Europe's new populist leaders

Populist movements pick up significant levels of support by presenting themselves as ordinary Joes who are honest and up-front about society’s problems. The most successful leaders are those that can embody this folksy outsider image
Jonathan Birdwell Marley Morris
7 November 2011

Populist movements have a history of memorable and charismatic leaders, from fascists like Mussolini to revolutionaries like Che Guevara. These leaders have invoked appeals to ‘the people’ against the ‘system’ and the ‘elite’ to create a cult-like status, inspire a new generation of activists and galvanise political support.  They offer the illusion of integrity, courage and passion against the backdrop of complacent bureaucrats and tired, out of touch political elites.  

Over the past decade, there has been a rise of anti-immigrant and anti-Islam populist movements across Europe, equally reliant on a charismatic leader. Figures like the Front National’s Marine Le Pen in France, the PVV’s Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, the FPÖ’s Heinz-Christian Strache in Austria and the Danish People Party’s Pia Kjaarsgaard have aimed to capture voters across Western Europe with their straight-talking, anti-elitist rhetoric. Marine Le Pen has seized the attention of the French press and is typically referred to in France by just her first name. In 2007 Geert Wilders was declared politician of the year by a mainstream radio station and was praised for his “well-timed one-liners”. The FPÖ have created a political rap performed by HC Strache called “HC Rap” as part of their electoral strategy and some of their campaign literature presents Strache as a superhero. And in Denmark the youth wing of the Pia Kjaarsgaard’s party made a version of the song “Mamma Mia” in honour of their leader by replacing occurrences of “Mia” with “Pia”. 

Other groups have had less notable leaders, which has impacted on their success.  In some cases a lacklustre leader has lead to a decline in popularity. Take Nick Griffin, whose appearance on BBC’s Question Time has been thought to contribute the downfall of the BNP (giving succour to the argument that extremists should be given the ‘oxygen of publicity’ to expose their vacuous and vile views). Or René Stadtkewitz, leader of the recently formed Die Freiheit, a populist German party that aims to win support on the model of Wilders’ PVV. Despite being described by Der Spiegel as “the German Geert Wilders”, other reports say that he has little of his charm. 

Because populist movements are predicated on the idea that they speak for ‘the people’, a charismatic leader who comes across as representing the ordinary person is a particularly powerful tool.  In many instances, the extent to which populist movements rise and fall is tied to the public affection for the leader.     

Today Demos published a major report based on over 10,000 survey responses from online populist activists across western Europe. The rise of European populist groups on the political scene is mirrored in their growth on the internet.  These groups use social networks and the internet to spread their message and recruit new followers.  On Facebook, you can join or ‘like’ Facebook groups for a range of European populist political parties and street movements.  You can do the same, often, with their leaders:  just under 24,000 people ‘like’ Marine Le Pen’s official Facebook page. 

Our report, The New Face of Digital Populism, exposes this new breed of activists, who are predominantly angry young men.  Over 63 per cent of survey respondents were under 30 years old, and three quarters of them are male.  They see themselves as the defenders of their respective national culture.  They are much more likely to cite concerns over immigration, Islamic extremism and crime than the average European citizen, who is concerned more about economic matters.  They are also overwhelmingly pessimistic about the future of their country and whether politics is an effective way to respond to their concerns.  And yet, despite being disgruntled democrats, these on-line supporters are not just armchair activists:  they are more likely to take to the street in protest than the average European.    

They also display significantly lower levels of trust in political institutions, the Government and the EU, which underlines why leaders of populist groups have been able to find such favour with rhetoric emphasising that mainstream politicians are out of touch. Only 1 in 5 on-line populist supporters said that they trusted the government compared to a European average of 43 per cent.  Distrust of the European Union was even higher, with only 14 per cent saying they trusted the EU compared to a European average of 44 per cent.  Yet in comparison, online populist supporters actually have fairly high levels of trust in other people in general – only slightly less than average. For many online populists, people in general can be trusted, but not the elite.    

We also asked survey respondents in an open-response question why they had ‘liked’ or joined populist organisation groups on-line. An average of 13% spoke of their disillusionment with mainstream institutions when explaining why they joined, and an average of around one in ten spoke of how the group had integrity, often in comparison to other political organisations and parties. In other words, populist movements pick up significant levels of support by presenting themselves as ordinary Joes who are honest and up-front about society’s problems.  The most successful leaders are those that can give voice to people’s frustrations and embody this folksy outsider image.  

Of course, this isn’t just the case for populist political parties.  We have seen this many times in mainstream politics. Tony Blair’s charm and depiction of himself as “just a regular guy” helped Labour win successive landslides. George W Bush’s initial popularity was in part due to the perception that he was the sort of man you’d want to have a drink with. Even now, David Cameron and Ed Miliband vie to present themselves as down-to-earth people, with varying success. Personality – always important – matters more than ever.  

Outside the mainstream, nascent political movements are even more reliant on a charismatic figure that can make people sit up and take notice. In our online survey we also targeted the Facebook groups dedicated to the leaders of populist movements themselves. The preponderance of these Facebook groups and the kinds of responses we got depended on the leader. We were able to target a number of groups dedicated to supporting Marine Le Pen and the responses we got reflected this: 10% of Front Nationale activists who explained why they joined referenced ‘Marine’ in their response. Some even gave the one word ‘Marine’ as their answer. On the other hand, René Stadtkewitz, leader of Die Freiheit, was more difficult to target. Even though a Facebook group dedicated to him was targeted as part of our survey, not one of the 141 explanations of why online supporters had joined mentioned him by name.

However, despite the personal affection clearly felt for some populist leaders, leadership appeal far from dominated the answers in any of the groups we surveyed. Overall, many more people were motivated to join and support these groups by concerns over immigration and identity rather than the charisma of the leader, even in France where references to “Marine” were relatively common. In other words, leadership is not an overriding factor in explaining the extent of the appeal of the new wave of populist groups in Europe. A charming leader may sometimes draw people in, but it often goes deeper than that. 

And of course, the problem of every self-styled ‘outsider’ politician is that eventually to gain power they have to become part of the system.  We saw this firsthand, particularly in our case study fieldwork in Denmark:  the majority of radical populists we spoke to felt that the Danish People’s Party had compromised too much and were now part of the system.  By gaining power they immediately lose the virtue that brought them to power – their anti-establishment credibility.  

The failure of mainstream politicians and leaders to grapple with the complex problems of the day is provoking people to look for alternatives.  While Europe’s leaders and the rest of the world are focused on Greece, Italy and the Eurozone crisis, another threat is brewing.  Populism, particularly anti-immigrant, xenophobic populism, is becoming part of the political furniture both offline and online across Europe. Individual, charismatic leaders are integral to this fledgling movement.  So far, they’ve failed to hold wider appeal. But, given the widespread sense that there has been a spectacular failure of leadership by Europe’s elite now more than ever, the emergence of a particularly charismatic populist leader should be carefully watched.


Jonathan Birdwell and Marley Morris are authors of The New Face of Digital Populism, published by Demos today.


Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData