Legal action against politicians

Defending or damaging democracy? Legal action against anti-immigrant parties in Europe and its effects on citizens

NWO VIDI project led by Dr. Joost van Spanje 

The electoral strength of anti-immigrant parties varies across time and across countries. For example, the Front National in France floundered in the 1970s, but flourished in the 1990s. In neighbouring Belgium, a party of the same name existed which was always less successful than the French Front National. More research is needed about when and where anti-immigrant parties succeed or fail.

In this project we propose, and empirically test, a largely neglected factor that might explain some of anti-immigrant parties’ performance: the legal action taken against them. Many of these parties have faced attempts to ban them, and many of their politicians have been fined, jailed, or stripped of their political rights. We aim to build on our earlier finding, based on one case, that legal action against these parties affects their electoral support.

The effects of legal measures against anti-immigrant parties likely go beyond voting behaviour. In particular, it would be hard to believe that such measures leave citizens’ support for the political system unaffected. This is because in many democratic societies, they are considered aspects of the political system, and many citizens oppose them. Previous results suggest that such measures are a promising factor explaining over-time and cross-national variation in system support.

In the project we chart legal action against anti-immigrant parties and develop an analytical framework concerning its effects on citizens. In addition, we test hypotheses derived from that framework in 21 countries, 1965-2015. Studying all these contexts allows the assessment of how case and country traits affect the impact of legal action against anti-immigrant parties. Also, we model effects as a function of voters’ characteristics, and of the media coverage that these voters are exposed to.

This is the first ever comprehensive study of legal action against anti-immigrant parties. The project combines experimental and non-experimental research methodologies. It brings together methods and literature from political science, sociology, and communication science. Concerning the communication aspect, a key innovation is the focus on agenda setting in, and framing of, media coverage of legal action.

Current action against parties in Germany and Greece, and trials of French MP Marine Le Pen and Dutch MP Geert Wilders, make this study urgent. The project’s results will inform scientific and societal debates on whether such action serves to defend democracy or to damage it.


This NWO VIDI project is advised by a panel of legal experts consisting of prof. dr. Wouter Hins (University of Amsterdam, Leiden University), prof. dr. Göran Sluiter (University of Amsterdam) and prof. dr. Tom Zwart (Utrecht University).

Expert survey:

Results of our expert survey about the hate speech prosecution of politicians in Europe are now available.

Team members:

Joost van Spanje (@joostvanspanje)

Rachid Azrout

Laura Jacobs (@LCJacobs89)

Sjifra de Leeuw (@sjifradeleeuw)

Roderik Rekker (@RoderikRekker)

Lisanne Wichgers (@lisannewichgers)