Despite the proliferation of studies exploring the success of the populist radical right, there is a lack of research on why these parties decline or fail. And when this question is addressed, the literature focuses on supply-side variables such as leadership battles or a lack of organizational structure. These explanations largely fall short, however, in understanding the strange decline of the Belgian Vlaams Belang at the latest elections. Instead, it is argued that there is less space available for the populist radical right. Survey data suggests that two competing parties succeeded in exploiting issues that were previously owned exclusively by the Vlaams Belang (VB). More surprising, however, is the impact of the cordon sanitaire on the decline of the VB. This study shows that although populist radical right parties might not perform well in government, they will face difficulties too if they stay in permanent opposition, because they become perceived as irrelevant in the long run.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
In 1977, the VU endorsed the so-called Egmont-pact, which provided a platform for an important state reform, giving more autonomy to the regions. However, since some concessions were made towards the Francophone parties, a part of the radical Flemish nationalist movement considered the VU disloyal which led to the emergence of the VB.
The PARTIREP survey was constructed by the partners of a large Interuniversity Attraction Pole (University of Antwerp, KULeuven, Free University of Brussels and Université Libre de Bruxelles) and has been funded by the Belgian Science Policy. The fieldwork for this survey has been carried out by TNS Dimarso. More information can be found on www.partirep.eu/.
Owing to budgetary reasons, the voters from Brussels have not been interviewed.
It might be argued that it makes more sense to investigate the vote switches between 2004 and 2009, since the last regional and European elections took place in 2004. However, it seems cognitively very difficult for voters to remember which party they voted for in 2004 if another election came in between, which was the case in 2007. This is particularly the case in Belgium in which the Federal and regional elections are very similar, with often the same candidates appealing to the electorate.
In many ways the pattern observed in Table 1 seemed prophetic for the 2010 federal elections. While LDD only was able to obtain one seat (4 per cent), the N-VA became the largest party in Belgium after the 2010 elections with 28 per cent of the votes.
Anti-immigrant attitudes (α=0.732) is based on 3 items: To what extent do you agree that? (1) Belgium should close its borders for asylum seekers. (2) It is normal that foreigners, who legally live here for 5 years or longer, have the right to vote at the municipal level. (3) Immigration contributes to the welfare of our country; Authoritarianism (α=0.519) is based on 3 items: To what extent do you agree that? (1) In school, children should first and most learn about discipline and making efforts. (2) People who violate the law should receive more severe punishments. (3) The death penalty should be put into practice again; Political inefficacy and distrust (α=0.687) is based on 4 items: To what extent do you agree? (1) Going out to vote is pointless, the parties do what they want anyway. (2) During elections, one party promises more than the other, but eventually little comes out of it. (3) To what extent do you trust political parties? (4) To what extent do you trust the federal parliament? Flemish autonomy (α=0.237) is based on 2 items: (1) At the moment there is a discussion about the appropriate distribution of power between the regional and the national policy levels. What are your own opinions? (All power to the regions and communities or all power for the national level.) (2) To what extent would you consider a state reform to be important for your vote choice? Small government is based on 1 item: To what extent do you agree that? (1) The government should play a smaller role in the way the economy is organized.
Art, D. (2007) Reacting to the radical Right: Lessons from Germany and Austria. Party Politics 13 (3): 331–349.
Arzheimer, K. (2009) Contextual factors and the extreme right vote in Western Europe, 1980–2002. American Journal of Political Science 53 (2): 259–275.
Arzheimer, K. and Carter, E. (2006) Political opportunity structures and right-wing extremist party success. European Journal of Political Research 45 (3): 419–443.
Backes, U. and Mudde, C. (2000) Germany: Extremism without successful parties. Parliamentary Affairs 53 (3): 457–468.
Betz, H.-G. (1994) Radical Right-wing Populism in Western Europe. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan.
Billiet, J. and De Witte, H. (2001) Wie Stemde in juni 1999 op het Vlaams Blok en Waarom? Tijdschrift voor Sociologie 22 (1): 5–36.
Billiet, J. and De Witte, H. (2008) Everyday racism as predictor of political racism in Flemish Belgium. Journal of Social Issues 64 (2): 253–267.
Boomgaarden, H.G. and Vliegenthart, R. (2007) Explaining the rise of anti-immigrant parties: The role of news media content. Electoral Studies 26 (2): 404–417.
Carter, E.L. (2005) The Extreme-right in Western Europe. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.
Coffé, H. (2005) Do individual factors explain the different success of the two Belgian extreme right parties. Acta Politica 40 (1): 74–93.
Damen, S. (2001) Strategieën Tegen Extreem-Rechts. Het Cordon Sanitaire Onder de Loep. Tijdschrift voor Sociologie 22 (1): 89–110.
De Lange, S. and Mudde, C. (2005) Political extremism in Europe. European Political Science 4 (4): 476–488.
Derks, A. (2006) Populism and the ambivalence of Egalitarianism. How do the underprivileged reconcile a right wing party preference with their socio-economic attitudes? World Political Science Review 2 (3): 175–200.
Deschouwer, K., Delwit, P., Hooghe, M. and Walgrave, S. (eds.) (2010) De Stemmen van het Volk. Een Analyse van het Kiesgedrag in Vlaanderen en Wallonië op 7 juni 2009. Brussels, Belgium: VUBPress.
Eatwell, R. (2003) Ten theories of the extreme right. In: P. Merkl and L. Weinberg (eds.) Right-wing Extremism in the Twenty-first Century. London: Frank Cass.
Eatwell, R. (2005) Charisma and the revival of the European extreme right. In: J. Rydgren (ed.) Movements of Exclusion: Radical Right-wing Populism in the Western World. New York: Nova Science.
Ford, R. and Goodwin, M. (2010) Angry White men: Individual and contextual predictors of support for the British National Party. Political Studies 58 (1): 1–25.
Golder, M. (2003) Explaining variation in the success of extreme right parties in Western Europe. Comparative Political Studies 36 (4): 432–466.
Heinisch, R. (2003) Success in opposition – Failure in government: Explaining the performance of right-wing populist parties in public office. West European Politics 26 (3): 91–130.
Hooghe, M., Marien, S. and Pauwels, T. (2010) De Invloed van Politiek Vertrouwen op Stemgedrag in België. In: K. Deschouwer, P. Delwit, M. Hooghe and S. Walgrave (eds.) De stemmen van het volk. Een analyse van het stemgedrag in Vlaanderen en Wallonië op 7 juni 2009. Brussel, Belgium: VUBPress.
Ivaldi, G. (2003) The Front National split: Party system change and electoral prospects. In: J.A.J. Evans (ed.) The French Party System: Continuity and Change. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.
Ivarsflaten, E. (2008) What unites right-wing populists in Western Europe? Re-examining grievance mobilization models in seven successful cases. Comparative Political Studies 41 (1): 3–23.
Jesuit, D., Paradowski, P. and Mahler, V. (2009) Electoral support for extreme right-wing parties: A sub-national analysis of Western European elections. Electoral Studies 28 (2): 279–290.
Kestilä, E. (2006) Is there demand for radical right populism in the Finnish electorate? Scandinavian Political Studies 29 (3): 169–191.
Kitschelt, H. (2007) Growth and persistence of the radical right in postindustrial democracies: Advances and challenges in comparative research. West European Politics 30 (5): 1176–1206.
Kitschelt, H. and McGann, A. (1995) The Radical Right in Western Europe: A Comparative Analysis. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Lubbers, M., Gijsberts, M. and Scheepers, P. (2002) Extreme right-wing voting in Western-Europe. European Journal of Political Research 41 (3): 345–378.
Luther, K.R. (2003) The self-destruction of a right-wing populist party? The Austrian parliamentary election of 2002. West European Politics 26 (2): 136–152.
Mudde, C. (2000) The Ideology of the Extreme Right. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.
Mudde, C. (2004) The populist zeitgeist. Government and Opposition 39 (3): 541–563.
Mudde, C. (2007) Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mudde, C. (2008) The Populist Radical Right: A Pathological Normalcy. Willy Brandt Series of Working Papers in International Migration and Ethnic Relations 3/07.
Mudde, C. and Van Holsteyn, J. (2000) The Netherlands: Explaining the limited success of the extreme right. In: P. Hainsworth (ed.) The Politics of the Extreme Right. From the Margins to the Mainstream. London: Printer.
O'Malley, E. (2008) Why is there no radical right party in Ireland? West European Politics 31 (5): 960–977.
Pauwels, T. (2010a) Explaining the success of neoliberal populist parties: The case of Lijst Dedecker in Belgium. Political Studies, advance online publication 14 January, doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9248.2009.00815.x.
Pauwels, T. (2010b) Reassessing conceptualization, data and causality: A critique of Boomgaarden and Vliegenthart's study on the relationship between media and the rise of anti-immigrant parties. Electoral Studies 29 (2): 269–275.
Rummens, S. and Abts, K. (2009) Defending democracy: The concentric containment of political extremism. Political Studies, advance online publication 5 November, doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9248.2009.00809.x.
Rydgren, J. (2002) Radical right populism in Sweden: Still a failure, but for how long? Scandinavian Political Studies 25 (1): 27–56.
Rydgren, J. (2006) From Tax Populism to Ethnic Nationalism: Radical Right-wing Populism in Sweden. New York: Berghahn Books.
Rydgren, J. (2008) Immigration sceptics, xenophobes or racists? Radical right-wing voting in six West European countries. European Journal of Political Research 47: 737–765.
Rydgren, J. and Van Holsteyn, J. (2005) Holland and Pim Fortuyn: A deviant case or the beginning of something new? In: J. Rydgren (ed.) Movements of Exclusion: Radical-right Wing Populism in the Western World. New York: Nova Science.
Shields, J. (2010) Support for Le Pen in France: Two elections in Trompe l’oeil. Politics 30 (1): 61–69.
Swyngedouw, M. (2001) The subjective cognitive and affective map of extreme right voters: Using open-ended questions in exit polls. Electoral Studies 20 (2): 217–241.
Swyngedouw, M. (2009) Etnische Minderheden en de Vlaamse Kiezers. ISPO – KULeuven. Een Analyse op Basis van de Postelectorale Verkiezingsonderzoeken 1991-1995-1999-2003-2007.
Swyngedouw, M. and Heerwegh, D. (2009) Wie Stemt op Welke Partij? De Structurele en Culturele Kenmerken van het Stemgedrag in Vlaanderen. ISPO – KULeuven. Een Analyse op Basis van de Postelectorale Verkiezingsonderzoek 2007.
Taggart, P. (2004) Populism and representative politics in contemporary Europe. Journal of Political Ideologies 9 (3): 269–288.
Thijssen, P. (2001) Extreem-rechts en Politieke Aliënatie: Een Causaal Mysterie? Case-Study: Het Vlaams Blok. Tijdschrift voor Sociologie 22 (3): 243–273.
Van der Brug, W., Fennema, M. and Tillie, J. (2000) Anti-immigrant parties in Europe: Ideological or protest vote. European Journal of Political Research 37 (1): 77–102.
Van der Brug, W., Fennema, M. and Tillie, J. (2005) Why some anti-immigrant parties fail and other succeed: A two-step model of aggregate electoral support. Comparative Political Studies 38 (5): 537–573.
Van der Brug, W. and Mughan, A. (2007) Charisma, leader effects and support for right-wing populist parties. Party Politics 13 (1): 29–51.
Van der Eijck, C. and Franklin, M. (2009) Elections and Voters. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Van Haute, E. and Pilet, J.-B. (2006) Regionalist parties in Belgium (VU, RW, FDF): Victims of their own success? Regional and Federal Studies 16 (3): 297–313.
Van Spanje, J. and Van der Brug, W. (2009) Being intolerant of the intolerant. The exclusion of Western European anti-immigration parties and its consequences for party choice. Acta Politica 44 (4): 353–384.
An earlier version of this article was presented at the 2009 ECPR general conference in Potsdam. I thank Elisabeth Carter, Sarah de Lange and the other participants for their valuable comments. I am also grateful to Jean-Benoit Pilet, Pascal Delwit and the anonymous referees for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this article. The research for this article was made possible by the generous support of the Belgian science policy (Interuniversity Attraction Pole on Participation and Representation, www.partirep.eu).
About this article
Cite this article
Pauwels, T. Explaining the strange decline of the populist radical right Vlaams Belang in Belgium: The impact of permanent opposition. Acta Polit 46, 60–82 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1057/ap.2010.17
- populist radical right
- Vlaams Belang
- electoral opportunity structure
- issue ownership
- permanent opposition