Popular Populism – The Success of Populist Parties Explained

Kruistochten = crusades, nog niets geleerd! = still nothing learned! – A protest banner against the PVV. Source: Flickr

Populism has existed since the dawn of politics and many historical consequences – ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – have been ascribed to it. Presently, Europe is experiencing a surge of popularity towards populist parties, often dubbed right-wing, which in turn leaves conventional parties struggling to remain in power. Ideology aside, the success of these parties is undeniable proof of a potent strategy that appeals to an increasing number of voters. The overhaul of the European political landscape has prompted the idea of balancing right populism with left populism. What is it that makes populist parties so popular and how should the political establishment respond?

European populist parties employ roughly similar strategies as they, in one way or the other, actively make the European Union, a religion, or a minority, a scapegoat for the problems persisting in society. Even though they all follow a palpable populist and nationalist discourse, differences in rhetoric are noticeable as a result of tapping into local tastes, traditions, and taboos. While this approach has proven to be effective on the national level, it has consequently inhibited the formation of the Eurosceptic group within the European Parliament. For example, Front National (France) and PVV (the Netherlands) sharply differ on matters such as gay rights, anti-Semitism and Islam.

It would seem that a legitimate counterargument from the political establishment is as of yet mired in a similarly excluding rhetoric. Equally ineffective, politicians either respond by copying elements of the rhetoric from populist parties or by branding these parties (and thus their voters) racist. The first approach goes against the mainstream’s ideals as, with World War Two in mind, it traditionally always fought against social exclusion. Changing this would without a doubt provoke their political base. The second approach only alienates voters further away from the political establishment. The Swedish election results broadcasted on the 14th of September illustrate this rather well.

Following the European trend, the Sverigedemokraterna (SD) grew to an all-time high by securing 13% of the votes. Even though they became the third biggest party, SD overshadowed the political discourse as other party leaders had to explain the success of SD due to the questions from journalists. A few politicians answered they would have to listen better to the voters that had changed to SD. However, the majority, just as during the debates prior to the election, pointed to the racist nature of the party. Without referring to the underlying reasons for the shift of votes, these politicians will make voters feel their decision is justified. The success of SD is possible due to the failing of the other parties to provide understandable counter arguments to which the voters can relate.

Overview of the Swedish elections results, 2014. Source: Flickr

The Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV) led by Geert Wilders in the Netherlands has also enjoyed voter approval for quite some time now and is set to do well in the 2016 election. The road towards a powerful right-populist strategy was paved by the ‘Lijst Pim Fortuyn’ (LPF) headed by the murdered politician Pim Fortuyn who opposed multiculturalism and Islam. This came as a surprise because multiculturalism in the Netherlands was not expected to fail due to the progressive nature of the country. At first just as in Sweden, the rise of populist parties was played down by the conventional parties, but gradually the presence of strong populist rhetoric became a reality within Dutch politics.

Wilders argues for his anti-immigration ideology by using arguments against Islam. However, lately he has also included specific minorities in the Netherlands. By associating himself with “Henk and Ingrid”, typical Dutch names, Wilders uses a common populist strategy, siding with the “ordinary people” against the political, cultural and financial elite, as well as “Mohammed and Fatima”. However, he crossed yet another moral boundary during the municipality elections as he made a whole crowd shout ‘less, less, less’ after he asked the people if they would like more or fewer Moroccans in the city of The Hague. Public outrage followed and many denounced the statement. Although the outrage proved that many people will still step up against segregation, several movements have stepped forward to defend the rights of minorities and intend to present a more optimistic view. The ‘Pharrell – Happy Dutch Muslims!’ shows regular happy Muslims in the Netherlands in their everyday life, which is a clear attempt to take away some of the negativity revolving around Muslims.

With populist parties soaring to an all-time high, it is unlikely that all of their voters base their decision solely on racist grounds. Instead, the emphasis should be on why people feel that their identity is under threat by people from another religion, ethnicity or culture. Xenophobic mistrust for the ‘other’ has always been in our nature and populist parties eagerly make use of these inherent fears. Mainstream political parties on the other hand should bring forth arguments that appeal to people’s empathy, as evolutionary development has also made us able to accept the ‘other’. Conventional parties should therefore rethink how they convey their message, while staying true to their ideology.


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