How do populists respond to growing insecurities?

by Donatella Bonansinga (University of Birmingham)

Academic and media debates usually portray right-wing populists as distinctively relying on narratives of insecurity and the construction of popular fear. We tend to hear about the relationship between populism, insecurity and emotions as one of manipulation. For many, populists (but what is meant here is usually: ‘right-wing populists’) ‘distort’ reality by representing ‘outsiders’ as existential threats to the people, hence fuelling fears and hostility against them.

In my recent research, I argue that thinking about the relationship between populism, insecurity and emotions in this one-dimensional way is not sufficient to understand the complex socio-political phenomena underlying the appeal of populism. Indeed, this line of reasoning often relies on incorrect assumptions.

Firstly, we tend to equate populists ‘speaking security’ with discourses around crime or law and order, however this is arguably an oversimplification. The risk is that — despite acknowledging that insecurities and grievances play a role in the success of different populisms – we end up overlooking how the populist left also engages in this kind of discourse, while not necessarily focusing on law and order per se. Secondly, we tend to think of populism as a negative phenomenon, ‘exploiting’ people’s deepest fears and clouding ‘rational thinking’. On the contrary – and just like any other political phenomenon – populism can elicit an array of emotional reactions, including positive ones.

To analyse this topic, I examined speeches by Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon during the last French presidential election campaign in 2017. Marine Le Pen is the leader of Rassemblement National (formerly, Front National), a prototypical example of a European populist radical right party. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, by contrast, is the founder and leader of La France Insoumise, a prototypical example of a populist radical left party. France represents an insightful laboratory for populism research because of these two competing populisms.

What is insecurity?

Le Pen and Mélenchon both conceive of insecurity in numerous ways linked to notions of danger, uncertainty, anxiety and the need to ‘protect the people’ from various harms. Crucially however, their ideology informs their identification of insecurity sources. For Marine Le Pen, ideas of physical violence (like crime and terrorism) or cultural threats (like multiculturalism and immigration) are the most salient. However, for Mélenchon it is climate change, international security and neoliberalism that matter as ‘threats’. Both actors overlap in identifying the EU as an ‘accelerator’, or the actor, ‘ultimately responsible’ for this ‘exploding insecurity’.

Insecurity beyond fear

In my work I captured the latent emotional fabric of contemporary French populism’s insecurity discourse by mapping implicit emotional appeals. This means capturing the extent to which a political message taps into the ‘cues’ that research has shown can arouse specific emotional reactions. These are also known as core relational themes. I have found that both Le Pen’s and Mélenchon’s insecurity narratives weave a ‘story of insecurity’ centred on the fact that some threats should be feared, some enemies deserve getting angry at, in-groups should make us proud and there are solutions we can hope for.

Populist emotional governance

Through appeals to fear, anger, pride and hope, Le Pen and Mélenchon arguably perform ‘emotional governance’, meaning that they help guide and regulate public emotions on a number of issues.

Fear appeals appeared right at the start of Le Pen’s and Mélenchon’s narratives, setting the stage for what should be understood as a source of insecurity. Contemporary insecurity is a complex and blurry phenomenon, hence fear appeals constitute important interpretative cues guiding what citizens come to see as threats and dangers.

After introducing the source of insecurity, Le Pen and Mélenchon immediately shift attention to a key element of the insecurity story: the unfair character of this danger and the dismissive, negligent or even irresponsible behaviour of the elites in power, causing insecurities. These themes are central elicitors of anger and provide an interpretation of insecurity as the product of intentional and malevolent elites’ behaviour.

The narration of an unfair insecure existence is then juxtaposed to positive, celebratory remarks praising ‘the people’. Acknowledging positive qualities, strengths and achievements lies at the core of pride arousal. By highlighting the people’s positive traits and worth, both Le Pen and Mélenchon are likely to elicit pride in their audiences, re-energising them, in a call to avoid resignation.

Finally, these actors seize the ‘insecure present’ by proposing actions to address insecurity in the ‘future’. In emotional terms, this means grounding insecurity narratives in appeals to hope. After telling their audience what is wrong with society and who is responsible for generating pervasive insecurity, Le Pen and Mélenchon offer a positive outlook towards the future grounded in the reassurance of security attainment (for Mélenchon) and restoration (for Le Pen).

Where do we go from here?

Contemporary insecurity is a complex phenomenon that is not necessarily immediately intelligible. As I argue in my research, identifying the emotional content of populist insecurity communication is vital. It helps us understand how populists can shape people’s understanding of this complexity, by focusing on specific interpretative cues. It also allows us to explore how populists address and respond to the wide range of insecurities usually linked to their appeal.

Donatella Bonansinga is the Populism in Action Project’s Research Assistant and a PhD student in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Birmingham. You can follow her on Twitter here. 





Spanish Left populism is dead, long live Spanish left populism?

by Dr. Arthur Borriello, Université libre de Bruxelles

On January 7, 2020, the Spanish Parliament provided the setting for an unusual scene. Podemos’ leader, Pablo Iglesias, burst into tears after the investiture of Pedro Sanchez, President of the Socialist Party (PSOE), as the new Prime Minister leading a coalition government that included his own political formation. Ten years after the outbreak of the economic crisis in the Euro area, almost exactly six years after the creation of Podemos, the political heir of the Indignados had finally made it into national government, therefore achieving one of its key stated goals. Sixteen months later, Iglesias gave another solemn speech, in which he announced his retirement from politics in these terms: “when your role within your organization and your task to improve democracy in this country becomes greatly limited and mobilizes the worst elements of those who hate it, certain decisions have to be taken without hesitation”. This occurred after a regional election campaign in Madrid. Iglesias had unexpectedly decided to step down as the country’s deputy prime minister to rescue Podemos from certain defeat, but eventually only secured a disappointing 7.21% of the vote and 10 seats out of 136. The campaign had been marked by threats of violence, including towards Iglesias himself.

The end of a political cycle

The outcome of the Madrilenian contest was not that surprising, however. After all, the result of the previous regional election in Madrid, held on May 26th, 2019, had been even worse, considering Podemos had lost 20 of their 27 seats in the regional assembly. This time the odds were stacked against the parties in government. The PSOE endured a severe defeat, too, registering its worst-ever result in the region (the popularity of Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the People’s Party’s charismatic candidate, being readily apparent). Iñigo Errejón argued in a recent interview that 26 years of right-wing government in the Madrilenian region has shaped the political subjectivities in favour of the right. This defeat, however, calls for an explanation beyond purely local factors. For one must remember that Iglesias’s tears in January 2020 were not of joy; rather they were the product of mixed feelings. Nostalgia, first of all, the long march to national government having come at high cost. On the way to executive power, Podemos lost two million voters, experienced harsh internal tensions leading to painful splits, and abandoned many of its initial aspirations. Relief, too. The alliance of socialists and populists was the result of long and arduous negotiations initiated nine months earlier, which succeeded only after a risky second election weakened both leftist parties, while reinforcing the far right. Bitterness, finally. Podemos’ weakness was the very reason why it finally set foot in government, as the hegemony of PSOE was not in danger anymore.

Podemos’ recent defeat confirms the exhaustion of the political cycle opened by the anti-austerity protests of 2011. The “old” vs “new” opposition that arose from the discrediting of centre-left and centre-right elites in the context of the Euro crisis has given way to a return to a more classic left-right structure of political competition coupled with an exacerbation of the centre-periphery cleavage. This trend has led to the decline of Ciudadanos – the other political force that erupted in the aftermath of the recession and positioned itself as a “new” pole of the emerging opposition. As well as the birth of a new party on the far-right, Vox, putting an end to the “Spanish exception”. In this configuration, the opposition between two antagonist blocs (left vs. right) has progressively obscured the new axis of competition between insiders and outsiders, marginalizing the latter contenders. At the end of this process, Podemos has been relegated to PSOE’s left, as a credible junior partner for left coalitions, but without any further capacity to influence the coordinates of the political debate. Its initial transversal ambition has practically disappeared; in many respects, Podemos is not to be considered “populist” anymore, but simply represents a renewed version of the old Spanish radical left.

The paradoxes of left populism

This trend sheds light on an interesting paradox. The old channels and structures of political representation – arguably the main long-term factor behind the populist upsurge – do not disappear all of a sudden. Rather, they are crumbling and resisting at the same time. The cleavages, organizations, and actors of party democracy keep, at least partially, a foothold in certain sectors of society making it difficult for new contenders to extensively remould political identities along new lines of competition. Any left populist contender finds itself progressively torn between two temptations: going populist or going leftist. In the first scenario, they abandon the radical left’s classic ideological coordinates and modes of organization and opt for the lightest and most open structure to attract voters and members. In doing so, however, they might be unable to win the loyalty of specific social groups in the long run and end up becoming the victims of the volatility that enabled them to erupt onto the political scene in the first place. In the second scenario, they decide to opt for heavier structures and more recognizable ideological positionings entrenching the party in specific sectors of society. The pitfall of such strategy is before our eyes: while the voter base of Podemos is now certainly more loyal than ever, it has considerably shrunk in numerical terms, leaving the party’s electoral strength far from its initial ambitions to transform Spanish society. In a paradoxical situation in which volatility and atomization coexist with resilience and inertia, left populism has seemed forced to choose between evaporation and marginalization.

What next?

Pablo Iglesias’ resignation was certainly a shock for most observers of Spanish politics. Yet, it does not represent a turning point in the fullest sense, since it simply accelerates a trend already in play. Podemos is increasingly turning into a “normal” party, more structured and less dependent on the figure of its charismatic leader to condense the affective investment of a wide range of heterogeneous demands. The twilight of Spanish left populism does not leave us without lessons, however. As the structures of political mediation and representation are eroding across Western democracies, other populist contenders are yet to arise. As the Spanish example teaches us, these must be careful not to underestimate the inertia of the party system they rise against and find a good balance between anchoring themselves to specific segments of society and the ideological and organizational agility that would help them navigate through the (partial) void of representation. These are the minimum conditions required if they wanted to become a credible majoritarian force capable of social transformation.

This piece of original analysis for the Populism in Action Project, is a guest post kindly written by Arthur Borriello who is a FNRS postdoctoral researcher at the CEVIPOL (Centre for the study of politics), Université libre de Bruxelles. His research interests include contemporary populism, neoliberalism, and political discourse. His main research project focuses on the rise and transformation of left populist movements in Europe in the wake of the Euro crisis, with a particular focus on Italian, Spanish, and French politics. You can find his publications on ResearchGate.

10 Years of Marine Le Pen – When gaining a lot may not be enough

by Dr. Marta Lorimer (University of Exeter)

Just over 10 years ago, on 16th January 2011, Marine Le Pen took over from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, to become president of the Front National (FN, National Front; now, Rassemblement National, RN, National Rally). As she took the helm of the party her father had dominated for nearly 40 years, many wondered whether the FN would survive the change of leadership. Ten years on, the answer to that question is clear: the RN has not only survived – it has thrived. However, Marine Le Pen has not been able to achieve all her objectives, leaving her and the party in a potentially precarious situation.

The Rassemblement National: A Brief History

The Front National (FN) was originally founded in 1972 with the aim of bringing the different currents of the French far right together. Despite Jean-Marie Le Pen being regarded as a charismatic leader on the right, during its first ten years the party struggled to gain relevance.

The FN’s first national-level success came in the European Parliament elections of 1984, when it secured 10% of the vote and elected its first MEPs. The RN has been a force to be reckoned with ever since. While still struggling to gain representation at the national level – due to France’s two-round electoral system – it has grown into a party representing over one-fifth of the French electorate.

Marine Le Pen’s leadership

Marine Le Pen took over the party in 2011 with the clear aim of turning the RN into a party of government.

To achieve this, she initiated a process of ‘dédiabolisation’, or ‘de-demonisation’ aimed at softening the party’s image. She embraced Republicanism, backtracked on some of the party’s more controversial stances and expelled militants holding exceedingly radical views. Following a series of comments by Jean-Marie Le Pen about the Holocaust, she went as far as breaking very publicly with her father and expelling him from the party, in a saga that included reports of her cat being viciously murdered by her father’s Doberman. Finally, in an attempt to symbolically complete the transition from ‘eternal opposition’ to ‘government in waiting’, in 2018 she changed the party’s name to Rassemblement National.

In parallel, under the influence of ideas from her former adviser Florian Philippot, she also revised the party’s message so as to target voters on the left of the political spectrum. Arguing that her party was ‘neither left nor right’ and asserting the emergence of a new cleavage between ‘patriots’ and ‘globalists’, she sought to expand her voting base by attracting disillusioned working class voters.

Neither strategy was entirely new: ‘de-demonisation’ was first discussed by the RN’s leadership in the 1980s, while the ‘neither left nor right’ line had already been briefly adopted in the 1990s. However, Le Pen made both elements strategic goals, and imposed her strategy to the party machine.

Ten years, mixed results

Marine Le Pen’s ten years at the head of the RN can be roughly divided into two periods: ‘pre’ and ‘post’ the 2017 presidential election. From 2011 until 2017, Le Pen’s strategy of de-demonisation bore fruit: hence the RN’s election results improved steadily as did perceptions of the RN’s image. Indeed, according to Kantar’s ‘Barometer on the image of the RN’, an increasing number of French voters perceived the RN as fit to govern. Whilst in 2011, 56% of polled respondents viewed the RN as a ‘threat to democracy’, only 47% held the same view in 2014.

The RN also benefitted from a news cycle that spoke to its key issues. In particular, the migration crisis in 2015 and the sequence of terrorist attacks perpetrated by Islamist fundamentalist that hit France during the 2010s gave the party’s agenda stronger resonance.

Paradoxically, the 2017 presidential election marked both the high point of Le Pen’s tenure as RN leader and its lowest. After an otherwise lacklustre campaign, Le Pen made it into the second round of the presidential election. This was only the second time an FN/RN leader had gone as far as that: fifteen years previously, Jean Marie Le Pen had faced the outgoing Jacques Chirac, following a surprise first round defeat of the Socialist Lionel Jospin. Marine Le Pen also nearly doubled her father’s 2002 result. In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s vote between rounds only marginally improved, from 16.8% to 17.8%, whilst Marine Le Pen’s increased from 21.3% to 33.9%.

However, the contest presented many challenges for Marine Le Pen. During the campaign, her positions on the European Union were heavily criticized as too extreme. Moreover, a disastrous performance in the debate that preceded the second round undermined her hard-won polling and reputational gains. In a head to head with the soon-to-be President Emmanuel Macron, Le Pen appeared aggressive, unprepared and frequently rambling in the face of a better prepared adversary. The debate was widely perceived as a debacle both within and without the party. While it is unlikely that she would have won the presidency even had she performed well, the debate marked the end of Le Pen’s 2017 presidential ambitions.

Le Pen’s image has not fully recovered since 2017 and the party’s latest electoral performances have not been its strongest. In the European elections of 2019, it won 23.3% of the vote (down from 24.9% in 2014), and it recently failed to make significant inroads in the 2020 municipal elections. It has also been marred by financial and legal issues which have raised questions about its long-term prospects.

Luckily for the RN, most French parties are currently in disarray. The left is divided and still recovering from 2017, while the right-wing Les Republicans are struggling to find the leader they need to take them into the next presidential election. In this context, Le Pen still appears as Macron’s main opposition – and Macron is happy to feed this narrative because he views Le Pen as his ‘natural’ opponent and potentially an easy target.

While for now, it may be enough for Le Pen to survive, it is unclear whether being the only visible and organized opposition will be enough for her to win the presidency in 2022. Le Pen can find comfort in a recent poll which showed that a run-off between her and Macron would find them very close (52% to 48% for Macron). However, there is still a long way to go until 2022, and being ‘ok’ might not be enough to break the RN’s glass ceiling. It is also unclear what the RN will do if Le Pen fails again. Many are already looking to her niece, Marion Maréchal, as the next leader, but the party may find itself in troubled waters by end of 2022.

10 years on, Marine Le Pen has achieved a lot, however, her best may not be enough.

This piece of original analysis for the Populism in Action Project, is a guest post kindly written by Dr. Marta Lorimer of the University of Exeter. She is a Postdoctoral Fellow on the H2020 funded Integrating Diversity in the European Union project. You can follow Marta on Twitter here.

The Portuguese Radical Right: A One-Man Show

by Dr. Mariana S. Mendes (Dresden Technical University)

Europe’s burgeoning family of radical right parties has recently gained a new member in a country previously considered immune to such trends. The Portuguese party Chega (Enough) recently made headlines thanks to the result obtained by its leader in the country’s presidential election on January 24th 2021. With 12% of the popular vote, André Ventura – Chega’s leader and sole member of parliament – secured third place in the poll. Perhaps more importantly, he has also taken advantage of this contest to gain unprecedented personal visibility and establish Chega as a serious political competitor.

Introducing Chega

Officially founded in April 2019, Chega’s first electoral feat was the October 2019 legislative elections, where it gained 1,3% of the popular vote. It was one of three parties to gain parliamentary representation for the first time in 2019 (the other two being the liberal Iniciativa Liberal [1,3%] and the left-wing Livre [1,1%]). Of the three, Chega is by far the one which has benefited the most from parliamentary representation and the concomitant increase in media attention. In this respect, it has ostensibly profited from the tabloid-like style and rhetoric of its leader – which is prototypically right-wing populist, as it combines anti-establishment stances with the targeting of out-groups. This is a radical novelty in the Portuguese political scene.

Not only is André Ventura the party’s only public face – possessing a monopoly on party communications – but the party itself is held together, above all, by allegiance to him. Indeed, adherence to the leader is so strong that it has often been said that the party fosters a “cult of personality”. Though this is far from sufficient to prevent internal feuds (which have little to do with the leader, and more to do with intraparty power plays and personal antagonisms), there is one undisputable truth accepted within the party: Ventura is the uncontested leader and there is no Chega without him.

To start with, Chega is the creation of Ventura alone. Though he has obviously found supporters along the way, Chega was initiated by Ventura to put forward an agenda he had been unable to pursue previously as a member of the centre-right PSD (Partido Social Democrata), and grant him the political pre-eminence he had unsuccessfully tried to achieve there. His sense that there was fertile ground for a project like Chega dates back to the local elections in 2017 when, running as a PSD candidate in Loures, a municipality on Lisbon’s outskirts, he adopted a controversial platform explicitly targeting the Roma community for allegedly living on welfare benefits (among other things). His relatively good results, as well as the unprecedented media coverage his campaign received (unusual in local elections), were the first clear sign for him that the politicisation of “politically incorrect” topics could be a successful political strategy. Unable to disseminate his agenda within the PSD, and increasingly frustrated at the party’s internal hierarchy and centrist course, he quit in October 2018 and proceeded to create Chega, counting on the assistance of friends, acquaintances and crucially, social media (see Marchi, Riccardo, 2020).

Chega is not only the product of Ventura, but it seems to be above all a vehicle for Ventura. Kefford and McDonnell (2018) have noted perceptively that, while leaders are usually the expression of parties, so-called “personal parties” turn this formula on its head, with the parties instead being an expression of the leader. This seems to be the case with Chega so far, not only because Ventura created it and is the only face of the party, but also because its very existence, at least for the time being, depends entirely on him.

Nevertheless, it must be said that, on paper at least, Chega aims to be a party with an organisational structure and internal life similar to that of mainstream parties. In this regard, it has tried to appear a conventionally organised party – in contrast to, most flagrantly, the case of Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in the Netherlands. Hence Chega has established party conferences, regional branches, a youth wing, and a (rapidly expanding) membership base (in January 2021, it was said to have 25,000 members already). If Chega’s organisational structure still appears underdeveloped, it is perhaps too early to tell whether this is the result of the party’s young age or an intended consequence of its “personal” nature.

“Growing pains”?

Tensions between establishing a properly functioning party and keeping it firmly under the leader’s control have emerged. While there are apparently internal democratic processes in place, Ventura has more than enough leverage to steer the party in directions he desires. This was most apparent at the party’s September 2020 convention, where Chega’s leader struggled to get his list of candidates to the party’s board approved (mostly because of conflicts among delegates). Refusing to give in, Ventura submitted the same list three times, threatening to resign if it was not approved at the third attempt… which in fact it was. Ventura’s grip on the party increased last December, when a directive was issued establishing sanctions against those who publicly criticise other party members or the party’s leadership, be it in the press or on social media. He justified this decision by saying he wanted to address a climate of internal strife that is allegedly damaging the reputation of the party – a climate often attributed to the party’s “growing pains”, in light of its rapidly expanding membership, lack of organisational capacity to absorb members, and the alleged infiltration of “opportunists”.

It is too soon to tell how such tensions will unfold. On the one hand, it is apparent that the party is keen to expand its grassroots presence, so as to maximise its electoral appeal. On the other hand, past research into personal parties has unequivocally shown that, as organisational entities, they tend to be “weak, shallow and opportunistic” (Gunther and Diamond, 2003). Ventura’s ideal model seems to be a party where power is concentrated at the top, but where the base is occasionally called on to directly elect the leader (which, to be fair, is not a model radically different from other parties in Portugal). This formula endows the leader with a legitimacy which allows him to justify sidestepping middle-ranking party members, as he did in the party’s September convention. Back then, and in a quintessentially populist fashion, Ventura claimed that power should remain with the grassroots (i.e. with their elected leader) and not with “behind-the-scene party structures”.

That said, Chega’s prospective problems have less to do with lack of internal democracy and more to do with internal conflict and an overreliance on Ventura. These are customary problems amongst populist and personal parties and it is easy to see why (the recent implosion of Thierry Baudet’s Forum for Democracy in the Netherlands being a case in point). Infighting, infiltration by extremists, scandals, or simple strategic miscalculations by leaders often turn these parties into their own worst enemies. And even if leaders are skillful political players, as seems to be the case with Ventura, the long-term viability of the project is critically dependent on the party’s ability to attract the electorate by not relying exclusively on its leader’s appeal. It also depends on it improving its organisational structure — that is, ceasing to be a personal party. For the time being, there is no figure within Chega that comes close to Ventura in terms of appeal and rhetorical skill. Though this could be a symptom of the party’s youthfulness, it is in clear contrast to, for example, Vox in Spain – another relatively new radical right party, which has several figures that recurrently appear next to the party’s leader, Santiago Abascal, and take turns with him in the party’s external political communications. Chega, meanwhile, remains the André Ventura show.

This piece of original analysis for the Populism in Action Project, is a guest post kindly written by Dr. Mariana S. Mendes of the Dresden Technical University. Her PhD on “Delayed Transitional Justice: Accounting for Timing and Cross-country variation in transitional justice trajectories” was awarded by the European University Institute in 2019. You can follow Mariana on Twitter here.

The Dutch Far Right in 2021: A View from the Ground

by Dr. Léonie de Jonge (University of Groningen)

Once known for its progressivism and social tolerance, the Netherlands long seemed ‘immune’ to far-right tendencies. However, since the turn of the 21st century, the country has witnessed the rise of several influential right-wing populist parties, including the Lijst Pim Fortuyn (LPF), Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party (PVV) and, most recently, the Forum for Democracy (FvD), led by flamboyant far-right newcomer Thierry Baudet.

The rapid ascent of the FvD was remarkable by any measure. Founded as a Eurosceptic think tank in 2015, the party won two of the 150 seats in the Dutch House of Representatives after garnering 1.8 percent of the vote at the 2017 general election. Two years later, the FvD became the largest party in the Dutch Upper House after winning nearly 16 percent of the vote at the 2019 provincial elections. In January 2020, the party announced that it had become ‘the biggest party in the Netherlands by membership’, thereby surpassing traditional mass parties, including the Labour Party and Christian democrats.

The FvD’s success story was offset in November 2020, when the party succumbed to infighting. The implosion resulted in a massive exodus of (senior) party members as well as a more general loss of public support. Whilst the future of the party is currently uncertain, it seems fair to state that the breakthrough of the FvD initiated a new phase in the history of right-wing populism in the Netherlands, characterised by the normalisation of the far right in the public sphere and competition within the populist radical right party family. Indeed, since 2017, two far-right parties have parliamentary representation in the Netherlands: the PVV and the FvD.

But what exactly characterises the FvD? How does it differ from Wilders’s PVV? And why did it implode? This contribution provides an overview of the parliamentary far right in the Netherlands run-up to the 2021 general election.

The FvD in Comparative Perspective

Just like the PVV, the FvD is commonly classified as a populist radical right party, characterised by authoritarianism, nativism and populism. As such, both parties are staunchly anti-immigrant and deeply Eurosceptic. There are however, some key differences, particularly with regards to their electorate. For instance, in contrast to PVV supporters, FvD voters tend to be more highly educated and economically right-leaning (in the sense that they favour a less egalitarian income distribution).

Turning to the supply side, there are also noteworthy differences between the two parties and their leaders. Officially, the FvD was set up as a conservative party, with the aim of improving the general state of democracy in the Netherlands by ‘breaking the party cartel’ and giving Dutch voters more of a say in the decision-making process, notably by introducing binding referendums, popular initiatives, directly elected mayors and e-democracy. In fact, in its early days, the FvD presented itself as a more moderate and socially-acceptable right-wing alternative to the PVV. Over time, however, it became increasingly obvious that the FvD had tacked to the far right. How did this happen?

The short answer is that the more extreme right elements were present from the start. The term ‘far right’ is generally used as an umbrella term to refer to a broader range of parties on the right end of the political spectrum and includes radical (democratic) and extreme (anti-democratic) parties. The FvD has blurred these lines. Soon after the party’s initial electoral breakthrough in 2017, tensions emerged between different factions within the party. In the internal battle over the party’s ideological course, the more radical and, at times, extreme right undercurrent prevailed.

It is useful to differentiate between the comparatively ‘moderate’ official party manifesto and the more radical and, at times, extremist messages broadcast by the party leader, Thierry Baudet, who is considerably more radical than his far-right predecessors – including Pim Fortuyn and Geert Wilders. While Wilders has focused most of his nativist agenda on the preservation of Dutch culture (notably by opposing Islam), Baudet has made blatantly racist comments. For instance, in 2015, Baudet already expressed his wish for a ‘predominantly white Europe’, and in 2017, he warned about the alleged ‘homoeopathic dilution of the Dutch population’ with people from other cultures, thereby drawing upon the extreme-right Great Replacement conspiracy theory.

The difference between Wilders and Baudet was further illustrated by their respective responses to the recent storming of the US Capitol. While Wilders was quick to distance himself from the attack by underling his commitment to democracy, Baudet shared a tweet he had originally posted in 2016, stating Trump ‘would be a great leader for the West as a whole’ – although he later removed the tweet and denied having posted it in the first place. In light of the public statements made by the party’s leader, the FvD might best be described as an extreme right party. This also partly helps to explain the party’s implosion.

The Fall of the FvD

The collapse of the FvD occurred in several phases. The party’s descent in the polls started in the summer of 2019, when the party’s co-founder and senator Henk Otten was expelled after publicly accusing Baudet of ‘pulling the party too far to the right’. In 2020, the FvD lost credibility when Baudet (who had initially pushed for stricter lockdown measures) became a vocal ally of anti-lockdown protests and voiced support for COVID-19 conspiracy theories. In November 2020, renewed allegations of anti-Semitic, homophobic and racist messages being spread on internal message boards in the party’s youth wing surfaced in the media, after which underlying tensions in the party’s leadership erupted into a public dispute.

In an attempt to ward off mounting pressure to distance himself from allegations of extremism, Baudet renounced his position as lead candidate for the 2021 general election, but subsequently backtracked his decision to resign. Having hijacked the FvD’s official social media channels, Baudet announced that he would be organising a ‘binding referendum’, asking members to decide on his fate as party leader. In response to this move, several prominent party representatives including elected officials and election candidates renounced their membership. On 4 December 2020, the FvD announced that 76 percent of the party’s 37,000 members had voted for Baudet, thereby putting an end to the leadership struggle. The internal dissention caused the FvD to plummet in the polls from approximately 17 percent in March 2019 down to approximately 2 percent in December 2020.

The Far Right in the Run-up to the 2021 Election

The big winner from all this appears to be Geert Wilders, for whom the chaos in the FvD came at a perfect moment in time, as the Netherlands is gearing up for elections in March. Indeed, the loss of support for the FvD was mirrored by a resurge in support for the PVV, which currently polls in second place, right behind Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s centre-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD). As Cas Mudde has observed, ‘as another “intellectual” far right contender bites the dust’ (thereby echoing the electoral trajectory of Pim Fortuyn), it appears that ‘the boring “common” far right mainstay picks up the electoral debris and gets ready to take center stage once again’.

The more serious consequences of the rise and fall of the FvD is the normalisation of the far right in the public sphere. With his extremist remarks and behaviour, Baudet has pushed the boundaries of what is considered ‘acceptable’ even further than those before him. There is a possibility that Geert Wilders’s PVV will now come to be seen as a moderate, relatively ‘mainstream’ alternative to the FvD. A quick glance at the PVV’s 2021 manifesto indicates that the party wants to close borders to all migrants from Islamic countries, send back Syrian asylum seekers, close down all mosques and outlaw the Qur’an, thereby confirming that Wilders has retained his radical edge.

It too soon to make definite predictions on the outcome of the 2021 general election. What is interesting, however, is that current polling estimates actually look quite similar to the political landscape at the time of the previous elections, in March 2017. While some had expected (or hoped) that the pandemic would fundamentally stir the fault lines in European politics, the current Dutch political landscape seems relatively ‘stable’. This is all the more surprising in a country in which party politics has become increasingly fragmented and volatile over the past decades.

This piece of original analysis for the Populism in Action Project, is a guest post kindly written by Dr. Léonie de Jonge of the University of Groningen who is an expert on populist radical right and extreme right politics in the Benelux countries. You can follow Léonie on Twitter here.

“Populism and New Patterns of Political Competition in Western Europe” Edited by Daniele Albertazzi and Davide Vampa has Been Published

Populism in Action’s Principal Investigator Dr. Daniele Albertazzi has edited a book in Routledge’s Extremism & Democracy series with Davide Vampa. Entitled Populism and New Patterns of Political Competition in Western Europe it was published today (14th January 2021).

The purpose of the book is described in the following terms:

This book analyses how party competition has adjusted to the success of populism in Western Europe, whether this is non-populists dealing with their populist competitors, or populists interacting with each other. The volume focuses on Western Europe in the period 2007–2018 and considers both right-wing and left-wing populist parties. It critically assesses the concept and rise of populism, and includes case studies on Austria, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Denmark, Finland, the United Kingdom, Greece, and Italy. The authors apply an original typology of party strategic responses to political competitors, which allows them to map interactions between populist and non-populist parties in different countries. They also assess the links between ideology and policy, the goals of different populist parties, and how achieving power affects these parties. The volume provides important lessons for the study of political competition, particularly in the aftermath of a crisis and, as such, its framework can inform future research in the post-Covid-19 era. This wide-ranging study will appeal to students and scholars of political science interested in populism and political competition; and will appeal to policy makers and politicians from across the political spectrum.

You can order a copy here.

Niko Hatakka Comments on US Capitol Invasion for Finland’s Yle Radio Station

Niko Hatakka – the Populism in Action Project’s Finland focused Research Fellow -was invited onto the national Yle radio station to take part in a discussion about the riotous invasion of the US Capitol Building in Washington DC by supporters of the USA’s outgoing President Donald Trump.

The programme sought to explore “What role does right-wing populism play in Washington chaos?” and was described by Yle in the following terms

The whole world has been following a completely extraordinary intrusion into the U.S. Congress Building and its aftercare. At the heart of it all is the controversy over the outcome of the November presidential election, which Trump’s most radical supporters are now pursuing. In the interview, Deputy Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs, former Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja (sd) and Niko Hatakka from the Center for Parliamentary Research, who studied populism. Edited by Carolus Manninen. In the studio Aki Laine and Marko Miettinen.

The programme is listed here – and is accessible to anybody who is in Finland



Parliament as a Stage – How Germany’s Populists Challenge Established Norms from Within

by Anna-Sophie Heinze – this post originally appeared on EA Worldview

Populist radical right parties are far from “new” challengers – yet dealing with them will remain a difficult balancing act into the future for other parties, media actors, and civil society.

Have a look at Germany.

Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) – only founded in 2013 – has succeeded in where far-right parties in the country (such as the extremist NPD, DVU, or Republicans) had always failed. AfD has entered all 16 state parliaments, the German Bundestag, and the European Parliament. Since then, it has put pressure on the established parties.

All parties have lost voters to the AfD, especially the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) but also the Social Democrats and the Left Party in Eastern Germany. The reasons range from a general loss of trust in political parties to the representation gap of conservative voters since the CDU moved to the left under Chancellor, Angela Merkel, a gap which became particularly apparent over the admissions of refugees into Germany. From a strategic point of view, these parties will strive to win back the trust of voters and strengthen their position of power.

But the AfD is not an “ordinary” challenger party. Instead, it constantly challenges the principles of liberal democracy outside Parliament, whilst its legislators keep breaking formal and informal rules in Parliament, arguing they are the sole representatives of the interests of “the people”.

The AfD often presents itself as the only hardworking party that “sits” in Parliament (in the literal sense of being present during sessions), addressing issues which it says are avoided by the other parties. The party communicates this through pictures in its social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, by showing its MPs alongside empty chairs that should be occupied by the other parties — although, in most cases, these photos are taken before the Parliamentary debates begin.

The AfD is an unpredictable actor in Parliament, illustrated by the voting record of its MPs. For example, in the State Parliament of Saxony-Anhalt in September 2020, the AfD voted in favour of a motion by the Left Party, with whom it shares the opposition benches. The motion gained a surprise majority because many members of the coalition factions (CDU, SPD, Greens) had already left the plenary hall. Similarly, the AfD surprisingly voted for Thomas Kemmerich (FDP) as Minister President of Thuringia at the start of 2020, causing outcry both nationally and internationally.

With this strategy, the AfD clearly challenges the rules that have shaped Parliamentary practice in Germany. For instance, much legislative work takes place in committees and not during plenaries. This means that, in the plenary sessions, the parties vote on compromises that have been reached before, while maintaining the majority balance between government and opposition.

However, the AfD barely engages in committee work, instead using Parliament as a stage. In the chamber, it tries to provoke divisive debates with strong rhetoric and provocation. It then depicts itself as the “victim” of the corrupt “old parties” when they react. This is sometimes conveyed to the electorate through edited videos of debates, circulated through social media.

It is difficult for established parties to engage with this type of populist functional logic. If they ignore or exclude the AfD they play into the hands of their anti-establishment mobilisation. However, if they treat the party as a “normal” challenger party, they run the risk of legitimizing and normalizing its positions.

So the established parties have to deal with the issues on which the AfD focuses without being constantly provoked. On the one hand, they must be responsive, solving increasingly complex problems and explaining their decisions in public. On the other, they must try to maintain established parliamentary procedure and political practice, including the boundaries of acceptable political discourse and rhetoric.

It is a challenge for the established parties to counter this trend in Parliament. It will be an even greater challenge as the AfD’s messages spread quickly in the extra-parliamentary sphere.

Populism in Europe and the USA – Webinar Recording

This Webinar took place on October 22, 2020. The main focus of the discussion was how do we understand populist leadership in the US? Is Trump a “populist”? What are the similarities and differences between Trump’s rhetoric and ideology and populists in Europe today (including the UK and Ireland)?

Watch the full webinar here.

Speakers included:

Mick Fealty, Editor of Slugger O’Toole
Dr. Daniele Albertazzi, University of Birmingham
Professor Scott Lucas, University of Birmingham
Professor Daphne Halikiopoulou, University of Reading
Professor Tim Bale, Queen Mary, University of London

The discussion was chaired by Professor Liam Kennedy, Director of UCD Clinton Institute.