The ‘populist’ far right is all over the news following Milei’s win in Argentina and Wilders’ in the Netherlands. Their victories might come as a surprise for most people. Yet, since the end of the cold war, the far right has gradually crept into mainstream European politics. Now in government: Italy’s Gorgia Meloni, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, and now the newly elected Wilders in the Netherlands are only fuelling the populist movement. Other European democracies face a daunting prospect in upcoming general elections.
Most affected by the rise of far-right populism are Europe’s eastern countries. Some countries such as Hungary with Viktor Orban’s election in 2010 – a first major glance at a European power run by a far-right populist in years – struggled in a post-soviet environment, being bankrupt in 2010 following 6 years of socialist rule. Populism since then has reached a new level. Poland’s populist-ran government was elected in 2015. Yet Poland’s case shows a glimpse of hope for the rest of Europe, they reversed the trend and managed to vote out the Law and Justice populist party in power for the last 8 years. Poland is now ruled by the pro-democratic coalition led by former president of the European council, Donald Tusk. However, as Euroactiv puts it “such victories are not inevitable”, as can be seen with the recent election of Georgia Meloni in Italy. But why are these trends occurring and why now? An attractive new right or just a protest vote?
As Jan Kubik, a European political scientist points at, “populism is an expression of the will of the people”. He explains that social, culture and political changes combined with a shift away from traditional sexual and family roles have created a hostile environment in which populism can thrive.
Recently in the Netherlands, what appeared to be a stable conservative government lead by Mark Rutte collapsed after 13 years of being in power. Geert Wilders, a renowned anti-Islam, far right populist with controversial opinions on migration, was only the fourth most popular candidate in September 2023 according to Politico, but rocketed to the first place mid-November, ultimately winning the election on November 23rd. Wilders’ win might appear as a ‘freakish’ result, with 23.6% of the vote according to the Financial Times, but it reveals a far deeper issue at play.
General discontent among European citizens and centrist parties failing to attract voters are among some of the issues contributing to this rise of populism. These trends have been fuelled by the 2008 economic crisis leading to weakened economies and higher income inequalities, thus revealing the possible limitations of neoliberalism, with populations especially in Europe seeking stronger authoritarian leadership characterised by populism. Additionally, unlike Frances’s Marine le Pen or Giorgia Meloni, Wilders has not held back on his anti-immigration stance, very attractive for his core support. And despite controversy, Wilders (and populism as a whole) promises of change attract a lot larger support. No matter how radical his ideas can be, they draw in the voters whose decline of standard of living is often blamed on migrants. This anti-immigration stance was at the heart of his campaign in fact, alongside rejection of EU climate regulations, now claiming to want to increase oil and gas exploitation in the North Sea. These new European populist governments are characterized by anti-immigration, anti-climate, anti-European institution policies and will have a huge influence in upcoming general elctions. The main one being France’s 2027 elections, which will reveal their ability to face this growing threat.
For France, a major European leader, the stakes are higher. Emmanuel Macron’s two victories in face offs against Le Pen is a reassuring prospect, but in doing so he singled out Le Pen as a favourite for the next 2027 general election. Despite Le Pen’s far right pledges, since being in with real chance of winning she has backed down on numerous controversial stances (including a referendum on EU membership) which has led to an increase in her supporters. Her new supporters seem to have forgotten her personal and parties background previously led by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, accused of racism and antisemitism repeatedly.