Revealed: one in three Europeans now votes anti-establishment

Almost one-third of Europeans now vote for populist, far-right or far-left parties, research shows, with wide support for anti-establishment politics surging across the continent in an increasingly problematic challenge to the mainstream.

Analysis by more than 100 political scientists across 31 countries found that in national elections last year a record 32% of European voters cast their ballots for anti-establishment parties, compared with 20% in the early 2000s and 12% in the early 1990s.

The research, led by Matthijs Rooduijn, a political scientist at the University of Amsterdam, and shared exclusively with the Guardian, also found that about half of anti-establishment voters support far-right parties – and this is the vote share that is increasing most rapidly.

“There’s fluctuation, but the underlying trend is the numbers keep rising,” Rooduijn said. “Mainstream parties are losing votes; anti-establishment parties are gaining. It matters, because many studies now show that when populists secure power, or influence over power, the quality of liberal democracy declines.”

In a sign of how far the rise of the nativist, authoritarian far right has shifted Europe’s politics rightwards, the researchers considered classifying several of the continent’s better-known centre-right parties as borderline far-right.

“We talked a lot about reclassifying the UK’s Conservatives, Mark Rutte’s VVD in the Netherlands, Les Républicains in France and the ÖVP in Austria,” Rooduijn said. “In the end we didn’t because nativism was not their core focus. But we may in future.”

The PopuList was launched five years ago in partnership with the Guardian. This year it identifies 234 anti-establishment parties across Europe, including 165 populist parties (most either far-left or far-right). It classes 61 parties as far-left and 112 as far-right (most, but not all, populist).


Usually combined with a rightwing or leftwing “host ideology”, populism divides society into two homogenous and opposing groups, a “pure people” versus a “corrupt elite”, and argues that all politics should be an expression of the “will of the people”.

Its supporters say it is a democratic corrective, privileging the ordinary person against elites, vested interests and an entrenched establishment. Critics say populists in power often subvert democratic norms, undermining the judiciary and media or restricting minority rights, sometimes in ways that will long outlast their mandates.

“For populists, everything that stands between ‘the will of the people’ and policymaking is bad,” Rooduijn said. “That includes all those vital checks and balances – a free press, independent courts, protections for minorities – that are an essential part of a liberal democracy.”

Joining Hungary’s self-professed illiberal leader, Viktor Orbán, and Poland’s ruling Law & Justice party, several populist far-right leaders and parties including Giorgia Meloni in Italy and, in the Nordic region, the Finns party and the Sweden Democrats have recently entered or are underwriting government coalitions.

Others are seeing a big surge in popularity. Austria’s Freedom party (FPÖ) is comfortably ahead in the polls a year from elections, Germany’s AfD has doubled its prospective vote share to 22% and is lying second, ahead of the centre-left SPD, while Marine Le Pen looks on course to have her best run yet at the French presidency.

Three hard-right, nativist parties in Greece won parliamentary seats in June’s vote, and while in Spain Vox lost more than a third of its MPs in July, populist and insurgent parties could decide, at upcoming elections between now and November, the governments of Slovakia, Poland and the Netherlands.

A multitude of factors lie behind the trend, according to the researchers, who examined parties that had won at least one seat or 2% of the vote in national parliament elections since 1989.

“Far-right parties, in particular, have really broadened their voter base and are forging coalitions of voters with very different concerns,” said Daphne Halikiopoulou, a comparative political scientist at the University of York and a PopuList co-author.


“Their big issue was always immigration. That’s still there, but cultural concerns now account for only a small part of their electorate. They’ve gone way beyond that core following, capitalising on a whole range of voter insecurities … They’re diversifying.”

Lockdowns and vaccines were hobbyhorses for some, as, increasingly, are culture war discussions – gender, history, symbols of national identity – and the climate crisis. Others have latched on to the cost of living crisis and Russia’s war on Ukraine.

People were now voting far right “who never used to and you wouldn’t expect to: older women, urban voters, the educated middle class,” Halikiopoulou said. “They’re willing to trade democracy for something, to say: ‘I know this leader is authoritarian – but at least he’ll bring economic stability.’”

Andrea Pirro, another of the study’s co-authors and a comparative political scientist at the University of Bologna, said the mainstream – the big, catch-all centre-right and centre-left parties – was partly to blame. “There’s been a progressive detachment from societal demands,” he said.

“A perception that these parties have essentially become office-seeking organisations, unresponsive to people’s concerns, and so often blamed for their problems. Anti-establishment parties present themselves as the response, and voters are more and more willing to give untried alternatives a chance.”

In almost all European countries, the pressure on the traditional centre-right, in particular, to co-opt far-right policy proposals, particularly on immigration, has become extreme, with the radicalisation of the centre right meaning the cordon sanitaire that long separated it from the far right is evaporating.

“The dynamics of political competition are changing,” Halikiopoulou said. “Even a couple of years ago, for instance, no mainstream party would have dreamed of playing ball with the Sweden Democrats.”

With success comes rivalry, the researchers note. Anti-establishment and far-right parties are splitting and multiplying: in last year’s French elections, for example, the polemicist Eric Zemmour launched a party for voters who found Le Pen too soft.

Cas Mudde, a professor in international affairs at the University of Georgia who formulated the widely accepted definition of populism, said core support for anti-establishment, particularly radical right parties had not actually grown much.

“What has grown is the group of voters who have a tolerance for them,” he said. “Those who wouldn’t vote Le Pen in the first round of French presidential elections but do in the second. That group has really, really grown.”

The PopuList researchers do not do electoral predictions and it is unclear how exactly the surge in anti-establishment vote share will play out. Some analysts say fears that Europe is “falling to the far right” are overblown. They say the centre is more resilient than polling and election results suggest.

Mujtaba Rahman, of the Eurasia Group, said centre-right parties were “adopting more hardline positions on climate, immigration and LGBTQ rights, but there are limits to how successful this may prove.” Meanwhile, he said, “most far-right parties have moved decisively to the centre on economic and foreign policy, and in their views of the EU.”

The centre right’s drift to the far right will eventually meet its limits, Rahman argued, noting Vox’s poor recent performance in Spain. In next year’s European parliament elections, he predicted another centrist majority. “Moving to the far right is unlikely to be the panacea many parties believe,” he said.

Mudde was less sanguine. Society had changed, he said. The mainstreaming of radical right ideas had led to a radicalisation of the centre; tolerance of the radical right – among elites and the public – had clearly grown. Longstanding boundaries and consensuses had broken.

“Look at Britain’s Tories,” he said. “In their discourse and rhetoric, they are radical right. And as the mainstream radicalises, the radical right has to go further, to offer something different, to stand out.”

Its growth would not be linear or endless, Mudde said, but he saw no natural ceiling. “That presumes a stability that does not exist, either in society or politics. An anti-establishment vote share of one in three voters could be the tip of the iceberg.”