Politics, History and International Relations


Alexander von Humboldt Foundation

Humbolt foundation award

1. Populist Parties in Europe: Agents of Discontent?

Populism is a concept in vogue among political commentators, and more often than not used pejoratively. The phenomenon of populism is typically seen as something adverse, and in the European context routinely related to xenophobic politics. What populism exactly is and who its main representatives are, however, often remains unclear. This project has two main aims: to identify populist parties in 21st century Europe and to explain their electoral performance. As is argued, populist parties should not be dismissed as dangerous pariahs out of hand, as their rise tells us something about the state of representative democracy.

The study has a broad scope, including populist parties of various ideological kinds – thus moving beyond examples of the ‘right’ – and covering long-established Western European countries as well as post-communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe. The study takes an innovative mixed-methods approach, combining a fuzzy set Qualitative Comparative Analysis (fsQCA) of populist parties in 31 European countries with three in-depth case studies of the Netherlands, Poland and the United Kingdom.

2. Up to the challenge? The electoral performance of newly governing parties after their first period in power

Traditional mainstream political parties across Europe are increasingly being challenged by new parties or parties which formerly played a minor role in opposition. Some of those non-established parties have even secured access to executive power. This research seeks to explain why some of these newly governing parties manage to bear the costs of taking government responsibility, while many, if not most, fail to live up to expectations and suffer great losses in the subsequent parliamentary election. Are newly governing parties inherently disadvantaged in terms of their electoral survival and, if so, are existing parties then truly forced to be responsive to new societal demands?

The study adds to the literature by providing a systematic pan-European comparison of newly governing parties. It assesses whether similar patterns can be observed in the relatively new post-communist democracies as in the long established democracies in Europe. Further, while existing comparative studies have often focused on structural explanations for the success or failure of new parties, this study moves beyond such explanations by focusing more explicitly on the agency of newly governing parties themselves.

Dr. Stijn van Kessel was awarded an Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship. Between October 2013 and September 2015 he carried out research at the Institut für Deutsches und Internationales Parteienrecht und Parteienforschung (PRuF) at the Heinrich-Heine-University Düsseldorf, Germany. He worked on two main projects.


  • S. van Kessel (2015) Populist Parties in Europe. Agents of Discontent?, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Journal articles

  • S. van Kessel and R. Castelein (2016) ‘Shifting the blame. Populist politicians’ use of Twitter as a tool of opposition’, Journal of Contemporary European Research, 12 (2).
  • S. van Kessel (2014) ‘The populist cat-dog. Applying the concept of populism to contemporary European party systems’, Journal of Political Ideologies, 19 (1), 99–118.
  • S. van Kessel and A. Pirro (2014) ‘Discontent on the Move: Prospects for Populist Radical Right Parties in 2014 European Parliament Elections’, Intereconomics, 49 (1), 14-18.

Book chapters

  • S. van Kessel (forthcoming) ‘Using faith to exclude: The role of religion in Dutch populism’, in: N. Marzouki, D. McDonnell and O. Roy (eds.), Saving the People: How Populists Hijack Religion, London: Hurst.
  • S. van Kessel (forthcoming) ‘Like a Hurricane? The ‘winds of populism’ in contemporary Europe’, PRuF Symposion Edited Volume, Baden-Baden: Nomos.
  • S. van Kessel (2015) ‘Right-wing populism in contemporary Dutch politics’, in: F. Decker, B. Henningsen and K. Jakobsen (eds.), Rechtspopulismus und Rechtsextremismus in Europa. Die Herausforderung der Zivilgesellschaft durch alte Ideologien und neue Medien, Baden-Baden: Nomos, 205-216.
  • S. van Kessel (2015) ‘Dutch Populism during the Crisis’, in: H. Kriesi and T. Pappas (eds.), Populism in the Shadow of the Great Recession, Colchester: ECPR Press.
  • Abts, K. and S. van Kessel (2015) ‘Populism’, in: J. Wright (ed.), International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 2nd edition, Vol 18. Oxford: Elsevier, 609–612.

Working papers

  • S. van Kessel (2015) ‘Up to the challenge? The electoral performance of challenger parties after their first period in power’, COMPASSS Working Paper, 2015-84, 15-12-2015. Available at: http://www.compasss.org/wpseries/2015.htm.