Written by Ho Ting (Bosco) Hung
Recent years have seen the fragmentation of party systems around Europe (Best, 2013; Bergsen, 2019; Pildes, 2021). This refers to the increase in number of political parties competing in elections and the increase in support for minor parties (Coleman, 1995; Best 2013). According to the database built by F. C. Bértoa (2022), in the last three decades, more than 800 new political parties (parties with a new name and structure and that are not successors to or mergers of any previous parties) have been established in Europe. This article argues that party systems in Europe have become increasingly fragmented due to the formation of new dimensions of political competition, which is why people have to seek out non-mainstream parties to fight for their interests. First, this article explains how postmaterialism and regional integration give rise to new dimensions of voters’ interests. Then, it examines how traditional mainstream parties fail to cater to voters’ demands. Lastly, it discusses how the rapid flow of information has accelerated the split of electoral camps, thus raising support for minor parties.
Rise of postmaterialism and emergence of new issues
A century ago, when the European economy was less developed, most people could not secure their survival (economic and physical security), so the top priority were materialist goals like food and clothing (Inglehart, 1971). Therefore, the political debate was often organised around state intervention, spending, and taxation (Bale, 2017). It follows that left-right positions in economic ideologies became the driving force of electoral competition (Dalton, 2018). Accordingly, these were dominated by mainstream parties representing either the left or the right, particularly in the form of labour, social democratic, socialist, or communist parties (Dalton, 2018).
However, following industrialisation, the popularisation of education, and the rapid post-war economic development, most people no longer needed to be anxious about their material needs (Van Deth & Janssen, 1994). As Inglehart (1971, p. 685) argues, ‘the postwar generation grew up taking survival for granted’. Thus, European people were able to pursue more postmaterialist values like environmental protection, liberty, self-expression, and the freedom to promote their spiritual life. In that sense, they sought out political parties which could represent, or even prioritise, these interests, leading to the establishment of new ones, and with that, to a splitting of the traditional party system.
For instance, the Green Parties established around Europe in the 1970s and 1980s prioritised environmental issues which do not fit the traditional left-right economic positions (De Vries et al., 2021). In the Netherlands, where fragmentation is particularly pronounced, parties with a specific focus on animal rights (Party for Animals, PvdD) and pensioners’ rights (50PLUS) were formed to represent voters’ increasing concerns about those topics (Bergsen, 2019; Gradus et al., 2021).
Meanwhile, globalisation and regional integration – e.g. integration into the EU – became emerging issues that new parties could use to gain traction. Both processes have led to the relocation of manufacturing activities, weakening state sovereignty, liberalisation of trade, finance, investment, and border control (Berger, 2000; Steger, 2020; Leblang & Peters, 2022). While closer integration has opened up new economic opportunities, people with poorer labour skills and education levels have been facing more intense competition (De Vries et al., 2021). For example, part of the less educated working class in the United Kingdom have arguably been left behind as a result of globalisation and EU integration, which has caused intense competition for low-wage jobs, according to anti-immigration parties (Dennison & Goodwin, 2015). This led to the establishment of parties advocating for independence from regional bodies, such as the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the Brexit Party (now renamed Reform UK) which advocated for Brexit and purported to promote local workers’ interests (Ford & Goodwin, 2014; Evans & Mellon, 2019; Reform UK, 2022).
The loosening or de facto removal of borders in the process of globalisation and regional integration facilitates the free movement of people, encouraging them to move to different countries to study, live, or work. Far-right parties have argued that immigrants pose a threat to domestic security, erode national values or culture, and put additional strains on the social welfare system (Hooghe & Marks, 2018; Alonso-Muñoz & Casero-Ripollés, 2020; Leblang & Peters, 2022). Consequently, some citizens of those countries believe that an open stance on immigration puts them in a disadvantaged position. This is why they seek to resist globalisation and regional integration by wanting to reduce or ban immigration. Take EU integration as an illustration. EU integration facilitates the free flow of workers and encourages internal immigration (Evans & Mellon, 2019). However, to far-right supporters in, for example, Italy, EU immigrants could threaten Italian national identity, thus causing anxiety over immigration among some Italian residents (McLaren, 2004; Longo, 2016). This has led to the popular support of the League (Lega), and thus the fragmentation of the party system.
In short, postmaterialism and globalisation have fostered the restructuring of voters’ interests. Material factors are no longer the determinant of their preferences and election outcomes, giving rise to the emergence of new parties representing these new interests, thus causing the fragmentation of the political party system.
Weakness of traditional parties
The rise of new parties and the fragmentation of the political landscape could be avoided if traditional parties were also to cater to voters’ postmaterialist demands and address some new issues. However, some of them have failed to convincingly respond to the electorates’ new demands, prompting people to seek out new parties to fight for their interests (Evans & Mellon, 2019).
Politics cannot be over-simplified to a one-dimensional space. For example, being economically left does not necessarily mean being liberal in gender, immigration, religion, and other issues (Dalton, 2018; De Vries et al., 2021). Supporters of leftist economic ideologies may support or oppose immigration, LGBTQ+ rights, and other issues. Traditional parties therefore cannot arbitrarily lean towards one side of these postmaterialist or new issues. They have to position themselves in a way to capture the support of the majority (Brown et al., 2021). Otherwise, they could lose a significant portion of support from those who support their economic ideology but take a different stance on other issues. For instance, fighting for workers’ interests is traditionally a concern on the left of the political spectrum, while environmental issues have also traditionally been considered leftist. Prioritising environmental protection could, however, restrict industrial activities and threaten workers’ jobs. Thus, the established left parties in Europe such as social democrats and socialist parties have often been reluctant to express their support for environmentalism (Dalton, 2018).
Although mainstream traditional parties have made efforts in dealing with these new issues, some of them have been struggling to represent different individuals’ interests and to convincingly address non-traditional issues. They may also avoid bringing up such issues, so as to avoid being challenged, which may cause them to lose the support of either the moderates or the radicals (Green & Hobolt, 2008; Dennison & Goodwin, 2015). This encourages European voters who value postmaterialist values or new issues to look for new parties.
Admittedly, instead of completely escaping from the debate, some mainstream parties might attempt to include some of them, like environmentalism and multiculturalism, in their political agenda, so that they can draw voters away from the new competitors (Meguid, 2005; Best, 2013). They may develop a tendency to blend the new issues with their political profiles and agenda to reduce electoral risk (De Vries et al., 2013). However, new parties are designed specifically for such issues, especially the niche parties (e.g. Green Parties for environmentalism, Danish People’s Movement for anti-European integration), so they are more active in discussing these issues. They can then present themselves as the most capable ones offering solutions to new issues as if they ‘own’ them (Best, 2013; Lachat, 2014; Grant, 2021). This encourages European voters who value postmaterialist values or new issues to identify themselves with the emerging parties and vote for them, instead of the mainstream ones. For instance, people considering environmental protection a top issue on the political agenda will support the Green Party instead of other leftist parties, which may place a certain yet less emphasis on environmentalism; eurosceptic Danish people may vote for the Danish People’s Movement rather than other conservative parties which may raise concerns about the European Union but do not advocate for a complete withdrawal from it. Hence, the number of political parties and their corresponding supporters will rise, causing fragmentation of the political landscape.
The effect of the populairsation of information technology
The issue of fragmentation is heightened by the quick flow of information thanks to social media/information technology. The percentage of individuals in the European Union using the internet rose from nearly 0% in 1990 to 20% in 2000 (World Bank, n.d.), and by 2020, more than 80% of Europeans were using it (International Communications Union, 2021). Europe has become one of the regions with the highest technology penetration and the most advanced development of ICT infrastructure.
Technological popularisation and advances give people more access to information about social problems, as well as candidates’ campaigns, quality, and positions (Besley & Burgess, 2002; Pande, 2011). Particularly, social media enables more actors to contribute to the political debate, access political information, and spread different views (Mihelj & Jiménez-Martínez, 2020; Pildes, 2021; Fortunato & Pecoraro, 2022). This way, European voters are better able to identify the shortcomings of mainstream parties and emerging problems.
Apart from realising the seriousness of some social issues, European voters may recognise that mainstream parties fail to address some issues, while the minor parties are actively raising them. This may encourage them to support minor parties and accelerate the fragmentation of the European party system, as Best (2013) suggests. For instance, digital media has helped to expose voters to information related to potential challenges brought about by immigration and European integration, as well as the struggles of some mainstream parties to address such issues (Mihelj & Jiménez-Martínez, 2020; Fortunato & Pecoraro, 2022; Hameleers & Goldberg, 2022). As Hameleers and Goldberg (2022) suggest, this encourages voters to seek out populist parties which position themselves as being the most concerned about and capable of dealing with such problems. The case of Sweden illustrates this idea. There, digital media facilitates the spread of far-right ideas and its corresponding parties. Digital advances give rise to more news sources (e.g. SVT News), which spread claims about how foreigners bring heightened crime rates and challenge Swedish traditional culture, so people are motivated to support right-wing populists (Schroeder, 2019), as during the 2022 election, when the far-right Sweden Democrats party, which only received 6% of votes in the 2010 election, gained 20.5% of votes and became the second-largest party (Diehn, 2022). This illustrates the shift of support from mainstream parties to minor parties and the resulting split of the party system.
To conclude, new dimensions of voters’ political interests have led to support for minor or emergent parties. Traditional parties’ failure to represent voters’ new concerns and to use technological tools to their advantage have been supplementary factors in speeding up the split in the party system. Accordingly, there is an ongoing rise in the number of parties in elections across Europe, with new ones constantly challenging traditional parties’ dominance on the political stage. This heightens the risk of more extremist challenges and political gridlocks which could disrupt the formation and operation of governments.