Menu Close
Thousands of people outside a lit palace at night, one carrying a rainbow umbrella.
Hundreds of people join a ‘Light and Love’ gathering outside the royal palace in Amsterdam to protest the election victory of Geert Wilders’ far-right party PVV, or Party for Freedom, in a general election in November 2023. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

The Dutch are aiming to quarantine populism. Should the rest of the world follow suit?

In November 2023, Geert Wilders’ stridently anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim party swept the Dutch elections in what the media called a political earthquake.

The magnitude of his win came as a shock to the centre and left parties in the Dutch legislature. They jointly decided that “Europe’s most dangerous man” should never become prime minister.

The Dutch are not alone in seeking an institutional fix against hard-right populism. In legislatures across the European Union, politicians are erecting a “cordon sanitaire” against extremism — a red-line tactic to block far-right parties from entering governing coalitions.

It’s hardly enough, but it’s an important first step.

Coalitions against extremism rose to prominence in the late 1980s, when Belgian parties signed a deal to exclude the extreme-right Vlaams Blok from government.

The resulting cordon sanitaire lasted for 30 years and evolved from a written deal to an unwritten convention. But it’s become more difficult to maintain in the face of far-right mobilization. Nonetheless, the strategy is being tried in other countries too.

21st-century populists

In the upcoming EU parliamentary elections in June, centre and left groupings of European parliamentarians, known as MEPs, are planning a quarantine strategy to isolate the hard right in parliament. The prospects of success for this EU strategy are far from certain.

In Spain and Portugal, beleaguered governments are turning to anti-extremist coalitions too.

In Portugal, a new Democratic Alliance government has been formed by centre-right and socialist politicians who are working together to exclude Chega, the far-right party that holds the third largest number of seats in the Portuguese legislature.

A man speaks at a podium with a Winds of Change sign behind him.
Andre Ventura, leader of Portugal populist right-wing party Chega, delivers a speech during a rally in Rome in March 2024. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

In a deeply controversial move, the Spanish socialist government is even prepared to work with Catalans indicted for crimes against the country’s constitution. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez apparently believes it’s preferable to work with separatists than to turn the government over to authoritarian populists on the far right.

The weakness of this tactic lies in the fact that quarantine only deals with populists once they arrive in government.

Germany is practically alone in Europe in having a popular movement that opposes extremism in the streets.

Hundreds of thousands have marched against the anti-immigrant AfD. Even though the AfD polls at nearly 25 per cent of decided voters and is predicted to win seats in the Reichstag this summer, it will be impossible for any established party to work with them.

Quarantine is not a cure

Quarantine is always a half-measure. When populists win outright majorities, the cordon sanitaire becomes useless.

The United States, Poland and Brazil have already elected populists. Establishment Democrats are trying to energize a lacklustre presidential campaign by arguing they’re the democratic wall against Donald Trump’s MAGA movement. Such a tactic is a Hail Mary play in the polarized American two-party system.

Even so, Trump doesn’t enjoy the benefit of being an unknown quantity for Republicans. Those who like him are true believers. The rest don’t like him. But left-leaning and Arab-American Democrats are angry about President Joe Biden’s military support for Israel and Benjamin Netanyahu’s indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Gaza.

That means the progressive flank could stay home in November. The winner will likely be the candidate who is less hated by voters. Pro-democracy sentiments may not have much to do with it.

A man in a white golf shirt and a red Make America Great Again hat speaks and gestures on a golf course.
Donald Trump gestures as he visits the driving range at Trump National Doral Golf Club on April 7, 2024, in Doral, Fla. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

Anti-populist efforts abroad

In Poland, Donald Tusk and his coalition are trying to restore the independence of the judiciary and expel hard nationalists from top positions in the bureaucracy. They may succeed because Tusk has the support of Polish voters and the EU bureaucracy.

Brazil’s quarantine strategy relies on the judiciary, which has been more effective than the U.S. courts. Former president Jair Bolsonaro and leading supporters have been barred from elected office for the next seven years.

Even so, the upper and lower houses of the legislature are still allied with Bolsonaro and they’re resisting all of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s major economic reforms. That said, the disgraced former president and key members of his administration have been accused of plotting a coup to remove Lula.

A man in a yellow shirt speaks into a microphone while gesturing.
Jair Bolsonaro addresses supporters during a rally in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in February 2024. Bolsonaro and some of his former top aides are under investigation into allegations they plotted a coup to remove his successor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

In Israel, the religious right holds a critical place in the wartime unity government. It has built a wall against the progressive parties — a reverse quarantine. Even though Netanyahu is detested by a majority of Israelis and has been described as “the worst leader in Jewish history,” he will be difficult to dislodge. The Oct. 7 Hamas attacks gave him yet another political life.

Democracy is also under major attack in countries like India, Hungary and Italy. The power structures in these countries make the quarantine tactic difficult, and all three have decades of struggle ahead.

It’s always easier to build coalitions with a handful of parties filled with populist and self-interested cynics than it is to build a big tent of people who wish to uphold liberal institutions.

The revolt of the masses

Probably the biggest benefit of populism quarantines today is that they provide some breathing room to pro-democracy parties. How those parties use this borrowed time could determine the fate of nations.

In 1930, José Ortega y Gasset, the Spanish philosopher, wrote The Revolt of the Masses, arguing that spasmodic crises afflict all “peoples, nations and civilizations.”

Revolts break through the political status quo as ordinary people confront political authority and bend the arc of history. In the post-Second World War era, citizens pushed for greater social, political and legal equality. The 1963 March on Washington, the Paris occupation of May 1968 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 are three such iconic moments.

Those past uprisings didn’t destabilize entire societies because their leaders were not cynical opportunists using anger to create disorder. They had concrete goals to create more just societies. As a result, these movements opened the door to creative political compromises.


Read more: 'If we burn ... then what?' A new book asks why a decade of mass protest has done so little to change things


Sowing disorder

The populist merchants of grievance have done the opposite, hollowing out political parties that now work against the constitutional order they were elected to uphold.

Mainstream political parties are seemingly losing their capacity to build consensus and defend democracy against conspiracy theories on social media.

The legitimacy of liberalism hangs in the balance. Whether quarantining populism via coalitions formed by weakened parties will barricade the door against populists is an open question.

Many populists, after all, are highly organized, well-funded by the billionaire class and skilled at sowing disorder. It’s going to take much more than a legislative lock on the door to shore up our defences. But it’s incumbent upon the courageous Dutch and others to give it a shot.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 184,200 academics and researchers from 4,969 institutions.

Register now