This EDP Wire was originally posted on June 12, 2019 on EUROPP (European Politics and Policy), a multidisciplinary academic blog run by the London School of Economics and Political Science. The late-2000s economic and financial crisis is widely credited with facilitating the success of new political parties in Europe. Hugo Marcos-Marne, Carolina Plaza-Colodro and Tina Freyburg argue that voting for new parties cannot be understood as a mere economic response. Rather, populist attitudes can make citizens perceive of new parties as a real alternative to traditional forces in times when economic crisis meets a deepening crisis of democratic representation.
In the wake of the financial and economic crisis in 2008, most European societies witnessed the electoral decline of established parties and the emergence of new ones. These new political actors have been attracting attention for their rapid success, but also because they are often seen as symptomatic of a populist trend in European politics.
Spain provides a case in point. In the 2011 national elections, the incumbent Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) was first voted out of office in favour of the conservative People’s Party (PP). In the following 2015 elections, and after the incumbent PP had implemented an austerity programme, the electorate punished both established parties with historically low percentages of votes and turned toward two newcomers, Ciudadanos and Podemos.
The two new parties distinguish themselves with their critical attitude towards the Spanish political establishment; at the same time, they differ substantially in political ideology, with Ciudadanos being a centre-right party and Podemos a radical left-wing one.
The emergence and endurance of new parties
But what will happen to new parties such as Ciudadanos and Podemos once the economic crisis drifts from the political agenda? Formulating expectations on this and related questions requires a better understanding of what motivates the success of new parties and the relative demise of traditional ones. The success of the two new Spanish parties, similarly to other new political formations in Europe, is usually explained in terms of the negative reaction of voters to their country’s economic conditions. Voters who perceive their own economic situation, and especially their states’ economy to be worsening, will tend to punish the incumbent party by voting for alternatives, be they opposition parties or previously marginal/new forces, or by abstaining.
Despite the prominence of the economic voting-theorem, many scholars doubt that voting is reducible to short-term judgements of national economic performance alone. They highlight the role of political ideology in influencing voters’ reactions to perceived economic decline. Complementing the economic voting-theorem, this perspective views voters’ perceptions of the economic situation as being mediated by their respective political ideology. Thus, it is the ideologically-framed perception of economic hardship (rather than the objective state of the economy) that explains the vote against the establishment.
Introducing populist attitudes
We argue that this picture is still not complete. The scholarly research on how the Great Recession fuelled the success of new parties in national elections left an additional dimension uncovered: the role of populist attitudes. We adopt the widespread definition of populism as a thin-centred ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite’, and that argues politics should be an expression of the general will of ‘the people’.
Considering populism a thin-centred ideology allows us to distinguish it from ‘thicker’ ideologies providing encompassing worldviews, such as socialism or liberalism. Populism can thus present itself in combination with both left- and right-wing party programmes or no specific ideologically-defined programme. Individuals’ populist attitudes are further understood as latent; they can be activated by political actors with a populist discourse that make them electorally effective.
Studies have shown that populist attitudes in voters are good predictors of support for populist parties. However, not all new parties that emerged in the wake of the financial and economic crisis are populist, as exemplified by Ciudadanos. Still, new parties might have benefited from the votes of citizens with populist attitudes. While not necessarily being populist, new parties surely strive to present themselves as able to break with existing political power relations. This might explain the attractiveness of new parties for voters with populist attitudes.
New parties and populist attitudes
Our research on the new Spanish parties provides evidence in support of this hypothesis. Using data from a representative survey, we find that voters with strong populist attitudes are more likely to support a new party, regardless of whether it sustains a populist discourse. This suggests that new parties offer a potential for positive identification to voters with populist attitudes. Had the new movements not offered any identification to the voters who turned away from traditional parties, then these individuals with populist attitudes would probably have renounced going to the polls entirely.
Figure: Predicted intention of voting for Ciudadanos and Podemos
Note: For more information, see the authors’ accompanying article in WEST EUROPEAN POLITICS
The figure shows how populist attitudes influence vote intentions for new parties in interaction with left-right ideology. It concentrates on the strongest and the lowest level of populist attitudes. It turns out that the probability of left and right-minded individuals with strong populist attitudes intending to vote for Podemos is about the same. Populist new parties seem able to attract populist voters that do not fully share their thick-ideological positioning.
Conversely, respondents with strong populist attitudes are less likely to intend to vote for right-wing Ciudadanos if they place themselves on the left side of the ideological scale. The more respondents move to the right, the greater the influence exerted by populist attitudes on the likelihood of voting for Ciudadanos. Political-ideological congruence thus plays an important role in explaining why some populist individuals intend to vote for a non-populist new political party.
New knowledge about post-crisis electoral behaviour is likely to refine our understanding of the motives behind the weakening of traditional parties in favour of new ones. In Spain, as elsewhere, the post-2008 elections have led to an increase in the fragmentation of votes, instability and political polarisation. Knowledge about the causes of these dynamics can increase our understanding of the trends shaping the development of democratic politics in the near future.
Overall, our study suggests that new political parties can connect with the electorate beyond the pure economic consequences of the crisis. Here, the emergence of new parties can be seen as expressing the far-reaching structural transformations that are taking place in West-European political systems, which is catalysed by the Great Recession. Therefore, new parties might survive even in times of economic prosperity, although new challenges may appear in the form of institutionalisation problems or their ability to continuously mobilise on populist attitudes.