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Why Radical Right Parties Struggle to Maintain Support

Explaining the rapid decline in support for radical right parties in Western Europe


The general trend amongst the radical right parties of Western Europe has been a steady increase of fortunes in elections to the national legislature. However, cases in France, Austria, Germany and the Netherlands have presented a phenomenon whereby the party haemorrhages their share of the vote soon after an electoral breakthrough. The aim of this work will be to highlight why (where it occurs) parties of the extreme right have struggled to maintain the consistent support of a large portion of the electorate and explain why this decline is more rapid than traditional mainstream parties.



Amongst observers of Western European parties of the radical, or extreme, right there has been a general consensus that the last three decades have exhibited a trend of resurgent fortunes. Since the collapse in support and legitimacy for such parties in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War and the onset of the Cold War, they initially struggled to establish an electoral foothold in both the traditionally and newly democratic systems of Western Europe. Approaching the 21st Century, though, most countries in Western Europe witnessed an upturn in fortunes for the radical right, with many achieving the status of mass organised parties and becoming a persistent presence in national legislatures. Consequently, academic literature has tended to focus on the reasons behind this phenomenon, observers attempting to provide explanations behind the electoral performance of specific parties or an over-arching explanation of why radical right parties appear to be becoming increasingly popular and successful in elections to national legislatures. This has provided several factors which are generally considered to be conducive towards the success of the radical right, such as: populist appeal; charismatic leadership; shifting debate in the political spectrum which creates a niche which the radical right alone can exploit; increasing salience of radical right issues; notably immigration and race relations; decline in voter confidence in the traditional democratic elites (including electoral effects of voter apathy); and increasing perception of mainstream party corruption; and inability to deliver on critical issues; and more.
Taking the general theme of research in this area, then, one might assume that the fortunes of Western European radical right parties has on the whole been of increasing, or at least stable, electoral fortunes. Indeed, in researching for this paper, it has been noted that electoral results for radical right parties to national legislatures has in almost all Western European countries been improving over the last three decades. However, there are certain cases which present an interesting question regarding the futures of such parties and the continuance of this trend. This is the question of whether they are institutionally capable and stable enough to maintain support and legitimacy, as well as operate as a successful governing party once they have achieved significant success. Such success we might define as the institutionalisation of the party as a relatively permanent feature in national elections, with reasonable potential to participate in coalition negotiations or be a significant factor affecting the passing of bills and focus of debate in the national legislature and media. As mentioned, for many parties this is already a reality, or could realistically become one, but four cases suggest that once extreme right parties have reached a certain level of support, they encounter the same risks as many other institutionalised parties with regard to reversals in fortune. However, I will argue that many of the risks they face are unique to parties of the radical/extreme right, and hence why in the cases under study the decline in support has been so rapid.
The cases under question regard when parties of the radical right experience a reversal of the general electoral trend, namely a decline in support. As mentioned, examples of this have been the exception rather than the rule, but are of significant interest because of the fact that radical right parties are still essentially niche parties. The cases investigated in this paper – Austria’s FPO, France’s Front National, Germany’s Die Republikaner, and the Dutch parties of the radical right – have all at some point experienced a significant downturn in electoral support in national elections. In 2002, the FPO slipped from 26.9% of the popular vote to just 10% after a tumultuous period in coalition with the OVP, and though experiencing a resurgence in fortunes, the party has suffered from Haider’s split to form the BZO. In Germany, the Republikaner party went from being a party with European Parliament and Landtag seats and polling over half a million votes in federal elections by 1998, to a splintered and no longer apparently extremist party which has almost dropped off the electoral map in federal elections. The French Front National has been an ever-present and outspoken feature of French politics since Jean-Marie Le Pen burst onto the scene, but after the unexpected success in the 2002 presidential elections, they have been unable to maintain momentum, with numerous internal spats and a slide a results – in 2007 Le Pen’s lowest result in presidential elections since 1981, and the National Assembly results more than halving. Finally, the Netherlands presents an interesting case, whereby several radical right parties have scored seats in general elections, yet so far all have swiftly collapsed, despite what might be argued is a fertile ground for the radical right as a force in Dutch politics.
These cases stand out because of the unusually damaging decline in electoral fortunes, which buck the trend of established radical right party performance over the last three decades. Whilst there are examples of established radical right parties (i.e.: parties which have representation in the national legislature over several terms) which have suffered electoral setbacks (notably the Alleanza Nazionale in 2001, Norway’s Fremskrittspartiet in 1993), such declines in support have been relatively minor, and such parties have recovered from them swiftly. This paper seeks to provide some explanation as to why the reversal in electoral fortunes for the four parties under investigation here has been so rapid. Whilst there have been cases elsewhere in Western Europe of radical right parties suffering electoral setbacks, none have been so markedly significant as these, where the parties under examination have experienced declines in performance of at least 60% in elections to the national legislature in the space of just two elections. In two cases – the LPF and Republikaner – this has been near a near terminal decline; in the case of the FPO, this was followed by a significant split from which they are only just recovering; and the FN are left at in a difficult position, particularly given the age of their ever-present leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. These results stand in stark contrast to the general story of radical right success in recent decades, where a decline in votes for an established party has been both relatively minor and recoverable from, the four parties under investigation have experienced what appear to be electoral nose-dives. Consequently an examination of the reasons why these four parties have suffered such unusually damaging results might help to produce interesting results concerning how the parties of the radical right operate as an electoral force and any unique challenges they face in consolidating themselves in the party systems of Western Europe.

Previous research in this area

As mentioned earlier, general research into the declining fortunes of the radical right has been relatively sparse and overwhelmed in comparison to the amount of research conducted into the reasons behind success for the radical right.
Much of the general work into the radical right as a new phenomenon has provided useful grounds for research into decline, most notably Herbert Kitschelt’s The Radical Right in Western Europe (University of Michigan Press, 1995), which posited that the radical right’s success in the late 20th century can to a large extent be explained by an electoral system’s effect on voter choice. This seminal work has gone some way to explaining the differing levels of success exhibited by the radical right, offering a plausible reason why there appear to be significant limits to radical right success at a national level in mixed and majoritarian systems, such as the UK, Germany and Scandinavia, compared to systems which are more proportional or have lower thresholds for entry into legislatures. It is useful to take into account the effect of electoral systems, given that many individual and general studies suggest that successful radical right parties will often exhibit very similar traits with regard to leadership style, policy platforms and party organisation, and in particular the mobilisation of electoral coalitions on common policy issues; yet these similarities stand in contrast to electoral results which might vary greatly.
Though Kitschelt’s theory as elucidated in The Radical Right is intended primarily to explain the conditions for radical right emergence and success, it has also been to some extent used to explain the converse – why the radical right might experience a decline in success. However, the great weakness of Kitschelt’s study is that it is so concerned with explaining conditions for emergence. Numerous studies have gone to show that taking the converse of Kitschelt’s theory – that electoral systems can explain reversals in success for radical right parties – will not provide satisfactory explanations of the radical right phenomenon. Partly this is because the electoral systems model cannot account for reversals in success once a radical right party has become established. Indeed, if we take Kitschelt’s theory strictly, we might conclude that once a radical right party has established itself as a legitimate and vote-winning parliamentary party (i.e.: it has broken through the electoral thresholds and maintained representation for at least one subsequent election), then it is unlikely to fall back into a position whereby it retreats into permanent decline despite a permeable electoral system. Significant counter-examples to this notion exist, most notably the Dutch example, whereby the radical right has broken through electoral barriers to make relatively significant gains, only to suffer rapid and terminal decline, despite little change to the electoral system and the obvious salience of radical right politics amongst a stubborn group of extremist voters and significant group of protest voters.
The issue is further complicated when we consider the effect of other actors in the electoral system. Two studies in 2005 (Veugelers and Magnan; Meguid) complimented an approach which showed how flawed an analysis of electoral systems can be when considering the reasons for a decline or restriction in the success for radical right parties. The Veugelers & Magnan study sought to apply Kitschelt’s electoral systems theory, although the study was specifically aimed at analysing the conditions for far right strength. The significance here was that the study A.) suggested that the conditions for far right success were dependent to a significant extent upon the structure or restructuring of party competition; and B.) that an application of the electoral systems theory could not satisfactorily explain the (varying levels of) success for parties in France and Austria. Whilst Meguid’s studypaid little attention to electoral system features as a variable, it did present strong evidence that the attitudes of ‘mainstream’ parties towards niche (including radical right parties) is crucial to the electoral fortunes of a niche party at a general election – a theory backed up by Art, who believed the differing levels of success experienced by the German and Austrian extreme right was primarily attributable to mainstream responses to their presence in the arty system.
The structure of party competition is therefore of interest, as it provides the possibility of a significant external factor which might effect a decline in support for a radical right party. Individual studies have shown the significance of mainstream responses to radical right issues when it comes to electoral performance. Generally, there is a lot of divergence across countries with regard to cross-party adoption of and attitudes towards the policies and issues canvassed by the radical right. This is partly due to the nature of political discourse in each country, with what we might call ‘radical right’ grievances amongst voters and politicians alike rather diverse. Whilst the primary issues championed by the radical right tend to be common (foremost amongst which are immigration, race relations and anti-establishment platforms), the salience of these issues amongst voters varies significantly from country to country, and accommodation of such issues likewise. For instance, mainstream responses to immigration and race issues in Germany are rather muted by mainstream fears of being accused of ausländerfeindlichkeit, despite it being a highly vocal issue at local level in contrast, there has been a marked shift in strategy amongst the French mainstream since the early 1990’s to accommodate issues popularised by Le Pen’s outspoken rhetoric.
Again, much of the general work on party system effects on the fortunes of the radical right has centred upon their emergence and the conditions for success, rather than failure. A general theme popularised by Ignazi (1992) was that the evolution of political discourse in post-industrial Western Europe to focus on neo-conservatism and neo-liberalism had opened up and legitimised dialogue concerning issues traditionally confined to the extreme right. Given that these same themes are to some extent still prevalent today, it might be suggested that any decline in fortunes for the radical right might be due to internal factors affecting radical right parties, rather than the result of further shifts in the political spectrum which haven’t been evidenced. However, Ignazi’s theory has become less popular recently, with studies such as Abedi (2002) suggesting that radical right parties are just as successful where ‘overcrowding’ of the centre is evident as when the centre parties open up (as Ignazi suggested) to allow possible entry. Further to this, no obvious correlation between a fall in support for the radical right and a change in the party system can be drawn. This is partly due to difficulties in producing a coherent model of the party system which analyses such a correlation, as well as because responses to the influence of a radical right party tend to be driven by particular or extraordinary events in the short term, rather than medium- and long-term shifts in discourse. Particularly evident are the cases of the LPF and FPO, whereby shifts to actually accommodate these parties in government by pragmatic coalition partners were immediately followed by a rapid decline in support, even though the overall terms of political debate did not significantly change over the period in question. This might lead us to agree with Abedi that any change in support for the radical right is largely unrelated to the degree of polarisation exhibited by the party system. We might subsequently take the view that a decline in support for a radical right party has an ambiguous relationship to restructuring of the party system.
Given this we might look to the manner in which parties of the radical right garner support in the first place (excepting any influence from external actors such as those discussed above). Studies in this area have again tended to concern how the radical right achieves support in the first place. A recent example is Ivarsflaten’s (2008) study, which supports the theory that the only grievance mobilised by all radical right parties with any success is that of immigration. Importantly, this study suggests that radical right parties are just as effective when no particular grievance is mobilised (intentionally or not). This presents one of the more crucial issues that the radical right faces, namely how to deal with a voter base which tends to be split along three lines – first, committed voters who are attracted to the party’s general platform; second, voters who would normally vote otherwise, but are attracted because the issues touted by the party (in particular, immigration) suddenly become more salient; and thirdly a protest vote from those voters who have become particularly disillusioned with mainstream parties(more on this later). The suggestion, consequently, is that it is not a change in policy or grievance issues which effects a drop in support for the radical right, but rather a party’s response to changing perceptions of legitimacy and reliability as a legislative grouping. This is particularly important given that radical right parties so often emphasise themselves as anti-establishment, meaning they risk de-legitimisation if they acquire the labels of ‘corrupt’ and ‘ineffective’ which they hurl at mainstream parties.
Having to contend with these issues, radical right parties have consequently developed rather unique party structures in order to respond effectively to voter issues. Of particular interest is common assertion that the radical right tend to be populist parties. For numerous reasons too extensive to list here, radical right parties have relied heavily on new media and the appeal of a charismatic and outspoken leadership. Due to their small size relative to mainstream parties, as well as the more transitory nature of their voter base, they have tended to rely heavily on alarmist campaigning, often gaining press coverage in excess of their size or real influence, in order to get heard and maximise their effect on party dialogue. This is a regularly observed strategy, even if it weakens or threatens solidarity and effectiveness in the party leadership. One key objective of such a technique is to widen and enhance their voter appeal, but in order to work successfully radical right parties have often had to ‘water down’proposals, or at least simplify them in order to fulfil the need for soundbites and slick campaign material. Such campaigning, and a reliance on uniquely charismatic and authoritarian leadership (a common feature across the most successful radical right parties), is a factor common to most radical right parties, particularly those under study in this paper.


Given the variety of factors affecting the establishment and growth of the radical right, it might be reasoned that there are numerous reasons behind the failings of radical right parties where they have occurred. Although external factors such as party system structure, electoral system and the nature of the electorate have been shown to have an effect on the performance of radical right parties, existing research suggests that this is most significant when a radical right party is emerging. However, I will seek to show that whilst these factors can be part of the reason for a decline in support for radical right parties, they are not necessarily primary causes. In particular, in the four cases under investigation, the hypothesis is that the external factors mentioned are not significant enough to explain why the decline in support for these parties was so rapid.
The central question of this paper is why the radical right in the four countries under investigation have experienced such a substantial decline in voter share between elections, rather than a minimal drop or continuing to grow as has been the case with the radical right in other West European countries. A hypothesis based on external factors (party system and competition, media strategy, electoral system, voter issues, etc.) affecting the party is unlikely to be sufficient, as the variation in circumstances for the four parties under consideration means it would be difficult to derive a general cause for electoral demise, particularly given the highly unorthodox nature of the parties’ decline in comparison to the overall story of radical right success across Europe in the same period. A hypothesis based on internal factors (leadership, party strategy, etc.) alone is also insufficient, as it is difficult to envisage how the decline in votes scored on such a large scale can be the result of internal structural issues without a significant alteration in the external factors precipitating a decline.
Comparing these cases to other Western European radical right parties which have not suffered a significant or permanent collapse in support, it is suggested that the successful parties have better managed a transition which allows them to present themselves as reliable governing parties which can (sustainably) fulfil the demands of voters in parliament or government, rather than just reliable vote-winning­ parties which can win representation on limited issues at individual elections. The former is shown to be present in the case of parties such as Italy’s MSI/AN and Lega Nord, Switzerland’s SVP, Norway’s Fremskrittspartiet, etc, all of which have avoided significant declines in vote-share despite changing conditions in the party system or electoral system. It is therefore expected that in the four cases under investigation the three most significant factors conducive to the plunge in electoral results are:-
1.) Leadership style. As mentioned, radical right parties tend to, without the ‘taming effect’ of coalition partners, be characterised by a populist style of campaigning, often focusing on specific political issues to fan voter sentiments and gain cross-cleavage support from the electorate. This often includes leaders who embody a highly pragmatic and charismatic leadership style. It is hypothesised that in our four cases this style of leadership makes it difficult for the party to the demands of government or maintain a stable coalition of support.
2.) Mainstream party responses to the radical right. Since the emergence of the ‘new’ radical right party family there has been a general move by radical right leaders towards legitimising their parties within political systems, and it is not controversial to suggest that this is a necessity for them to be perceived as legitimate by an electorate in order to break into a national legislature or into government, or by the parties they have to negotiate with in parliaments (for the passage of bills, formation of coalitions, etc.) in order to effectively influence policy. It is postulated that the reaction of mainstream parties to a breakthrough by the four parties under consideration inhibits the respective radical right party’s ability to operate as a governing/policy influencing party, as well as inhibiting the ability of the initially large electoral coalition which gave them representation to support them in a consequent election.
3.) The social bases of electoral support. Given the heterogeneous nature of support for radical right parties at the polls, it is suggested that a significant portion of the vote for the parties under consideration at ‘breakthrough’ elections is mobilised on a temporary, rather than a permanent, basis. This could be for a variety of reasons – issue salience, identification as a ‘radical right voter’, legitimacy of the party. It is suggested, therefore, that the four parties under investigation have been unable to establish a stable and reliable basis of electoral support between parliaments, such that when factors (1) and or (2) come into play the party suffers from the departure of one or more groups of voters that are attracted to the party by temporary issues. Consequently the steep decline in vote share is a result of the inability of the party to consolidate their appeal to a broad enough group of voters to maintain their electoral momentum, resulting in only a small group of faithful voters turning out to prop up their poll numbers.

Methods and Focus

This paper will focus on the developments of four parties in the electoral periods relevant to the subject of enquiry. These are: the French Front National between the 2002 and 2007 presidential elections, and the 1997, 2002 and 2007 National Assembly elections; Austria’s Freiheitliche Partei Osterreichs (FPO) between the 1999 and 2002 Parlament elections; Germany’s Die Republikaner between the 1998 and 2002 Bundestag elections; and the cases of the Dutch radical right parties, concentrating on the electoral fortunes of the Lijst Pim Fortuyn between the 2002 and 2003 elections to the House of Representatives. In each of these cases the parties in question have gone from positions of relative strength to haemorrhaging votes, results which stand in contrast to results for radical right parties elsewhere across Western Europe.
This paper will then focus on analysing whether the hypotheses listed above are true. This has been done by assessing academic papers which have analysed the conditions of the relevant parties in order to determine what, if any, consensus there is on the reasons behind these parties’ collapse in vote share, backing this up with media evidence where it is relevant. Additional to this, general research into the systematic effects determining what might cause a drop in votes for the radical right has been called upon in order to confirm the hypotheses, as well as potentially extrapolate the hypothesised causes for vote decline from external factors (such as changes in the party or electoral system, the strategies of rival parties, changes in issue salience, etc) in order to see if it can be confirmed.
Throughout the investigation special attention will be given to several key themes which contribute the events surrounding the electoral defeats of the parties in question. These will include:-
Party leadership – All four parties under investigation have been generally considered by observers as exhibiting a populist style of political strategy. Three factors are worth considering here. First, how far this is important in allowing the party to generate votes at general elections; second, to what extent the party uses populist campaigning to gain influence on policy; and thirdly, how this affects the party’s ability to respond to demands of government/the electorate (where relevant).
Legitimacy of the party – This does not concern whether or not the party is viewed as a legitimate, i.e.: not anti-system, party; rather, it concerns whether or not the party has a reputation for delivering on its promises, or can present candidates who are genuine and reliable enough for an electorate to support them. This is important in the sense that the party’s chances of maintaining electoral momentum may be hampered by poor performance in government or in the legislative process in parliament.
Competition in the party system – How other (relevant) parties in the country’s party system respond to the challenges posed by the party of the radical right. Obviously there is a difficulty in assessing which responses by what parties actually have an affect on the performance of the radical right party. Consequently we will be looking for cases collaboration, cohabitation, or ostracisation by mainstream parties which have an observable effect on either the radical right party’s electoral fortunes, or their ability to operate as a policy-influencing party (be it by governing or as a force in the legislature).
Salient policy issues at elections – Parties of the radical right have been noted to campaign on a breadth of issues, albeit often engaging more vocally with a specific issue in order to generate support, in contrast to mainstream parties (particularly those with ambitions of government) which are forced to campaign on a wide variety of issues affecting all voters. Consequently, it is of interest to observe whether the specific campaign and policy stances of the radical right parties at elections in any way effected (or possibly even mitigated) the decline in vote share.
The social bases of support – Radical right parties do not fit easily into a cleavage-based model of the party system, as they tend to draw their support from a wide variety of social backgrounds for numerous different reasons. It is of interest, therefore, from what groups did the party under investigation originally garner support in the election preceding the regression, and whether there was any observable change in the type or confidence of the groups who voted for the party by the time of their decline in the following election.

Cases Studies

Austria – the Freiheitliche Partei Osterreichs (FPO)

The FPO is possibly the most significant party to begin this investigation with, due to the fact that it is not only one of the longest established radical right parties, but also because it occupied government for far longer than any other under investigation here. Since Jörg Haider was elected leader of the party in 1986 it had experienced a remarkably sustainable rise in results, culminating in the earthquake success at the 1999 election where it became the second largest party with 26.9% of the vote.
It is of note that the FPO’s success has roughly correlated to the declining fortunes of the ‘Grand Coalition’ of SPO and OVP. Popular disenchantment with the Proporz system which had characterized Austria’s two-party system came to a head in the 1999 elections when both parties’ opinion poll ratings slumped immediately prior to the election. The SPO/OVP coalition had not, by most standards, been particularly unsuccessful or hit by scandal, even benefitting from increasing opinion poll numbers thanks to Austria’s presidency of the EU in the second half of 1998. Whilst the Social Democrats’ poll numbers remained remarkably stable (with only a minimal drop in 1999 compared to the OVP), the OVP had a much harder time, being unable to mitigate a general trend of decline that had continued since the 1991-95 Parlament. In particular, Müller notes that the party had difficulty in producing a coordinated and effective campaign on election issues, compared to the aggressive campaigning of the SPO and FPO, the latter of whom was particularly successful at enlivening their campaign by recruiting celebrities such as Patrick Ortlieb and Theresia Kirler.
The constitution of the vote for the FPO in the 1999 election is also interesting with regard to how it broke the OVP/SPO duopoly. The FPO had been remarkably successful at increasing turnout from voters of every background, suggesting the FPO was poaching voters from both the SPO and OVP. This is partly due to voter dissatisfaction with the continuation of the Grand Coalition still too tainted by Proporz, as well as the FPO’s ability to play off Haider’s recent election to the Governorship of Carinthia a success which greatly enhanced the FPO’s credentials as a party of government. However, the core vote for the FPO remained blue collar (predominantly male) workers, largely (and perhaps disproportionately) drawn from former SPO-leaning voters, despite the SPO being generally seen to have been more successful than the OVP at limiting the drop in votes experienced as the 1995-9 coalition came to its end. (Though it should be noted that the FPO increasingly attracted a significant number of voters from right-leaning farmers and middle-class professionals unhappy with the OVP’s commitment to the EU and perceived lack of leadership.)
The FPO had also more than any other party managed to increase membership of the party, particularly amongst professionals and those exhibiting no ideological affinity for the party. Luther points out that as beneficial as this may have been for maximising turnout, the membership drive was set against a push by Haider to fill organisation posts within the party with individuals likely to be loyal to the party leadership (i.e.: Haider), including key figures such as Susanne Riess-Passer and Karl-Heinz Grasser. T

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