Léonie de Jonge and Stijn van Kessel analyse the outcome of the recent Dutch elections and the success of the far-right Party for Freedom, highlighting that mainstream parties and the media play a role in the rise of populist radical right parties.
In the recent Dutch parliamentary elections, Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom (PVV) emerged as the largest party, securing an impressive 37 out of 150 parliamentary seats and garnering nearly a quarter of the votes. While the landslide victory of the PVV is substantial (particularly by the standards of the fragmented Dutch political landscape), it’s not unprecedented in the European context.
The PVV forms part of a cohort of far-right parties belonging to the populist radical right (PRR) that have gained prominence across Europe over the past decades. In recent elections, similar parties have made significant electoral gains in countries like Sweden, Italy, Finland, and Switzerland. In all of these countries, PRR parties have either entered government or offered parliamentary support for minority coalitions.
The PVV is characterised by nativism, authoritarianism, and populism, making it a textbook case of a PRR party. The PVV party manifesto is steeped in anti-immigrant rhetoric, advocating for stringent border controls to thwart off the alleged ‘tsunami of asylum seekers’. It promotes a ban on all Islamic schools, Qurans and mosques. In line with its authoritarian outlook, the PVV embraces ‘law and order’ and demands increased allocation of resources to law enforcement. Finally, the party is also unmistakably populist: Wilders presents himself as the defender of ‘ordinary people’ against a morally corrupt ‘left-liberal elite’.
Although the PVV assumes explicitly far-right positions, its supporters are not uniformly aligned with those views. In fact, research shows that the support base is heterogeneous, thereby debunking the stereotypical view of the ‘poorly-educated angry white man’. So why did nearly a quarter of Dutch voters cast their ballots for the PVV?
The success of this party (and PRR parties elsewhere) is a matter of ‘demand and supply’. On the one hand, there needs to be a breeding ground; in other words, sufficient voters who are susceptible to far-right ideas (demand). On the other hand, there needs to be a credible political contender that can translate lingering demand into actual voters (supply).
PRR parties across Europe primarily attract voters based on their core themes, namely: opposition to immigration and multiculturalism. Their voters are often characterised by a mix of populist anti-elite attitudes and support for anti-immigration stances. However, socio-economic issues were also high on the agenda in the run-up to the Dutch elections. Bestaanszekerheid (which roughly translates into ‘existential security’) was perhaps the key term of these elections.
The PVV linked this theme to immigration, for instance by attributing the housing crisis to the supposed prioritisation of asylum seekers. By using a so-called ‘welfare-chauvinist’ discourse, Wilders appealed to voters who seek economic protection by the state (thereby essentially competing with left-wing parties), but who are culturally more conservative. Previous research indicates that there is a substantial electoral potential here: in the Netherlands (and beyond), many voters combine socio-economically ‘left-wing’ views with culturally ‘right-wing’ positions.
The fact that many of these voters cast their ballots for PRR parties suggests that the left struggles to reach this segment of the electorate. In the most recent Dutch elections, the left indeed experienced significant electoral losses, partly in favour of the newcomer party, New Social Contract, led by former Christian democrat Pieter Omtzigt.
However, there was no massive electoral exodus from the left to the right; in fact, most voters tend to move between ideologically similar parties. It is therefore mistaken to characterise the Dutch vote as a drastic ‘shift to the right’. In reality, voters’ attitudes and stances are fairly stable, and the breeding ground for the far right has existed for years. To explain why so many people voted for Wilders this time, we also need to look at the supply side.
Mainstream parties tend to portray themselves as victims who are suffering the consequences of the success of PRR parties, but they actually play an important role in their rise. Voters respond to what the political supply side has on offer. Over the past decades, PRR parties politicised new socio-cultural divisions by focussing on themes like immigration, multiculturalism, and security. Centre-right parties have tapped into these themes, fearing electoral competition and aiming to regain or attract support.
Research indicates that when mainstream parties adopt far-right themes, it often boosts support for PRR parties. This was evident in the Dutch election, where the PVV attracted many voters from the conservative-liberal VVD in particular.
Early on in the campaign the VVD signalled openness to govern with the PVV. The new party leader, Dilan Yeşilgöz, thereby broke with the policy of her predecessor, Mark Rutte. This signalled to voters that the PVV was a credible political contender with coalition potential. At the same time, the VVD chose to campaign on migration – a theme that voters primarily associate with the PVV. We know that when mainstream parties and the media focus on themes that are ‘owned’ by the far right, it tends to increase support for these parties.
The milder rhetoric and willingness to compromise that Wilders displayed during the campaign will also have persuaded some to vote for the radical right instead of the centre right. (Though anyone who reads the PVV election manifesto will see that there are few discernible differences from previous editions.)
The media also played an important role in ‘mainstreaming’ Wilders. For example, the public broadcaster’s children’s TV news programme showed Wilders visiting an animal shelter with young kittens. The item, titled ‘Cuddling cats with Geert Wilders’, was widely shared and is perhaps the most striking example of how the far-right politician was being normalised.
Lessons for the media and mainstream parties
The rise of the far right is not purely driven by citizens’ concerns and demands. Media and mainstream political parties determine which themes and parties are discussed and therefore influence political ‘demand’ as well as ‘supply’. It is obvious that many mainstream parties, especially those on the centre right, are seeking to regain the confidence of voters who are attracted to far-right politics. But moving closer to the territory of PRR parties, a trend also observed among prominent centre-right parties in countries like Germany, France and the UK, is unlikely to bear much fruit.
By Dr Stijn van Kessel, Reader (Associate Professor), European politics, Queen Mary University of London, and Dr Léonie de Jonge, Assistant Professor, European politics and society, the University of Groningen.