Making Tomorrow’s Leaders: Youth Movements of Right Wing Populist Parties

About the project

This project seeks to understand both the present and the future of Europe’s populist radical right parties, by researching their youth organizations. Bringing together Swedish and international experts from political science, the project involves in-depth comparative research on the youth sections of ten right-wing populist parties: the Sverigedemokraterna (SD), Dansk Folkeparti (DF), Perussuomalaiset (PS), Freiheitliche Partei Österreich (FPÖ), Lega Nord (LN), Vlaams Belang (VB), Rassemblement National (RN),  Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), Eesti Konservatiivne Rahvaerakond (EKRE) and the Latvian National Alliance (NA).

Using a variety of theories, methods and sources, the project will investigate four main overarching questions:

(1) How are the youth sections of the parties organized?

(2) Why do young people join?

(3) What activities are members engaged in and how are they socialized?

(4) Is a transnational populist radical right elite emerging?


Few political phenomena have dominated academic and public debates across Europe in recent years like the rise of right-wing populism. This reached new heights in 2014, with media commentators and mainstream political leaders issuing frequent warnings not only about the domestic dangers posed by right wing populist parties, but also about the continent-wide implications of greater collaboration between them in the elections to the European parliament. Such concerns were evident in April 2014, when all the major media outlets ran reports about a new transnational youth movement alliance called YEAH (Young European Alliance for Hope) which was launched at a press conference in Vienna. This brought together the leaders from the Sweden Democrat Youth (SDU), the French National Front Youth (FNJ), the Austrian Freedom Party Youth (RFJ), and the Flemish Interest Youth (VBJ).

While the meeting of these young men from the radical right made a good news story, the creation of YEAH is important for researchers too. It reminds us that, while much of the classic scholarship on right-wing populism believed such parties were episodic, the reality is that many contemporary European populist radical right parties have been built to last, with well-developed grassroots organizations and youth sections providing new generations of leaders. In fact, the current leaders of the Sweden Democrats (SD), the Danish People’s party (DF) the Finns party (PS), the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), the Flemish Interest (Vlaams Belang, VB) and the Northern League (LN) in Italy all came through their party’s youth organizations. The Vienna meeting thus underlined that youth organisations are developing new party leaders and that those new leaders are establishing the bases for transnational co-operation.

Prevailing wisdom holds that populist parties do not last long, ‘flaring up briefly and dying away almost as fast’ (Canovan 2005: 89; see also Taggart 2004: 270). However, while this applies to parties like the Swedish New Democracy (NyD) and the Dutch List Pim Fortuyn (LPF), it does not to many others. For example, the FN celebrated its fortieth anniversary in 2013, while the LN is doing better than ever in the polls over twenty years after its creation. Most of the more successful right-wing populist parties seem to have been built to last. Indeed, the attention they appear to have devoted to the party ‘on the ground’ stands in contrast to mainstream parties, most of which have been steadily losing members in recent decades (Katz and Mair 2009). By contrast, many successful right-wing populist parties are bucking this trend. For example, LN membership rose from around 112,000 in 1992 to over 150,000 by 2009 (Albertazzi and McDonnell 2010: 1321), while FN membership increased from circa 15,000 in the mid-1980s to 60,000 by 2004 (Ivaldi and Swyngedouw 2005: 20). Likewise, SD membership increased from 1,000 in 2003 to 16000 in 2015, while the SDU almost doubled its membership from 2,300 in 2011 to 4,300 in 2014 (Jungar 2016).

Therefore, if we want to understand both the present and the future of Europe’s populist radical right parties, we need research that – for the first time – looks at their youth organizations.




This project is funded by the Swedish Research Council.




Published Jan. 11, 2022 12:47 PM - Last modified Jan. 11, 2022 1:48 PM