Some reasons why predictions of a “populist uprising” in Europe are off the mark

There are many reasons to be sceptical about the claim, made by many commentators, that a wave of “radical right” populism is about to sweep Europe.

After 2016 brought us Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, the narrow defeat of Norbert Hofer in the second round of the Austrian presidential election and the December constitutional referendum in Italy, it has been predicted that 2017 will be the year in which populists across Europe will secure substantial electoral successes as parliamentary elections were scheduled to take place in the Netherlands and Germany in addition to a presidential election in France.

However, there are a number of indicators which suggest that the predicted rise in populism has been exaggerated. The recent parliamentary elections in the Netherlands highlighted the obstacles facing populist parties in countries which use proportional representation and where multiple-party coalition governments are the norm.

Firstly, larger “mainstream” parties may refuse to cooperate with populists, just as Dutch parties have flatly rejected the possibility of working with Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV). Naturally, this would prevent the party from having a direct influence on government legislation and policy. Moreover, even if radical right populists were to form part of, or even lead a coalition government, it is likely that they would have to compromise, moderate or reject many of their authoritarian stances.

While support for the radical right may advance in 2017, a possible development which has received less attention is the increase in support for smaller left-wing parties. On election night in the Netherlands, the Greens were among the “winners” having gained nine percent of the vote and ten seats. In Greece, the left-wing SYRIZA won both parliamentary elections held in 2015, a little over a decade after the party’s formation. This provides evidence that once small, peripheral parties with a solidly left-wing platform can prosper.

What certain observers have also failed to recognise is that opposition to this politics voters may vote tactically to prevent a populist party from gaining victory. The obvious case in point is the second round of the 2002 French presidential election between Front National’s Jean-Marie Le Pen and the incumbent Jacques Chirac of the Republican Party. While Le Pen made only a slight improvement on his first round performance, Chirac, by contrast, retained the presidency with a resounding 82 percent of the vote after securing just 20 percent in the first round. The margin of Chirac’s win was only made possible by supporters of the Socialists and other parties voting for the Republican candidate as opposed to his Front National rival. Many of these voters would not have voted for Chirac had his opponent been someone else.

Although last year’s presidential election in Austria produced a much closer second round result, Green candidate Alexander Van der Bellen made significant gains in the second round after Norbert Hofer had won the first round comfortably. The consolidation of support behind Van der Bellen in the second round of supporters of other parties when the race was narrowed down to two could have ultimately been the difference in terminating Hofer’s challenge for the presidency in what was ultimately a relatively close race.

While it is tempting to view the radical right as potent electoral forces throughout Europe, in some countries, such as Spain, Portugal and Ireland, a radical right party or movement has failed to emerge. It is, therefore, inaccurate to view this as a continental issue. Additionally, when commentators talk about the “rise” of radical right populism, they forget that support for such parties, like other political parties, has oscillated over the years. The following table (Table 1) shows that support for several European parties which are commonly categorised as being “far right”, has fluctuated, or remained constant between recent national parliamentary elections.

As observed in Table 2, while FN and Greece’s Golden Dawn party saw their support increase in the most recent European Parliament elections, the Hungarian Jobbik’s share of the vote remained virtually unchanged and the Dutch PVV’s vote share declined between 2009-14. It should also be noted that these elections are generally “second order” elections characterised by lower turnouts and increased levels of support for smaller parties. In the United Kingdom, the UK Independence, British National and the Green Parties have all achieved electoral results in European elections which they have failed to replicate at the national level.


Table 1: Results from national elections (% of the popular vote)

Front National (FN)

(first & second round results)

Party for Freedom (PVV) Austrian Freedom Party (FPӦ) Golden Dawn Jobbik
1993 13 6 2006 6 1999 27 2009 0.3 2010 17
1997 15 6 2010 15 2002 10 May 12 7 2014 20
2002 11 2 2012 10 2006 11 June 12 7    
2007 4 0.1 2017 13 2008 18 Jan 15 6    
2012 14 4     2013 21 Oct 15 7    


Table 2: Results from European Parliament elections (% of the popular vote)

Front National (FN) Party for Freedom (PVV) Austrian Freedom Party (FPӦ) Golden Dawn Jobbik
1994 11 2009 17 1996 28 2009 0.5 2009 15
1999 6 2014 13 1999 23 2014 9 2014 15
2004 10     2004 6        
2009 6     2009 13        
2014 25     2014 20        


While these parties may not achieve significant electoral successes, they may, in fact, achieve victories in other ways, by, for instance, encouraging other parties to adopt some of their rhetoric and policy positions if they fear losing votes to populist challengers.

Depending on what you consider to be the extent of its borders, there are between 40-50 countries which make up the continent of Europe. Viewed in this context, a victory for Marine Le Pen of the Front National in May’s presidency election does not constitute a triumph for populism in Europe. Nor could the admittance of a populist party into a coalition government somewhere else in Europe be viewed as such.

We may witness gains elsewhere across the continent, although these may be matched by gains from younger political parties on the left. If this happens then it could be a signal, to quote academics Groen and Bijsmans, that a “rebalancing” of European politics taking place. [1]