This article presents an agency-based approach to the success of radical right-wing populist parties. It posits that radical right parties will only experience sustained electoral success when they are built prior to their electoral breakthrough and when they institutionalise rapidly. The process of institutionalisation will progress more quickly when radical right parties have a leader with strong internal leadership qualities and when sufficient attention is paid to the recruitment, training and socialisation of candidates. The argument is illustrated through a comparison between two Dutch radical right parties: the Lijst Pim Fortuyn (LPF) and the Partij Voor de Vrijheid (PVV). The two cases offer a compelling example of learning effects in politics: Geert Wilders (PVV) observed the collapse of the LPF and has avoided making the same mistakes.
This paper seeks to explain the variation in the success of radical right political parties across ten European political systems over the last several decades. I argue that such parties succeed over the long term only when they both 1) build on pre-existing nationalist organizations and networks and 2) face a permissive rather than repressive political environment. These hypotheses are tested on the cases of Denmark, France, Italy and Sweden. By adding factors such as historical legacies, party organization, and interactions between mainstream parties and far right challengers to the study of radical right parties, we can better understand their divergent trajectories. Ideas about the legitimacy of the radical right also influence the reaction of mainstream challengers to them, and represent a promising topic for future research.