European politics is rewiring itself

European politics is rewiring itself

After months of speculation about a “far-right surge” in Bavaria, the final result of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), coming “just” fourth, with 10.2% of the vote, was a bit of an anticlimax. As The Guardian writes in an article "Populism is not the whole story – European politics is rewiring itself", while there are important local particularities to the Bavarian elections, most notably the end of the last democratic one-party system in Europe, the results reflect a broader European pattern of fragmentation and volatility that is often missed by the obsessive focus on the “rise of populism” narrative.

The Bavarian elections were not an “earthquake”, but they were certainly an “upheaval”. Most importantly, the rightwing Christian Social Union (CSU) was “battered”, losing not only its parliamentary majority but also 10.4% of the vote. But the biggest loser was actually the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), who, as in France and the Netherlands before, dropped into the single digits (9.7%), after a loss of 10.9%. In other words, the CSU lost a quarter of its 2013 votes and the SPD over half.

Against these big losses stood major gains. While falling well below the poll scores that made international news a few months ago, the AfD was still the biggest winner in their first Bavarian elections. They were followed closely by the Greens who, like sister parties in Belgium and Luxembourg last weekend, made big gains. In fact, the Greens more than doubled their votes, coming second with 17.5%.

But, as the political scientists Stefano Bartolini and Peter Mair observed with regard to electoral changes in the 1980s, underlying these big gains and losses at the party level is a relative stability at the bloc level. In terms of aggregate scores, the leftwing parties (the SPD and Greens) largely offset each other, as did the two rightwing parties (the CSU and AfD). In fact, the biggest gains were in the centre, or better centre-right, where two smaller parties (the Free Democratic party and Free Voters) won, collectively, 4.4% of the vote.

Does this mean little changed? Far from it. First of all, both “blocs” have shifted ideologically, with the right becoming more radical right and the left becoming more left. We have seen this across (western) Europe, with not just radical right parties gaining, but also mainstream parties moving further to the right. Similarly, in many countries, including Belgium and the Netherlands, we see social democratic parties lose (big) and Green parties, and sometimes the radical left, win (big). In these cases, the bloc moves (somewhat) to the left.

Second, the party system, including the left and right blocs, has become more fragmented. Not only in terms of the number of parties that gain entry into the parliament, but particularly in terms of their relative size. Few party systems still have one, let alone two, parties that gain more than a third of the vote. Most parties today are medium-sized, which means the blocs no longer consist of a big social democratic party and a small Green party, but two near equal-sized parties. This changes the power dynamics both between and within the blocs.

Third, individual volatility is much higher than aggregate volatility, and it doesn’t take place simply within the blocs either. For example, the CSU lost almost as many voters to the AfD as to the Greens, while the SPD lost almost as many voters to the right-wing parties (CSU and AfD) as to the Greens. Similarly, in the most recent Swedish elections, which saw relatively modest changes in party success, and virtually none in terms of blocs, a record number of voters switched party.

Which leads us to the real story of the Bavarian elections, and of most recent elections on the continent. While it is true that populist parties, and more specifically populist radical right parties, have been on the rise in the 21st century, this is only one part of a bigger, and more important story: namely the transformation of European party politics. This transformation affects all parties, not just the populist ones. Centre-left parties are the main losers, greens and radical right parties the main winners, while centre-right parties survive, and sometimes prosper (at least in the short term), by moving sharply right. In addition to the Rechtsruck (political swing to the right), primarily in socio-cultural terms (notably immigration and integration), it has also led to more problematic and prolonged coalition formation processes, from Germany to Sweden, and more vulnerable coalition governments.

This transformation of European politics deserves more attention from academics and journalists alike, who too often get distracted by a simplistic “populists versus establishment” frame, and reduce stability and volatility to gains and losses of individual parties. As Bob Dylan sang more than 50 years ago, “The times they are a changin’” – but this time we need less rigid weathermen to know which way the wind blows.

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