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Continued Party System Instability in Central and Eastern Europe

Submitted by on 15 Apr 2014 – 14:37

By: Andreas Bågenholm, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Political Science, University of Gothenburg

Andreas Bågenholm

During the last quarter century Europe has changed tremendously. The most striking transformation has naturally occurred in the former Socialist one party states in Central and Eastern Europe, of which eleven by now are members of the European Union and thus regarded as fully fledged democracies with functioning market economies. Hence, it has become less and less relevant to talk about Central Europe as something distinctly different from Western Europe. If one looks a little bit closer, one still finds important differences, however, not least in terms of how the relationship between voters and parties works, which I would argue is a result of the Communist legacy and its consequences for the economic transformation.

The severe initial economic downturn in the early 1990s, in combination with high levels of perceived corruption created a massive popular discontent with political institutions in general, but above all with political parties and resulted in a continuous change of governments, which almost always fell short of living up to people’s expectations. Naturally, party system turbulence is to be expected in newly democratized countries, but the levels in electoral volatility were unprecedented historically and were also different in kind than in previous processes of democratization.

Party system stability is usually measured in terms of electoral volatility, i.e. the sum of the net gains or losses for parties contesting the election. The sum is divided by two, which makes the scale run from 0 (all parties get exactly the same share of the votes as in the previous election) to 100 (the parties that got votes in the previous election did not get a single vote in the next). In the EU-15 between 1979 and 2010, the average figure was 11.2, for the newly democratized Spain, Portugal and Greece, 12.5 (1974-1996), but a staggering 27.2 (1990-2012) in the ten Central European countries that became EU-members 2004 and 2007 respectively.

What is even more remarkable, and contrary to most predictions, is the fact that the party system instability not only remains high after almost 25 years, but actually is increasing. In the 7th elections held the volatility score was close to 30. In countries like the CzechRepublic, Hungary, Slovenia and Bulgaria the instability has increased, and in Latvia, Lithuania it has persisted on a high level, whereas Poland and Estonia are the only examples of a more predicted stabilizing pattern.

Electoral volatility can have two sources, either from voters switching between the same set of parties, which by far is the most common in Western Europe, or from switches from established parties to new parties, which has almost become the trade mark of the Central European party systems by now. In old democracies, new parties usually have a hard time to become successful and when they are their vote share is most often counted in single digits. It took most Green and Radical right parties many attempts before they managed to clear the electoral thresholds and when they did it was only by a whisker. The established parties remain firmly in control. In Central Europe by contrast, completely new parties – often created only months before the election, often by individuals with no previous political experience, but known to the public for their competence in other areas, such as media (journalists and entertainers), business and the bureaucracy (civil servants) – have been immensely successful, winning several elections and taking the position as prime minister.

Bulgaria offers the two most stunning examples; the former king Simeon II, who returned from his life-long exile in Spain in 2001, started a new party and won almost 43 percent of the votes a few months later. In 2009, Simeon’s former bodyguard, Boyko Borisov, formed a new party (GERB), which won 39 per cent of the votes and exactly half the seats in the Bulgarian parliament. All the three Baltic States have experienced similar electoral “earthquakes”. In 2002, New Era, formed by the head of the Central Bank, Einars Repse, got 24 per cent in the Latvian parliamentary elections and the year after Res Publica, formed by young politically interested youths, but headed first by political science professor Rein Taagepera and then State Auditor Juhan Parts, won almost 25 per cent of the votes in the Estonian election. Both Repse and Parts became prime minsters. In 2004, Lithuania followed suit, when the likewise new Labour Party, led by the millionaire businessman Victor Uspaskich, won the election with 28 per cent of the votes. In 2011, another new party, created by the outgoing Latvian president, Valdis Zatlers, managed to win over 20 per cent of the votes. Similar but less spectacular successes have occurred in all the other Central European countries as well.

Interestingly enough, these new successful parties have more things in common, namely their focus on corruption. Corruption is naturally an easy issue to politicize in countries where corruption is regarded as a serious problem and wide-spread and where corruption scandals frequently are exposed in the media, often involving top level politicians. It thus becomes very difficult for the established parties to fend of these new challengers, who by definition have no dirty legacy. Quite on the contrary they can use their political inexperience as an asset and instead point at their performances in other areas, thus implying that they are more competent and honest and therefore more trustworthy in their anti-corruption rhetoric than is the old guard.

One may therefore think that these parties are just populist appeals to frustrated voters who have no one else to trust and nowhere else to turn, and who will hardly make the lives of the people any better once in power. Preliminary results show, however, that quite a few of these parties which have been in a position to influence policy making, actually have made sincere efforts to curb corruption and in some instances been at least partly successful. The fact that New Era and Res Publica not only are still around but actually also been incumbents for longer periods of time, is one indication that they have retained their popular appeal more than ten years after their breakthrough. For others things have turned less well. Simeon’s party left the parliament in 2009 with some 3 per cent of the votes and the Czech Public Affairs party did not even stand in the last elections, due to involvement in corruption scandals.

What we are witnessing in Central Europe is thus a continuous turbulence, both in terms of voters switching allegiances between the established parties, but also a constant supply of new parties, which over and over again manage to upset the party systems. The fact that corruption is still perceived to be more widespread in those countries than in most West European ones and the fact that the living standard in many of the countries is far below that in the West, are naturally two reasons why voters continue to distrust parties and politicians, vote for newly established parties or, which is sadly enough an increasing trend, to refrain from voting altogether. A third reason why this turbulence is continuing despite the amount of time that has passed since democracy was restored and despite the fact that most countries are slowly catching up with the west, has arguably to do with the incentive structures created at an early stage of the formation of the party systems and which now are self-reinforcing, implying that they will remain even after the original source of the turbulence has ceased to be important.

In short the argument can be summarized as follows; instability breeds further instability as, on the one hand, voters get used to cast their ballots for new parties, knowing that the risk of wasting the vote is quite small and political entrepreneurs, on the other, realize that it may be worth the effort to start a new party, as the electorate is so volatile and prone to test new alternatives. There is thus always a supply to satisfy the demand of the voters, which naturally also makes a stable and strong party identification by the voters, which is one of the reasons most West European countries continue to be so stable, much more difficult to establish in the East, as established parties disappear or become irrelevant after only a few elections. So even when the new member states have reached the some economic standard as in the old ones and when they have successfully curbed corruption, i.e. when the most obvious causes for voter dissatisfaction have disappeared or at least are heavily reduced, there is still good reasons to believe that party system instability will persist in most countries.

Party system stability is usually assumed to be preferable to instability, but so far very few studies have looked at the consequences, so whether such a development is good or bad is hard to tell. It is obviously a good thing that frustrated voters have alternatives with real prospects to make it all the way to the parliament to vote for. That parties emerge as responses to the established parties’ perceived failure to deliver what has been promised and what the voters expect, is vitalizing the democracies and is arguably one way to prevent voter apathy and further distrust. It also puts pressure on the incumbents to do their very best, unless they want to be abandoned forever. In a more closed party system, the established parties are not taking the same risk, as they know that no credible new alternative will emerge and if they do, voters will not risk to waste their votes unless it is absolutely clear the new party has a good chance to make it. On the other hand there is an obvious risk that this particular lack of stabilization will also have some negative consequences in terms of more fragmented politics with shorter time horizons and to an increasing extent lure unserious political luck seekers to politics.

Andreas Bågenholm is Senior Lecturer at the Department of Political Science and Program Manager of the Quality of Government Institute, University of Gothenburg