Democracies in Western Europe are undergoing dramatic changes, but it’s not just because of right-wing populism. It’s because Europe’s party landscape is in turmoil.
The 2016 British vote to leave the EU and the election of Donald Trump later that same year raised fears about an illiberal and potentially antidemocratic brand of politics taking hold of Western democracies. Since those twin shocks, commentators have tended to view almost every election in western Europe as no less than a referendum on the fate of liberal democracy itself. This was the case in Austria, where the narrow defeat of right-wing presidential candidate Norbert Hofer in late 2016 was portrayed as a loss for “Austria’s Trump.” Journalists feverishly monitored Dutch elections in March and the performance of far-right firebrand Geert Wilders (the Dutch Trump) as a bellwether for Europe. And French elections a month later were billed as a clash between right-wing populist Marine Le Pen (you guessed it, the French Trump) and cosmopolitan, liberal Emmanuel Macron. Only British snap elections in June and German elections in September were outliers, partly because their populist insurgents are too weak as of yet to fundamentally reshape the political landscape.
In the media and expert circles, these states have become battlegrounds around a new political fault line, not unlike the US. The battle pits cosmopolitan liberals who embrace globalization and multiculturalism against anti-pluralist, ethno-nationalist populists. For some, this new cleavage between ‘open’ and ‘closed’ ideologies has even replaced the Left-Right divide that has traditionally served as the organizing principle of Western politics.
There is some truth to this. Recent elections on the continent have shown the rise of populist actors whose commitment to liberalism and democratic pluralism often seems lukewarm at best. And the appeal of populist messaging has often reshuffled long-standing partisan identities on the Left and the Right. Take the UK’s center-left Labour Party during the 2016 Brexit campaign: Because the party was split between predominantly pro-Brexit working class supporters and an urban, professional and EU-friendly base, it struggled to position itself clearly on leaving or staying in the EU.
Yet the focus on the battle between populism and liberalism has eclipsed a broader, equally momentous development: the slow but radical transformation of Europe’s political landscape towards increased party fragmentation – a shift with potentially wide-ranging implications for the future of democracy on the continent. After the Dutch elections, political scientist Cas Mudde pointed out that the most arresting development was not the rise of Geert Wilders, who incidentally performed worse than in 2010. Instead, it was the fact that the vote share of the country’s main political parties had reached a new low. While the biggest three parties in parliament raked up 86 percent back in the mid-1980s, they now got a mere 45 percent of the votes.
As Mudde notes, this is not an isolated phenomenon. Across Western Europe, traditionally dominant parties have seen their vote share decline, some slowly but steadily, others abruptly. Meanwhile, formerly marginal or entirely new parties have risen to new heights. In 1980s Germany, more than 80 percent of votes went to either the Social Democrats or Christian Democrats. In 2017, these two parties only got a combined 53.5 percent of the total vote. Meanwhile, two additional parties entered parliament after the September election, one of them a complete newbie.
Take a look down south. For much of its democratic history, Spain has effectively been a two-party system at the national level. Power alternates between the center-left PSOE and the center-right Partido Popular, usually with the backing of various small regional parties. However, its system has been shaken in recent years by the founding of the liberal Ciudadanos party in 2005 and Podemos in 2014. In the 2015 general election, both newcomers managed to attract enough voters that no one was left with a majority, prompting a snap election in 2016 and forcing incumbent prime minister Manuel Rajoy to form a minority government.
While France has long been a multiparty system, its elections have usually been dominated by the center-left PS and various incarnations of the same center-right party (currently known as Les Républicains). Until 2017, that is, when no candidate from either party made past the first round of the presidential election. In legislative elections a month later, voters handed a landslide victory to La République en Marche!, which Emmanuel Macron had founded barely a year earlier. Again, the UK is somewhat of an exception to this trend, as its first-past-the-post voting system makes it much harder for new challengers to enter parliament. Nonetheless, the rise of the far-right UK Independence Party and the Scottish Nationalist Party has deeply shaped British politics in recent years.
Any major turbulences of the party landscape should be carefully monitored. While parties may not be strictly necessary in a democracy, most experts argue that they help aggregate the interests of elected representatives and therefore make governments more efficient, stable, and predictable. Still, current developments in Europe do not necessarily indicate a breakdown of party systems, as new parties are rising to fill the gaps left by the old ones. Moreover, the weakening of traditional centrist heavyweights does not always mean that voters are moving towards political extremes. The success of Emmanuel Macron in France shows that new challengers and their parties can be distinctly centrist. And the decline of traditional catch-all parties may be due in part to social and economic changes in advanced industrial economies as well as the emergence of new issue areas for smaller parties to capitalize on (think environmentalism).
However, highly fragmented party systems can also mean trouble for democracy. With the vote share distributed almost evenly among many parties and no obvious center of gravity, let alone an obvious majority for government, the transaction costs of compromise go up, at the expense of effective and stable governance. Take Spain, where it took two elections in close succession to form an unstable minority government. In the Netherlands, the new government is a four-way coalition formed after a record 225 days of negotiation. In Germany, which voted in September, coalition talks are still ongoing as of mid-December, another national record. Besides keeping governments from focusing on governing, the combination of tortuous negotiations and unstable governments risks undermining popular confidence in democracy.
In many cases, the task of finding a workable coalition is complicated by mainstream parties’ refusal to cooperate with right-wing populists. As Cas Mudde points out, these anti-populist marriages of convenience can give off the impression that all mainstream parties are the same, and that their main goal is to ward off populist challengers.
Whether these trends persist remains to be seen. Italian and Swedish general elections in the coming year may provide some clues. But to understand where Western Europe’s democracies are headed, watch this space.
Photo: The Assemblée Nationale, the lower house of the French parliament. By Richard Ying and Tangui Morlier, CC BY-SA 3.0