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Why the Dutch Elections are Just the Latest Phase in the European Populist Surge

Rosie Skull

Geert Wilders at 2023 Dutch Election. Image credit: Prachatai via Flickr.

The Dutch elections, held on the 22nd of November 2023, provide a sobering reminder of the power of modern-day populism and its growing dominance in Europe’s changing political climate. In the elections, the Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who is widely known for his anti-Islam rhetoric and election promise to “close borders” against mass migration, secured 37 seats in the 150-seat parliament. The closest of his political opponents, former EU commissioner Frans Timmermans’ left-wing alliance, managed to secure just 25 seats. Wilders’ victory points to a concerning yet seemingly unstoppable populist shift occurring across Europe. 

Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) failed to win enough seats for a parliamentary majority, meaning that there is no guarantee that he will be able to take office. Talks of forming a coalition government with other right-wing Dutch parties (like the New Social Contract Party and the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) have begun, they have been plagued by setbacks and it is clear that the process will not be quick. While the more moderate stances of these coalition partners would likely force Wilders to abandon some of his more controversial, hard-line policies, the election results have set alarm bells ringing for the political future of the country.

The election result has also caused concern around Europe, confirming the existence of a growing group of voters – both in the Netherlands and Europe more generally – willing to support populist politicians outside the centrist parties that have dominated for so long. The French national election in June 2023 offers a prime example of this shift. 

In these elections, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Rally party, won a staggering 41.45 per cent of the vote in the election’s runoff round, compared to 58.55 per cent for the centrist Emmanuel Macron. Although Macron won the election, it was by a significantly smaller margin than his victory five years prior, indicating a clear shift to the right. Le Pen has also been a staunch supporter of Wilders and the PVV, and stated that his victory meant that “the hope for change remains alive in Europe” . She also praised the party’s commitment to “their defence of national identities”, which echo the proposal from her June election campaign to rewrite parts of the French constitution to reduce welfare payments for foreigners and prioritise native French people over non-French people for various social services

The political landscapes of other European countries like Hungary, Poland and Italy tell a similar story. In Poland, the populist Law and Justice Party (PiS) was the largest political party in parliament from 2015 to 2022, and almost quadrupled their share of the vote between 2001 and 2019. While the party recently lost a confidence vote, spelling the end of their eight dominant years in power, throughout the election campaign the PiS adopted an “anti-migrant” approach to appeal to voters. 

In Hungary, meanwhile, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán continues to chip away at the country’s democratic norms and institutions, attracting the global attention of conservative politicians with his hard-line stances against immigration, his staunch Christian nationalism, and his opposition to what he terms “gender ideology”. And in Italy, although Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s time in office has been less radical so far than many political commentators predicted, the far-right ideologies she won the election with — which included praise for the “natural family”, and distrust of “gender ideology” and “mass migration — cannot be ignored. Situations in Finland, Portugal and Sweden are similar, with recent shifts towards populist parties constituting further evidence of this trend sweeping Europe.


Though populism can take the form of a swing to the left or the right, the populist shift across Europe has overwhelmingly been to the right. While Europe’s populist leaders and their parties do not share identical perspectives on all issues, they have managed to find common ground on key ideological pillars. These include a hostility towards perceived elites (a classic tenet of populism), a distinct focus on national identity, a general distrust of immigrants, a distaste for so-called gender ideology and an opposition to cultural liberalisation. Through evoking these pillars, the populists have sought to appeal to “ordinary” people, claiming that anything that stands between these individuals and policymaking is bad—even when these barricades may include a free press or rights for minorities.

The bipolar nature of European politics, which have often swung narrowly between the centre-right and the centre-left, has toppled, leaving in its wake a period of significant uncertainty. Though there are countries in Europe clearly resisting this populist surge, December’s Dutch elections demonstrate the continued growth of the movement, and its appeal to citizens across the European continent. With the persistence of election results like these, it remains to be seen whether the tide will turn back in the favour of centrist governments. 

Rosie Skull is a recent graduate of the University of Queensland, where she obtained a Masters in International Relations and Peace and Conflict Studies.


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