Explaining the strange decline of the populist radical right Vlaams Belang in Belgium: The impact of permanent opposition

Abstract

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.

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Figure 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    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.

  2. 2.

    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/.

  3. 3.

    Owing to budgetary reasons, the voters from Brussels have not been interviewed.

  4. 4.

    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.

  5. 5.

    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.

  6. 6.

    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.

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Acknowledgements

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).

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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

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Keywords

  • populist radical right
  • Vlaams Belang
  • electoral opportunity structure
  • issue ownership
  • permanent opposition