the same politics. (Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters)

Previously governed by mainstream parties since World War II, some cities are now laboratories for small-scale experiments of this radical ideology.

Read on at City Lab


Vienna: A Divided City?

This post originally appeared on the 4 Cities blog


On 4 December, Austria went to the polls to vote for their President for the third time in 2016. The first round was held on 24 April, with a second round run-off between the two leading candidates, Alexander Van der Bellen and Norbert Hofer, following on 22 May. However, the results of the second round were annulled due to irregularities, making a third trip to the polls necessary. In the meantime, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump raised expectations that Austria would hand victory to the FPÖ (Freedom Party) candidate Hofer, as a representative of anti-EU populism.

However, Austria bucked the populist trend and voted strongly for Van der Bellen as president (53.8% of the vote nationally). The former Green Party leader gained a larger margin of victory than in the second (cancelled) round, and a majority in every single one of Vienna’s 23 districts.

We mapped the preliminary election results district by district for the final presidential election, to see how the vote varied in different areas. Vienna can be thought of in terms of different regions, with their own unique character. For this reason, we have divided the city into five multi-district regions, and analysed each in turn. The 2016 presidential elections showed Austria to be a divided country. Is the capital city also divided?

Read on at the 4 Cities blog here.

“The Manchester miracle”: how did a city in decline become the poster child for urban regeneration?

This blog originally appeared on CityMetric, the New Statesman’s cities site

The Piccadilly area of central Manchester in 1887. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

In an April 2015, a poll commissioned by the Manchester Evening News found that 72 per cent of respondents were in favour of Manchester seceding from the United Kingdom.

Like the post-Brexit petition for London independence, perhaps the poll shouldn’t be taken too seriously. But it does illustrate the independent Mancunian spirit – a spirit that’s also seen its civic leaders reshaping the city’s political institutions and economic strategies since its post-industrial nadir in the 1980s.

Today, Greater Manchester is moving towards electing its first metro mayor next year. Could it really go beyond that – to independence?

Read on at CityMetric


Thesis step one: the second version


I’m researching the effect of far-right control of European cities for my master’s dissertation. Two months ago, I posted my first attempt at the outline, including the questions I’d be answering and the approach I’d take. Further research has informed a change of plan, as I outline here. I’ll follow this structure to explain the new research:

A. Research Question

B. Theoretical Framing

C. Research Objects

D. Research Methods

A. Research Question

What is distinctive about far-right urban governance, and how does its form vary between, and within, local regimes?


1          What is distinctive about the far-right politics of the Austrian FPÖ and the Italian Lega Nord parties? What change is to be expected at the urban level when they hold power, based on party rhetoric and policy proposals?

2          What constraints are placed on partisan politics at the urban scale in Austria and Italy by actors at other levels of the national and international system, and the particular local socio-economic context? And in which policy areas is there sufficient freedom of action to analyse distinctiveness?

3          What is the nature of the urban regime established by far-right mayors in the case study cities (Wels and Padua), and in particular what has changed due to their influence? How do governance forms vary across, and within, different policy areas and different parts of each city?

4          What are the distinctive urban policy proposals, outputs and outcomes produced by the far-right mayors, in comparison to preceding mayors of mainstream parties? Again, how do they vary across different policy areas and different parts of the city?

B. Theoretical Framing

Here I demonstrate the theory behind the flow of the investigation: narrowing down from party ideology to the change witnessed within the particular case study cities when under far-right control. References given here are illustrative of theoretical framework, and are not intended to be exhaustive. 

1 – Far-Right Party Politics

  • European far-right political ideology (Minkenberg, 2015); Lega Nord (Cento Bull, 2009); FPÖ (Stockemer & Lamontagne, 2014) )
  • Partisanship and (local) government – the significance of a change in political party to a change in governance. (Gerber & Hopkins, 2011 and Ferreira & Gyourko, 2009 on the subject in an American context)

2 – Political context and constraints

  • Urban political constraint (formal, e.g. legal, institutional and financial; and informal, e.g. competitive pressures of global economy). (Boraz and John, 2001)

3 – Urban Regime

  • Urban regime theory (Stone, 1993, used by Pierre, 1999) – foundational typology of regimes by their goals and the coalitions formed to pursue them: a) maintenance, b) development, c) middle-class progressive, and d) lower-class opportunity expansion regimes.
  • Typology of urban regimes (Blanco, 2013, 2015) – based on two dimensions, a) substantive and b) formal (see sections C. and E. below for more info)

4 – Urban Policy

  • Typology of (national) urban policy (Holland, 2015) – framework would be adapted to analyse urban policy implemented at local rather than national level


C. Research Objects

The case study cities are Wels and Padua, chosen for the comparability in terms of size, regional standing, political character and economic base. Wels: population 60,000 (second largest in the Upper Austria region); FPÖ mayor elected in 2015; industrial sector is a significant part of the local economy. Padua: population 210,000 (third largest in the Veneto region); Lega Nord mayor elected in 2014; large industrial area (one of the biggest in Europe).

1 – Far-Right Party Politics

  • FPÖ and Lega Nord party rhetoric and policy proposals (both national and local), with particular focus on those with impact at the urban scale.

2 – Political context and constraints

  • Political structure in Wels and Padua and the relation of city government to regional, national and transnational (i.e. the EU) bodies.
  • Level of decision making authority for local government, varying by policy area
  • City budget, showing funding sources (e.g. from central government, local taxation) and which policy areas mayors (are able to) directly finance
  • Local socio-economic context of Wels and Verona, to demonstrate the informal constraints on (and opportunities for) the city government

3 – Urban Regime

  • Substantive dimension of the urban regime: agenda, problems and goals set by mayor, policies implemented and their outcomes (focusing on particular policy area(s) identified in part 2, which would be analysed using Holland’s conceptual framework of urban policy referred to in part 4)
  • Formal dimension of the urban regime: leadership style, cross-scale co-operation, nature of public-private relationships and level of community participation

4 – Urban Policy

  • Urban policies proposed and implemented (with particular focus on policy area(s) identified in part 2)


D. Research Methods

1 – Far-Right Party Politics

  • Literature review on FPÖ and Lega Nord studies, and comparative studies of European far-right (urban) politics

2 – Political context and constraints

  • Semi-structured interviews with experts
  • Statistical analysis of spending changes

3 – Urban Regime 

  • Semi-structured interviews (using the Urban Regime typology framework of Blanco, 2013) with experts

4 – Urban Policy

  • Semi-structured interviews (using the Urban Policy typology framework of Holland, 2015) with experts
  • Document and statistical analysis of policy and budget documents: analysing change in policies proposed, and budget input and outputs.


In order to draw a causal link between the change in party and the change in urban governance form, I will be comparing the case study cities across different time periods (before and after the current mayor was elected) and with the urban regime and urban policy typologies. I aim to therefore isolate what has changed due to the far-right party being in charge and not due to other external, moderating variables, as well as ensuring I’m not simply describing pre-existing phenomena that have continued.

As always – interested for feedback from experts and anyone who’s interested, so please do get in touch!

The Italian Far-Right Mayor Cleaning Up

In this blog I regularly share excerpts from my research into far-right cities. What happens when parties with non-mainstream, often extreme, policy platforms are given control of urban administrations? Verona elected a mayor from the Lega Nord (Northern League) in 2007. Since then, mayor Flavio Tosi has pursued a distinctive path to change the northern Italian city, one aspect of which is focused upon here.

There is no larger cliché about Italy than its food: its quality, its historicity, its dominant place in national culture and daily life. Flavio Tosi, far-right mayor of Verona, has used his position to try and promote Italian food with heavy-handed bans against ‘inauthentic’ (i.e. foreign) food. The city administration seeks to improve the urban environment by limiting rubbish on the streets, it says. Yet the restrictions have left many who work in kebab shops feeling victimised -a response justified by one recent law singling out Middle Eastern takeaways – and being part of what you might call ‘ethnocentric protectionism’, or, more simply, racism. Is this something similar to the tactics of the far-right mayor of the Austrian city of Wels to promote national culture in its schools (detailed on this blog here)? What exactly is the far-right trying to protect in Verona: traditional food, regional culture, or something else?

flavio tosi verona.png

Protecting Italian food culture does have a long and respected history, far away from far-right politicians. Middle class tourists from across the globe continously flock to the country to experience the Slow Food movement in its birthplace, for instance. It should be remembered that this movement is itself an example of such food protectionism. The environmentally progressive campaign to protect traditional cuisine against the onslaught of globalising fast food originated in a protest against the opening of a McDonald’s in central Rome in 1986: three years before the Lega Nord was first founded.

mcdonalds rome.jpg

We should put mayor Tosi’s food protectionism within the broader context of his changes to Verona. Their focus is in fact not on protecting food culture but on protecting a particular vision of the urban environment. Rather than seeking to promote authentic Italian food culture (which is after all, like all others, a mongrel mix of various influences), the far-right city administration seeks to create clean and orderly public space. As part of this drive, other measures have included restrictions on:

Verona is not unique in seeking to clean up the city in such a way. The pursuit of global investment and tourism flows encourages urban administrations to conceal their social inequalities and undesirable practices. A related global phenomenon is so-called ‘hostile architecture‘: the reshaping of the urban environment to restrict loitering, skateboarding and – most notoriously of all – homeless people sleeping, with the aid of spikes.


To qualify the changes the far-right administration have made to urban public space in Verona as merely an uncaring pursuit of public order would be reductive and misleading though. As Anna Cento Bull has pointed out in ‘Lega Nord: A Case of Simulative Politics‘, the party derives its (ever increasing) strength from the sustenance of many powerful, positive myths about northern Italian meaning and identity, and the future of the region. The myths are incompatible with the current and future configuration of Italian society and the economy, as the progression of the booming northern Italian economy depends upon its continued integration into the global economy. A further critical incompatibility, as Cento Bull points out, derives from the constraining role of the EU.

Yet the fact that far-right rhetoric could not actually be realised by governments, (particularly by heavily constrained city mayors like Tosi) seems to be of no electoral consequence.  The Lega Nord’s vision of tight communities, unchanged by migration, untainted by crime, with streets clean and orderly, is a fiction. But amidst the disorientation and trauma of drastic socio-economic changes, the promise of clear-cut solutions – common sense proposals with visible outputs – have a significant power. Flavio Tosi is certainly ‘cleaning up’ in the phrase’s metaphorical sense: he has been repeatedly re-elected since 2007 and holds impressively high approval ratings (between 65-75%).

lega nord verona.jpg

Ultimately, Verona’s mayor can no more outlaw public indecency as could President Trump build his infamous Great Wall of Mexico: but their clear narratives of how to deal with a tempestuous world bring increasing support from voters sheltering from the storm.

Kindergarten Kulturkampf

As previously discussed in this blog, I’m researching far-right cities for my Master’s Thesis, including the Austrian city of Wels. What happens when parties with non-mainstream, often extreme, policy platforms are given control of urban administrations? Wels elected a mayor from the FPÖ (Freedom Party of Austria) in 2015 and therefore offers us insights today.

This post will look at the impact being made by FPÖ Mayor Andreas Rabl on children’s education in the city. In March 2016, a new ‘Code of Values’ for Kindergarten children was proposed by Rabl. According to the plans, new requirements would be demanded of children to ensure they are raised in the tradition of Christianity and German culture. The most attention-grabbing part was the necessity to learn five German language nursery rhymes, as defined by the local government. For those sadly lacking the Germano-Christian cultural heritage, here is a video of one example: Alle meine Entchen (All my ducklings).


Critics have pointed out flaws in the plan, beyond the question of whether the French classic Frère Jacques would still be allowed (Rabl – it would). Wels has a diverse society: 28% residents are without Austrian citizenship and only 52% of children enter kindergarten with the necessary German language skills to recite the rhymes. Educational experts have pointed out practical problems with the idea in this context. For example, the proven efficacy of promoting respective children’s first languages (in this case, mostly Turkish and those of the former Yugoslav republic) in order for them to learn a second one.  If Rabl seeks to promote German language and culture, including for those for whom it’s the second set they acquire, this seems to run contrary to the aim.

The FPÖ have been pursuing a wider Kulturkampf (literally ‘culture struggle;) in Wels; an assertion of the traditional local culture and the rights of the ‘native’ Austrian population. In October 2015, Rabl proposed measures to restrict access to social benefits (including housing) to residents with sufficient German language skills, and with the required length of residence and employment in the city. The mayor said this was to incentivise integration and prevent the emergence of parallel societies in the city. Critics contend such policies are an unhelpfully divisive tool which do nothing to produce an integrative, cohesive society.

The kindergarten plans have since been postponed, with the test of German culture missing from the Code of Values presented on 8 July 2016. There has been talk of tensions regarding the plans between the FPÖ city administration and the conservative ÖVP government of Upper Austria, who control the educational plan for the entire region. Nevertheless, Rabl insists he is not retreating from the original plans, and that the learning objectives for the city’s kindergartens would be released in spring 2017. In the meantime, I’ll be watching out for other acts in the Wels Kulturkampf and reporting them here.

Refugee Centre Blocked by Austrian Far-Right Mayor

The threat of increasing far-right rule has risen even higher in the media’s long and growing list of global fears this week. Radical parties across Europe have been strengthened by the victory of the successful anti-immigrant Brexit campaign and the near victory of the far-right candidate in the Austrian election. We should remember that far-right power is in fact already a reality for many cities in Europe.

brexit far right

So what do they do when they’re in power? Last week, the mayor of the Austrian city of Wels, Andreas Rabl of the far-right FPÖ party, used his position to prevent further migrants from settling there, as this local Austrian newspaper reports.


Central government plans to convert disused barracks into homes for 450 refugees were blocked after negotiations between Rabl and the Austrian Interior Ministry. He was supported by local councillor and head of urban development, Peter Lehner (of the conservative ÖVP). The mayor hailed this is a success, and stressed:

“Wir bleiben dabei. Keine neuen Asylquartiere in Wels.”

We remain. No new asylum centres in Wels.

Andreas Rabl, 22 June 2016

A recent article in the Guardian, amidst the tension immediately prior to the 2016 Austrian presidential election, shone a spotlight on this small provincial city. It was the first time Wels had appeared in the British media but may not be the last. The new FPÖ mayor has – unsurprisingly – followed a clearly right-wing direction since his election, focusing on the promotion of Austrian values and citizens, at the expense of those of ethnic minorities. His priorities have so far included:

Researching the distinctiveness of far-right urban governance for my masters thesis, I’ll regularly update from far-right cities in Europe including Wels. If you know more about Wels, or other cities in a similar situation, get in touch.







Istanbul: the Neo-Authoritarian City in the Age of Neoliberalism

This post originally appeared in June 2016 on The Proto City, an Urban Studies blog run by researchers at the University of Amsterdam.

The concept of neoliberalism has revealed similarities between urban developments and resistance movements across the globe, demonstrating the deeper unifying threads of the contemporary configuration of capitalism that connect diverse urban contexts. This blog explores how the present neo-authoritarian Turkish government drives spatial change in other, distinctive ways that contrast with neoliberalism, instead using Islamist and neo-Ottomanist strategies to retain, and produce spatial representations of, its power. Read on at The Proto City


The Research Question (part one)

So close and yet so far. This week I managed to identify the problem statement and theoretical framework for my thesis, with the next vital step deciding upon my research question*. Once that signpost is established, I should be on my way: ready to begin the research itself. However, as I’ll explain in this post, I’m stuck at a crossroads, with too many research questions I’d like to ask (and answer). 

Still from ‘Crossroads’ (1986)


Problem statement

Problem: while extensive literature shows (and seeks to explain) the increasing popularity of far-right parties in the European ‘periphery’, there’s still little research into the role they play when in power.

By the periphery, I mean places outside of the major globally networked cities, like la France périphérique’ of Christophe GuilluyPurpose: This paper would aim to fill this gap, and identify the distinctive behaviour of far-right parties in control of (‘peripheral’) European cities and the consequences for communities, particularly in relation to the factors which contribute to their growing popularity in the first place. Significance: We’re unprepared for increasing far-right control over European cities. This paper would help by analysing two ‘early adopter’ cities, providing an evidence base with which to engage non-mainstream parties and voters.

Theoretical Framework

This study would be grounded in the idea there are localised social-psychological causes for support for the far-right.

Primarily, I’d use the the ‘social marginalisation’ theory, which emphasises feelings of relative deprivation and the desire to undo the changes brought about by modernisation. An important aggravating factor for such feelings of the marginalised is the fear of crime and insecurity, often powerfully merged with fears of migration and urban decline by the far-right. The sense of community has been shown to be the most powerful factor in affecting perceptions of crime, more so than actual crime levels in fact, as measured by the Sense of Community Index.

So you can see the theoretical framework which I would use, which combines these three theories and draws a link between the sense of community, the fear of crime and the support for the far-right among the socially marginalised. I would flip this theoretical direction around, with a new focus on ‘actually existing’ far-right urban governance, to see how the actions of these non-mainstream parties in power affect the sense of community throughout the city.

Research question

I proposed a research question of:

‘What are the effects of far-right urban governance on the sense of community

Here’s the problem.

To answer it, there would be two essential sub-questions:

(A) What is the change in governance? Do voters get a new and distinctive, ‘non-mainstream’, set of policies for which they have voted? Is there an ‘actually existing’ far-right form of urban governance?

(B) What is the effect of the change? What are the consequences of the far-right policies that are implemented? Do these policies deliver protection for their socially marginalised voters, confront the perceived ‘urban diseases’ like rising crime, and promote a sense of community (albeit one that may be fundamentally exclusionary)?

Two is probably one too many and, to keep it manageable and crisp, I should stick to either A or B. Or perhaps it should rather be C, a question I haven’t yet decided upon? As ever, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on my predicament.

An update – part two – will follow next week, with a decision.


* There are lots of helpful (and free) resources out there to navigate these tricky initial steps of social science research; this free downloadable textbook by Anol Bhattacherjee is a good start.



Sarajevo, Bosnia Herzegovina

This post originally appeared in Here & Now, the quarterly magazine from the Academy of Urbanism,  in Spring 2015. The AoU is the leading UK organisation for urbanists, covering planning and design, development and globalisation, community and politics, and the arts.

I visited Sarajevo in December 2014 as a guest of Remembering Srebrenica, a British charitable initiative raising awareness of the Bosnian genocide by organising visits to Sarajevo, Srebrenica and other sites of the war.


As the freezing fog cleared, I looked down at Sarajevo and got an impression of the ease with which murder once rained down from the hills cradling the city. When the Bosnian war began in 1992, over 400,000 Sarajevo citizens were living in the valley, trapped, facing death from above. Bosnian-Serb forces and their tanks gathered on these hills and for three years – the longest siege of a European city since the Second World War – thousands of civilians were killed.  Shooting fish in a barrel doesn’t even come close. The impact of the war continues to be visible in the city streets today, but the evidence of these brutal years has been embraced in creative ways.

Continue reading “Sarajevo, Bosnia Herzegovina”