From ‘Challengers’ to ‘Incumbents’: The Populist Radical Right in Government

Credit: Vincent Kessler/Reuters

Electoral Breakthroughs

Following the electoral breakthrough of the populist radical right (PRR) in continental Europe in both recent national parliamentary elections covering the 2015–2018 refugee crisis period and the 2019 European Parliament elections, many of these parties are no longer on the periphery and have become influential. Furthermore, a number of mainstream parties have avowedly refused to enter into any talk of coalition with the radical right as a matter of principle.

Prominent examples include how the mainstream centre right Christian Democratic Party (CDU) led by Chancellor Angela Merkel shut the door on a possible coalition with the Alternative for Germany Party (AfD). Furthermore, in Belgium (particularly Flanders), the radical right Flemish Interest Party (Vlaams Belang/VB) has been consistently kept out of government throughout the twenty-first century, in part largely through a ‘cordon sanitaire’ policy. Despite this policy of ostracizing the VB, they achieved landmark electoral successes recently. Yet, there are quite a few cases in which the radical right has become part of the governing coalition. There is historical precedent of radical right parties joining coalition governments, most notably in Scandinavia (including the recent cases of Norway and Denmark).


Drawing on several cases in recent years, this article argues that the radical right may become a victim of their own success, particularly when they enter into coalition governments and become part of the establishment. Though they might not suffer from imminent electoral decline, it is common for this party family to be plagued by their own internal problems, such as internal party disputes over ideology (i.e. splits opening up on key policy issues) or indeed scandals and on secondary issues such as management of the economy.

From Insurgents to Governing Parties

We argue that the incumbency effect of radical right parties has been an under-researched issue in the political science literature. It would require precise measures and long runs of observations to reach a robust conclusion. Nonetheless, there have been several important pieces of literature surveying how the radical right fared as governing parties. Recent research has found that whether mainstream parties welcome or refuse to cooperate with the radical right as coalition partners has no significant bearing on their subsequent ideological positions.

The Radical Right Party Family in Office

As for post-incumbency electoral fortunes, it is argued that anti-establishment parties would generally suffer after government participation, largely due to their ‘protest voting’ nature in opposition. Once they join the government and effectively become part of the establishment, it would be hard for them to deploy their previous tactics by mobilising anti-establishment sentiments. A key example of such a case is the 2000-2005 coalition government between the centre right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and the radical right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). In the latter case, the FPÖ suffered electorally and became part of the political wilderness for years in Austria, until the recent coalition government.

It is also found that the post-incumbency electoral results vary substantially across the radical right party family. Among the three party-related variables, namely (a) policy achievement, the (b) performance of ministers and (c) party strategy, these latter two are often seen as the most crucial ones. Several radical right parties found themselves in the thick of internal party strife and were punished in subsequent elections. Furthermore, the literature also assumes that when populist parties form coalition governments on a national level they may be associated with ‘the establishment’ and thus lose their anti-establishment character.

Arguably, the above literatures have tended to focus more on cases such as the FPÖ in Austria (2000-2005) and Lega Nord (Northern League) in Italy (2001-2005). A modified account on this issue is important, given how the radical right reaped their electoral fruit by capitalising on both the economic and refugee crisis in recent years. In addition, we have witnessed various radical right parties evolving from single-issue anti-establishment parties to full-fledged ones which become the largest opposition party such as AfD in Germany at the 2017 national parliamentary election. Thus, the insurgent nature of the radical right has fundamentally altered the political landscape of contemporary European politics.

*The next election is forecast to be held in September 2019.

**PS withdrew from the coalition in 2017.

*** Fidesz arguably became a Populist Radical Right Party Family from 2014 onwards, making an ideological transformation from a traditional centre right Conservative Party under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. This is why the 2010 national parliamentary election result is not presented in Table 1.

**** The Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP) is a Christian-Democratic political party in Hungary. It is officially a coalition partner of the ruling party, Fidesz. In reality, KDNP can be seen as a satellite party of Fidesz and has been unable to get into the Parliament on its own since 2006.

Bold: Indicates PRR Party in the overall Coalition Government compositions.

 Electoral Barriers: Internal Party Disputes & Scandals

Table 1 shows the post-incumbency results of various radical right parties in recent years. Only radical right parties that have been in recent coalition government are included, with parties such as the Law and Justice Party (PiS) in Poland not included. Aside from the case of Hungary, all the other parties entered into the government as junior coalition partners. With the exception of the Danish People’s Party (DF) who lost 21 seats at the 2019 Danish national parliamentary election and PVV in the Netherlands (informal support instead of being a formal coalition partner), none of the radical right parties in Table 1 have suffered significant electoral declines after being in office. However, a limitation of this is that in the cases of Austria and Italy, national parliamentary elections have yet to take place and we do not have the data to make such claims here for those two cases.

Empirically speaking, if we simply look at overall percentage changes in vote shares, this does not provide an accurate picture of the contemporary radical right in Europe. The real problems posed by radical right incumbency go beyond numbers. In spite of their relatively stable electoral performance, FPÖ and PS have been deeply troubled by their own internal party disputes and scandals of late. Most recently, the FPÖ was embroiled in a corruption scandal where their leader was filmed to soliciting illegal money from a Russian oligarch by offering an industrial contract in return. This caused the centre right ÖVP to terminate the coalition agreement prematurely and call for a General Election.

In Finland, the PS suffered from a serious internal rift in 2017 which effectively divided the party into two. The (then) leader Timo Soini and his aides attempted to moderate their radical party ideology and hence infuriated the radical faction (i.e. extreme right-wing) within the party. It resulted in a split, in which the radical faction quit the coalition government. The moderate faction remained in the government in the name of Blue Reform. Yet, they failed to win a single seat while the radical PS maintained their electoral vote share at the subsequent election.

As discussed by the existing literature, the lack of a proper mechanism to resolve intra-party disputes might become the liability of the radical right parties. Given their relatively small stature compared to mainstream parties, they might lack the mechanism to ease internal disputes or effectively monitor their party members. Such structural weakness might reasonably explain why they are prone to internal feuds or party scandals.

Implications: The Future for Mainstream Parties in Europe?

Among the limited number of cases, the post-incumbent radical right parties did not suffer from any major electoral decline as envisaged. Yet, the case of FPÖ and PS showed that they might be blighted by internal disputes alongside corruption scandals. In spite of the radical right’s recent electoral successes, the pragmatic realities kick in once the radical right are in government. Radical right parties have the tendency to shoot themselves in the foot in mismanaging their own parties in government and often focus on key issues such as immigration, nationalism and anti-EU stances, instead of focusing on ‘bread and butter’ issues such as managing the economy. One may even call this ‘self-sabotage’, as seen with the recent allegations against the Deputy Prime Minister of Italy, Matteo Salvini (Lega) and the Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache in Austria (FPÖ).

Contrary to the fear often held by mainstream parties when working with the radical right, inviting radical right parties to join coalition governments might be an effective way to disarm their looming electoral threat. It may not be necessary for mainstream parties to shift their ideological positions on key socio-cultural issues such as immigration or on the EU. Instead, they just may need to wait and bide their time for the populist radical right to discredit themselves and effectively self-implode.

Such a strategy of waiting though is still electorally risky for mainstream parties on both the left and right alike. In the era of post-truth politics, this may not always enable mainstream (centre right and left parties) to seize back control and power from radical right parties. Crucially, it will depend whether or not voters will punish radical right parties such as Lega in Italy and the FPÖ in Austria for their various scandals. The most recent polls from Austria at least suggest that this will be the case for the latter.

Dr James F Downes is a Senior Fellow at CARR and a Lecturer in Comparative Politics at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. See his profile here.

Edward Chan is a Government and Law double degree student at the University of Hong Kong. He is also currently a Visiting Researcher at the University of Leeds (UK).

Felix Wiebrecht is a PhD Student and Research Assistant in the Department of Government & Public Administration at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. His research interests include comparative politics and legislative behaviour.


© James F Downes; Edward Chan and Felix Wiebrecht. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).