Posted on December 18, 2023

Why Are Younger Voters Flocking to the Far Right in Parts of Europe?

Jon Henley and Pjotr Sauer, The Guardian, December 1, 2023

Lunching on a tuna sandwich in the central market of Volendam, a picturesque fishing port north of Amsterdam, Gerald, 24, was lucid about his choice in last week’s Dutch election.

“I voted for Wilders, and many of my friends did too,” he said. “I don’t want to live with my parents for ever. I want my own home, and to be able to provide for my family later on. Wilders wants to figure out the housing crisis, and make our healthcare better. Those are the most important topics for me.”

If everyone who voted in the election had been aged under 35, Geert Wilders, the far-right populist whose Party for Freedom (PVV) shocked Europe by winning the most parliamentary seats, would have won even more.

In last year’s French presidential runoff, Marine Le Pen won 39% of votes from people aged 18-24 and 49% of those aged 25-34. Before Italy’s election in September last year, Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy was the largest party among under-35s, on 22%.

Across the continent, the image of the radical-right voter – typically white, male, non-graduate and, above all, old – is changing, and studies suggest that in several countries, support for the far right is growing fastest among younger voters.

Several factors may explain the phenomenon, analysts say. “We really should be careful about assuming a cultural or ideological alignment between young voters and the far right,” said Catherine de Vries, a political scientist at Italy’s Bocconi university.

“We know in many countries young people are more pro-immigration than older voters. They have not become xenophobic. But their lives are more precarious. These are often votes for what in this Dutch election was called ‘livelihood security’.”

The Dutch word bestaanszekerheid translates roughly as an existence with a sufficient and predictable income, a satisfactory home, adequate access to education and healthcare, and a cushion against unexpected eventualities.

Issues such as housing, overcrowded classes and struggling hospitals were key to the youth vote, De Vries said. “Wilders may want ‘Dutch people first’ but he promises to fix these things,” she said. “The government parties imposed austerity.”

In Volendam, where the PVV won 42.9% of the vote, that was Gerald’s point. “Younger people, the woke ones from the big cities, care about the climate and gender stuff but they are ignoring the real problems that we have here and now,” he said.

“I am not a racist because I voted for Wilders. It frustrates me that migrants receive more help from the government than Dutch people – but I’m not against Islam; I don’t want mosques closed. I just think we need to control immigration better.”

Koen, 19, a student in Amsterdam, echoed that view. “I still live with my parents – I can’t afford a room in Amsterdam,” he said. “I have to commute every day. Wilders wants to give housing to people who are from here – I don’t think that’s strange.”

Koen, too, said he did not believe Wilders would go through with his extreme anti-Islam pledges: closing mosques, banning headscarves and outlawing the Qur’an. “I thought Wilders was the best in the debates. He made a lot of sense,” he said.

Far-right parties are not the preferred option – or even second choice – for younger voters everywhere in Europe, analysts caution. The trend appears strongest in countries such as Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark.

Pawel Zerka, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said: “It’s a different story in eastern Europe, and often in the south. But it’s certainly the case that far-right parties are attracting a lot of support among younger voters.”

In Spain, the ultra-conservative Vox party’s share of the under-35 vote soared from 22% in April 2019 to a record 34% that November, echoing its rollercoaster performance with the electorate as a whole. It fell back in July this year but still stands at 27%.

In the Netherlands, the PVV surged to become the largest party among 18- to 34-year-olds, winning 17% of their vote against 7% previously. In Sweden’s 2022 ballot, 22% of the 18-21 cohort voted for the far-right Sweden Democrats, against 12% in 2018.

In the 2021 Saxony-Anhalt state election in eastern Germany, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) came top among voters under 30, while young voters were likewise predicted to help Austria’s far-right Freedom party (FPO) win next year’s national ballot.

Zerka also identified economic insecurity as the most significant factor. “Young voters haven’t moved rightwards on migration, abortion, minority rights,” he said. “Far-right parties have convinced them that they offer a credible economic alternative.”

Other factors include some far-right parties “managing to position themselves as a ‘cool’ electoral option”, Zerka said. “They are increasingly offering younger voters equally young, often charismatic politicians – people who speak their language.”

Jordan Bardella, the president of France’s National Rally (RN), for example, was only 23 when he led the party’s successful 2019 European election campaign, and 27 when he succeeded Le Pen as the far-right party’s official leader last year.

Zerka also cites far-right parties’ social media skills: Spain’s Vox has a particularly slick operation, and Sławomir Mentzen, the 37-year-old leader of Poland’s ultra-liberal far-right Konfederacja (Confederation) party, has 800,000 followers on TikTok.

Several far-right parties have also proposed specific policy initiatives to attract younger voters: Le Pen’s 2022 manifesto promised to scrap taxes for the under-30s, provide financial assistance to student workers and boost student housing.

Jacob Davey, the head of policy and research at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue thinktank, identified the influence of a far- and ultra-right youth counterculture, typified by the far-right pan-European Generation Identity group, as an additional factor.

Even if “economic grievances, insecurities around housing, jobs, futures” may account for much of the youth vote, he said, “we’re seeing the growth to fruition of a concerted far- and extreme-right effort to reach and radicalise young people”.

And finally, said De Vries, there was “simply, normalisation. For many of these young voters, far-right parties have been part of the political landscape their whole lives. They’ve grown up with them. There’s not the stigmatisation there once was.”

In Amsterdam, Conny, 22, smoking a cigarette outside a grocery store in the working-class Noord neighbourhood, the only district in the city where the PVV finished first, made the same point.

“It is the first time I voted,” she said. “My whole family voted PVV, and we were excited [Wilders] won.” Life was becoming more expensive in Amsterdam, she said, but the outgoing government did not seem to care.

“My mother’s a nurse, and healthcare is not coping. Wilders campaigned on investing in healthcare and old people’s homes. When it comes to migration, people from a war country deserve a better life here but it shouldn’t be at the expense of Dutch people.”