Almost one-third of Europeans now vote for populist, far-right or far-left parties, research shows, with wide support for anti-establishment politics surging across the continent in an increasingly problematic challenge to the mainstream.
Analysis by more than 100 political scientists across 31 countries for the PopuList found that in national elections last year a record 32 per cent of European voters cast their ballots for anti-establishment parties, compared with 20 per cent in the early 2000s and 12 per cent in the early 1990s.
The PopuList was launched five years ago in partnership with the Guardian. This year it identifies 234 anti-establishment parties across Europe, including 165 populist parties, most of which are either far-left or far-right.
The research, led by Matthijs Rooduijn, a political scientist at the University of Amsterdam, found that about half of anti-establishment voters support far-right parties — and this is the vote share that is increasing most rapidly.
“There’s fluctuation, but the underlying trend is the numbers keep rising,” Mr Rooduijn said. “Mainstream parties are losing votes; anti-establishment parties are gaining. It matters because many studies now show that when populists secure power, or influence over power, the quality of liberal democracy declines.”
In a sign of how far the rise of the nativist, authoritarian far right has shifted Europe’s politics rightwards, the researchers considered classifying several of the continent’s better-known centre-right parties as borderline far-right.
“We talked a lot about reclassifying the UK’s Conservatives, Mark Rutte’s VVD in the Netherlands, Les Républicains in France and the ÖVP in Austria,” Mr Rooduijn said. “In the end we didn’t because nativism was not their core focus. But we may in future.”
Usually combined with a right-wing or left-wing “host ideology”, populism divides society into two homogenous and opposing groups, a “pure people” versus a “corrupt elite”, and argues that all politics should be an expression of the “will of the people”.
Its supporters say it is a democratic corrective, privileging the ordinary person against elites, vested interests and an entrenched establishment. Critics say populists in power often subvert democratic norms, undermining the judiciary and media or restricting minority rights, sometimes in ways that will long outlast their mandates.
“For populists, everything that stands between ‘the will of the people’ and policymaking is bad,” Mr Rooduijn said. “That includes all those vital checks and balances — a free press, independent courts, protections for minorities — that are an essential part of a liberal democracy.”
Joining Hungary’s self-professed illiberal leader, Viktor Orbán, and Poland’s ruling Law & Justice party, several populist far-right leaders and parties including Giorgia Meloni in Italy and, in the Nordic region, the Finns party and the Sweden Democrats have recently entered or are underwriting government coalitions.
Others are seeing a big surge in popularity. Austria’s Freedom party (FPÖ) is comfortably ahead in the polls a year from elections, Germany’s AfD has doubled its prospective vote share to 22 per cent and is lying second, ahead of the centre-left SPD, while Marine Le Pen looks on course to have her best run yet at the French presidency.
Three hard-right, nativist parties in Greece won parliamentary seats in June’s vote, and while in Spain Vox lost more than a third of its MPs in July, populist and insurgent parties could decide, at upcoming elections between now and November, the governments of Slovakia, Poland and the Netherlands.
“Far-right parties, in particular, have really broadened their voter base and are forging coalitions of voters with very different concerns,” said Daphne Halikiopoulou, a comparative political scientist at the University of York and a PopuList co-author.
“Their big issue was always immigration. That’s still there, but cultural concerns now account for only a small part of their electorate. They’ve gone way beyond that core following, capitalising on a whole range of voter insecurities … They’re diversifying.”
Lockdowns and vaccines were hobbyhorses for some, as, increasingly, are culture war discussions — gender, history, symbols of national identity — and the climate crisis. Others have latched on to the cost of living crisis and Russia’s war on Ukraine.
People were now voting far right “who never used to and you wouldn’t expect to: older women, urban voters, the educated middle class,” Ms Halikiopoulou said. “They’re willing to trade democracy for something, to say: ‘I know this leader is authoritarian — but at least he’ll bring economic stability.’”
The PopuList researchers do not do electoral predictions and it is unclear how exactly the surge in anti-establishment vote share will play out. Some analysts say fears that Europe is “falling to the far right” are overblown. They say the centre is more resilient than polling and election results suggest. — Guardian