Protest, Neo-Liberalism or Anti-Immigrant Sentiment: What Motivates the Voters of the Extreme Right in Western Europe?


Over the last three decades, the parties of the “Extreme”, “Radical” or “Populist” Right have become a political staple in Western Europe. However, comparative evidence on the motives of their voters is relatively scarce. This article assesses the empirical effects of the most prominent alleged motivational factors on the extreme right vote –“pure” (i.e. performance related) protest, anti-immigrant sentiment, and neo-liberal economic preferences – while controlling for a whole host of background variables. While protest and neo-liberalism have no statistically significant impact whatsoever, immigrant sentiment plays a crucial role in all countries but Italy. Its effect is moderated, however, by general ideological preferences and party identification. Consequentially, comparative electoral research should focus on the circumstances under which immigration is politicised.


Während der letzten drei Jahrzehnte haben sich die Parteien der „Extremen“, „Radikalen“ oder „Populistischen“ Rechten in Westeuropa zu einer festen politischen Größe entwickelt. Über die Motive ihrer Wähler gibt es jedoch nur relativ wenige vergleichbare Erkenntnisse. In diesem Artikel werden unter Kontrolle einer Vielzahl von Hintergrundvariablen die empirischen Effekte der drei am häufigsten diskutierten Motive auf die Wahl der Extremen Rechten getestet: „reine“ (performanzorientierte) Protesteinstellungen, negative Einstellungen gegenüber Zuwanderern und neo-liberale ökonomische Präferenzen. Während Protesteinstellungen und Neo-Liberalismus keine statistisch signifikanten Effekte haben, spielen negative Einstellungen gegenüber Zuwanderern in allen Ländern außer Italien eine zentrale Rolle. Die international vergleichende Wahlforschung sollte deshalb in Zukunft verstärkt die Bedingungen analysieren, unter denen das Thema Zuwanderung politisiert wird.

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  1. 1.

    Endless debates not withstanding, there is still no agreement as to what is the most appropriate terminology. In practice, however, this has not hampered scientific progress. As Mudde (1996: 233) observes, “we know who they are, even though we do not know exactly what they are”. In the remainder of this paper, I shall use “Extreme Right” as a shorthand for the Austrian Freedom Party, the Flemish Vlaams Blok/Vlaams Belang, the French-speaking Belgian Front National, the Danish People’s Party and the Danish Progress Party, the French Front National and the Mouvement National Républicain (MNR), the Italian Alleanza Nazionale, Lega Nord and Movimento Sociale-Fiamma Tricolore, the Dutch Lijst Pim Fortuyn (LPF), and the Norwegian Progress Party, simply because it is the most common label for these parties.

  2. 2.

    An attempt at a slightly stricter definition of the Extreme Right would involve three elements: i) while their economic policies are quite flexible and of lesser importance, parties of the Extreme Right take a tough stand on immigration and do often (though not always) take a “right” position with respect to many other issues that form the authoritarian-libertarian dimension of political conflict, ii) in terms of political style and patterns of co-operation with other parties within their respective political system, they are usually not well integrated and present themselves as outsiders or radical alternative to the established parties and elites, and iii) although they may be “extreme” in these respects, they are not necessarily “extremist”, i.e. beyond the liberal-democratic pale (see Arzheimer 2008 for a more elaborate discussion of these issues). While this definition still leaves considerable room for interpretation, in reality there is hardly any disagreement amongst scholars as to which parties belong to the Extreme Right family (Mudde 1996).

  3. 3.

    While the Swiss SVP is often considered as a party of the Extreme Right, Switzerland was excluded because its institutional structure is vastly different from other West European countries and because until recently, the transformation of the SVP was confined to the so-called “Zurich wing” of the party.

  4. 4.

    While the Extreme Right in Germany is slightly stronger than in Spain or the UK, Germany had to be excluded from this analysis because of the very low number of self-confessed supporters of the Extreme Right in the German part of the ESS.

  5. 5.

    Following a well-established convention, latent variables are represented by ovals in Figure 1. Observable variables are represented by rectangles.

  6. 6.

    From the information in the ESS, a simplified version of the Goldthorpe scheme (which is widely used in comparative research) was derived.

  7. 7.

    The ESS team provides a scale of educational attainment that greatly facilitates international comparisons.

  8. 8.

    The latter two variables – single person households and having/not having a partner – reflect notions of social isolation that are prominent in the older literature on right-wing extremism. Church attendance and union membership are primarily included as controls for the effects of traditional West European cleavages (Lipset and Rokkan 1967) but can also be interpreted as indicators for social integration.

  9. 9.

    The variable was coded as trichotomous: identification with a party of the Extreme Right vs. identification with some other party vs. no identification at all (the reference category).

  10. 10.

    Assertions about causality in non-experimental settings are always problematic. However, while variables in block I (socio-demographics) can clearly have a causal effect on the attitudes in block II (via socialisation and other processes of attitude formation), it is difficult to conceive of a process through which attitudes would affect socio-demographics. Similarly, the vote cannot possibly have a causal effect on socio-demographics. A causal effect of past behaviour on present attitudes via some sort of cognitive rationalisation process cannot be ruled out completely, though it seems unlikely that this would be a huge problem here.

  11. 11.

    All models were estimated with MPlus 4.0, which provides estimators for both logit and probit links. Here, the latter was chosen because it is computationally much more attractive.

  12. 12.

    Throughout this paper, the conventional five percent threshold is used.

  13. 13.

    In Austria, the sign is correct but the effect is rather weak (though statistically significant). In Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands and in Norway, the parameter is not significantly different from zero. In Belgium and France, there is a weak but statistically significant effect that has the wrong sign.

  14. 14.

    Because the number of Fiamma Tricolore and Lega Nord voters is very small (13), it is not possible to differentiate between them and the Alleanza voters.

  15. 15.

    For simplicity’s sake, the other independent variables can be ignored since their effects are not significantly different from zero.

  16. 16.

    The results refer to Norway but would be broadly similar for other countries. The values of 4, 7 and 5 for ideology reflect the lower quartile, upper quartile and median of the empirical distribution.

  17. 17.

    The overall probability of a Freedom Party vote is rather high. This reflects the fact that the Freedom Party attracted more than 20 per cent of the vote in the Storting election of 2005.

  18. 18.

    Empirically, the number of left-leaning, pro-immigrant Freedom Party identifiers is of course rather limited.

  19. 19.

    The two latent variables are scaled so that a value of 0 is equivalent to the national average (see section 2). A value of +/-1 is one standard deviation above/below the national average.

  20. 20.

    The calculations for Table 10 are based on the estimate for the respective coefficient in Table 9 (-0.035). However, the t-test test indicates that there is insufficient evidence (at the five per cent level) to reject the hypothesis that the coefficient is exactly zero. If one is willing to take the result of the test at face value, the ratio in Table 10 would be exactly 1.

  21. 21.

    Presumably, candidate orientations are important, too, but these can not be measured with the data at hand.

  22. 22.

    The (somewhat crude) indicators for alienation/social integration that are included in the model – household size, marital status, church attendance and union memberships – display few substantial effects in Tables 7, 8 and 9. The ESS questionnaire (like most other surveys) contains no indicators for personality traits, but the very notion of a disposition that is stable over decades is difficult to reconcile with the fluctuations of Extreme Right support in Western Europe. For a more comprehensive discussion and test of the traditional explanations of right-wing support in Western Europe see Arzheimer (2008).


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Kai, A. Protest, Neo-Liberalism or Anti-Immigrant Sentiment: What Motivates the Voters of the Extreme Right in Western Europe?. Z Vgl Polit Wiss 2, 173 (2008) doi:10.1007/s12286-008-0011-4

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  • Extreme Right
  • Voting Behaviour
  • Western Europe
  • Immigration


  • Extreme Rechte
  • Wahlverhalten
  • Westeuropa
  • Zuwanderung