European Elections 1999-2004: A Shift in Europe’s Political Cultures ?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

In a review of the outcome of the last two EP elections, the author explores the roots of the political alienation of Europe’s voters.

European Elections 1999-2004: A Shift in Europe’s Political Cultures ?

Most analysis of the latest European elections present the vote predominantly as a snub to incumbents in Member States. However, seen against the background of the political dynamics in Europe since the 1999 European elections, this vote is symptomatic of a more significant change in Europe’s political cultures.

Electoral dynamics in Europe at the beginning of the century: a right-wing re-alignment?

Within the five years since the European Parliamentary elections of 1999, Europe’s political landscape has undergone a spectacular change. The most recent elections to the European Parliament confirmed shifts in the Europe’s political landscape which began with the 1999 general elections and persisted through subsequent national elections in Member States. Beyond national idiosyncrasies, four trends have shaped the current political environment in Europe: The centre-right has become the dominant political formation on the continent, far-right populism has established its lasting presence, electoral support to the radical-left is diminishing, and support to the centre-left is faltering.

The 1999 elections to the European Parliament already signalled a general tendency of decline in voter support for the Left and a parallel increase of support for the Right, with a rise of 5.5% and a drop of 4 percentage points respectively, compared to the 1994 elections. The Party of the European Socialist lost 34 seats compared to the 1994 elections, going from 214 to 180. This made the Socialists lose their dominant position in the European Parliament to the Christian Democrats and Conservatives of the European People’s Party (EPP) at a time when left-wing parties dominated national politics in most Member States. As national political issues, as a rule, are main considerations for voters in European elections, the 1999 European elections were symptomatic of the beginning of a right-wing shift in electoral preferences throughout Europe. This trend was confirmed in consecutive national elections: eleven of the EU’s fifteen countries had socialist governments by the late nineties. The exceptions were Spain, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Ireland. By the middle of 2004, the four left-wing governments – those of Britain, Germany, Sweden, and Spain – present an exception, rather than a rule.

Indeed, the last rounds of general elections in the ‘old’ EU Member States (beginning in 1999 – early 2004) brought a series of shifts to the political right throughout Europe. Seven of the fifteen EU governments (Denmark, France, Portugal, Italy, Netherlands, Austria, Greece) shifted in composition from left to right-wing. Internal shifts to the right within the ruling rainbow coalitions occurred in four of them (Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Finland). By early 2004, only three EU Member States had preserved the dominance of centre-left parties in government: Britain, Germany, and Sweden. No shift took place from right to left in the formation of new governments before March 2004, when the Spanish Socialists won a surprise victory over the incumbent centre-right Popular Party (PP), which had had a comfortable lead in polls. This public support reversed sharply after the Madrid terrorist attacks.

In 2000, the shift from left to right deepened in the countries that already had right-wing governments by the mid-nineties: Spain, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Ireland. Where the ascendancy of left-wing parties was preserved – Britain, Germany, Sweden and, until recently, Greece – it was largely due to an internal shift to the right in the parties’ policy orientation, embracing a formula of social liberalism, in the style of Tony Blair’s ‘Third Way.’

The European Elections on 13 June 2004 confirmed th e dominant place of the centre-right: the EPP-ED political group in the European Parliament gained the highest percentage of seats, and the share of the Liberals (ELDR) rose. To this adds the stable performance of far-right parties: With the exception of the Austrian far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) of Jörg Haider. which lost four out of its five seats, the far-right has gained stable ground in the new parliament: the French Front National will preserve, if not increase, its seats, the support to the Vlaams Block in Belgium has also increased and it can count on a further seat in the Parliament. Add to this the presence of new eurosceptic populist parties: the Irish Sin Féin, the Swedish June List, the British Independence Party, and the Polish Self-Defence. Against the increased voter support for right-wing formations, the overall support to left-wing parties is on the decline: the parties from the Socialist political group in Parliament have more or less preserved their share of seats, while the alternative left and green formations (the EUL/NGL and Greens/EFA) saw their share significantly diminish. Overall, the presence of right-wing formations significantly outnumbers that of left-wing ones in the new European Parliament with some 369 to 277 seats respectively.

Despite the electoral gains of the centre-left in France, Spain, Netherlands, Italy, Portugal and Belgium at the European elections, the series of shifts from left to right in the past five years – both in terms of electoral support and within governance structures at national and European level – seem to indicate a stable change in voter’s preferences. The consequence is a re-alignment in favour of the right. However, a more careful look at the electoral dynamics in Europe defies this assumption. Another hypothesis thus seems more reliable: The protest vote was cast not simply against incumbents, but against a certain political culture. This being a rejection of the system of governance (the state) and of policy-making (the parties), which had become the norm in Europe since the World War II. Consequently, this protest vote can be seen as indicative of the development of new a political culture in Europe.

The protest vote

As most EU election observers have noted the rebuff to ruling parties and coalitions was the norm in Europe, with the notable exceptions of Spain and Greece, where new governments were formed recently. The nature of the protest vote is further outlined by the growing support for fringe political formations over the last five years: In many European countries, unconventional parties have lately become the beneficiaries of mass discontent with mainstream politicians and entrenched political hierarchies, or discontent with politics, altogether. This prompted the emergence of new parties and movements (such as the White March movement in Belgium, Attack in France, the Margherita alliance in Italy), or the re-foundation and “renewal” of existing parties. Most recently, the phenomenon is confirmed by the significant victory at the European elections of the Transparent Europe party in the Netherlands. The rise of new parties is all the more significant because it goes against the trend of small parties’ terminal decline in increasingly bipolarised national political systems.

The current electoral outcomes at the European elections seems to indicate a more general dissatisfaction, which goes beyond discontent with an incumbent’s economic performance or foreign policy stance. Let us recall also when left-wing incumbents were forced out in 2000 and shortly thereafter, it happened during a phase of generally strong economic growth and low unemployment. Despite the extraordinary prosperity that Europeans had enjoyed in the late nineties, the sense of anxiety and insecurity on daily level was steadily growing, met also with a general loss of confidence in governments. Despite economic growth, problems with the health-care system, public education and transport, as well as growing urban violence, intensified. The fact that national governments had done so well in economic terms made these problems ever so harder to accept. Populist leaders (from Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands, to Haider in Austria and Le Pen in France) mobilised unprecedented support by alleging that the political establishment had left society in ruins. They made a link between the failure of some groups to become integrated into society and crime, and managed to mobilise a widespread social dissatisfaction with an administrative model of consensus building and avoiding conflict at the price of escaping political responsibility.

In that sense, the tumbling of political incumbents in Europe combined with increased support for protest, or populist parties, can be seen as a vote of no-confidence equally for the centre-left and centre-right establishment that have dominated the political scene. Decades of conservative-socialist governmental cohabitation, and the continuing loss of ideological distinctions between centre-left and centre-right developed a professionalised political establishment, that had elite policy-making at its base with in-bred compromise and consensus, increased bureaucratisation, and an absence of political debate or involvement of civil society. Throughout Europe, ruling establishments were discredited by mismanagement and corruption scandals in the nineties.

To recall just a few examples: In Belgium, the Dutroux scandal exposed grave weaknesses of the justice system. Later, the hormone and dioxin scandals here revealed the absence of control over intensive industrial agriculture, especially in Flanders. The Augusta helicopter scandal exposed corrupt political and financial practices that especially hit the Socialists, leading to a spectacular trial of numerous Socialist Party personalities in late 1998. In France, the contaminated blood case and a series of corruption allegations against leading left and right-wing politicians had similar effect. A sequence of administrative failures in the Netherlands allowed for a systematic defiance of safety regulations and lead to the eruption of fireworks factory in 2000, and a fire at a café that killed 14 young people at New Year’s Eve 2000-2001. These instances of political mismanagement increased public sensitivity to governance deficiency throughout Europe.

This means that, instead of seeing genuine votes for right-wing parties based on ideological preferences, what we have seen displayed at the last European elections and at national elections throughout Europe in the past five years, has been a protest vote against the political culture of the European welfare-state: a protest against a certain style of old consensus politics void of clear principles and marked by privatisation of the public interest and short-term expediency.

The emergence of new political cultures

Apart from being a protest vote against the centre-left and centre-right political establishment, the most recent elections seem to indicate a radical shift in Europe’s political cultures, deepening the crisis of left-right ideological identifications through the appearance of new vectors of political alignment. This new fault-line in politics is the risk-opportunity dilemma of the ‘new economy’ – the novel socio-economic constellation that appeared in post-industrial societies in the 1990s and which is now dividing constituencies according to the unequal distribution of opportunities and risks. As a consequence, what we are witnessing is the obscuring of the left-right divide driven by capital-versus-labour dynamics and stretching between the pole of free enterprise against that of (re)distribution, and the appearance of new political cultures along the risk-opportunities vectors of the knowledge economy.

The emerging new alignment is signalled by two phenomena repeatedly occurring at national elections throughout Europe in recent years: changes in the political agenda at elections; and the merging of left and right ideological programmes.

The nature of the agenda of political debate throughout Europe has changed (both in terms of public sensitivities and official political discourse), moving beyond the left-right divide over economic policies along the poles of free enterprise and redistribution towards a new agenda focused on order and safety have established that, until recently, elections tended to be won on governments’ economic record, in line with the traditional (at least since the late nineteenth century) left-right alignment on social policies.

Surveys of general elections since 1998 reveal almost uniformly that this is no longer the case. Apart from the usual focus on personalities rather than policies, analysts of national elections in Europe in early 2000 often recorded a remarkable absence of debate on social policies. Economic issues seemed to be disappearing from the electoral agenda. For the first time in many years campaigns were no longer centred on taxation and redistribution, but on political and economic insecurity. The omission of economics from the agenda of recent electoral campaigning does not necessarily suggest that economics is not a relevant political issue. Quite the contrary, labour-market reforms are recently at the focus of policy-making. Yet, the marginalisation of these issues in election campaigning is due to the consensus on necessary reform of the welfare state across the left-right ideological spectrum.

The formation of the new security-and-order agenda in recent years has been prompted by voters’ perceptions on the growing salience of the following four large social trends:

  • i. Physical insecurity:
    The massive spread of terrorist threats (after 11 September 2001, but also before these attacks) has brought issues of political security (safety) to the fore. This has coincided with a rise in urban criminality: cities have witnessed growth in crime, especially juvenile delinquency. Public anxiety has also been increased by “diseases coming from abroad”, such as BSE or SARS, or drugs)
  • ii. Immigration
    Immigration has intensified and deepened protectionist instincts in society. Behind political correctness, which silenced political forms of expression of social concerns, frustrations throughout societies grew.
  • iii. Political crisis and democratic deficit:
    Endemic mismanagement and instances of corruption have undermined confidence in the established mechanisms of political and economic governance.
  • iv. Economic slowdown and employment insecurity:
    Economic growth in Europe has stalled or declined while unemployment is on the rise, while standards of social security are seen to be slipping.

Surveys throughout Europe indicate the growing salience of the safety agenda: restoration of the rule of law and political ethics become public priorities, often overtaking the economic and social agenda. As a result, right-wing populism stormed onto the political scene in the late nineties campaigning to stop new immigration, fight crime and rebuild neglected public services.

The rise of right-wing populism at the very beginning of the century is being followed now by mainstreaming of the extreme-right political agenda: The Fortuyn, Haider and Le Pen legacy has changed Dutch, Austrian and French politics by imposing its agenda and pulling all mainstream parties to the right. Although right-wing populism is currently in decline, public preferences for order and stability have not faltered. In fact, it is the incorporation of the security discourse into the political rhetoric of mainstream left- and right-wing parties that explains the withdrawal of support to right-wing populism, not the diminished relevance of the security-and-order agenda.

The sense of uncertainly which has been gat hering momentum throughout the Union is exacerbated by three factors. First, the enlargement of the EU to include ten East European countries as of May 2004 finds the population of EU Member States uninformed and unprepared. This risks enhancing cultural prejudices and thus deepening the current protectionist instincts. Second, whether Europeans have been actually more exposed to terrorist attacks or not, people have become increasingly aware of their societies’ vulnerability to terrorism.

The most important factor in intensifying the sense of uncertainty, however, has been the recent deterioration of the economic environment in Europe after the economic boom of the late nineties. The noticeable drop in growth rates throughout the eurozone and the diminishing consumer confidence throughout Europe are further deepened by the uncertainty over possible outcomes of the Iraq’s reconstruction effort. (According to the International Monetary Fund the war in Iraq is likely to cut the pace of global economic growth in half: to 1.5% from 3% in 2002. )

Overall, as a response to these new social trends, a new agenda of order and anxiety has emerged, with four constitutive elements: physical security, political order, cultural estrangement, and employment insecurity, as the economic component of the mix.

Parties that gained political support in the last few years have been those which reacted quickly to the new set of socially significant concerns and managed to articulate a swift (not necessarily most adequate) political solution to these issues. The “order and safety” overhaul of the political agenda generally translated into rise of support for right-wing political platforms that put the stress on security and authority. With safety becoming the core concern (especially for the urban populations in Europe, which have been the traditional supporters of left parties), the anti-establishment reaction fed into an extreme-right vote.

The failures of the political left

The reflex of the left-wing political incumbents (centre-left parties) was to incorporate in their platforms typically right-wing solutions such as prioritising political safety over both social protection and civil liberties, or market liberalisation over employment stability and social security. Due to its progressive and culturally liberal legacy, the political left has not been able to respond to the changed political agenda dominated by “order and safety” themes. Unlike the far-right formations, their progressivist heritage prevented traditional left-wing parties from linking political safety, employment security and cultural openness in a coherent programme. Typically, leftist parties during the last round of national elections were silent on such issues as immigration and urban criminality. The failure to provide prompt and coherent response to recent societal quest for both economic security (without sacrificing career opportunity) and political safety, is to account much for the remarkable loss of electoral support to traditional left-wing parties.

A palpable phenomenon signalling the fusion of left-wing and right-wing policy agendas is the recent shift of the centre-left towards the right. Socialist establishment almost uniformly undertook, in a varied ratio between politics and rhetoric, a shift to the right, first initiated by the British Labour Party lead by Tony Blair. With this, centre-left parties in continental Europe started to overlap with the centrist position of conservative parties of the Christian Democrat family. With these shifts the ‘Third Way,’ or social liberalism, has become the predominant policy paradigm in Europe, currently being embraced not only by leaders of centre-left parties, such as France’s Lionel Jospin and Germany’s Gerhard Schröder, but also by traditional conservatives like Spain’s José María Aznar, as well as many German Christian Democrat s. The current policy orientation of the French centre-right (the ruling RPR-UDF coalition under Chirac) can also safely be characterised as a form of a Third Way (state-directed social liberalism) as it displays all main elements of this paradigm.

The failures of the political left

The protest vote displayed at the recent European elections can therefore be interpreted as a sign of the failure of the dominant political culture of social liberalism (Third Way), which established itself in the late nineties throughout Europe. The socio-economic background of this new political centrism was the transition towards the new economy (the high-tech stage of the post-industrial, global economies) in the nineties, which caused profound changes in the organisation of work and lifestyle patterns throughout society. It revolutionised existing social and occupational structures, diversified the forms of ownership, created new career opportunities and flexible employment options, which in turn increased personal chances and choices over lifetime. Skills-based technological change of the last decade has produced a shift in demand toward highly skilled labour, especially in industries producing or making extensive use of information and communication technology, while it has worsened the employment and earnings prospects of unskilled and semi-skilled workers, especially in the manufacturing sector. Thus, mobility, the most progressive aspect of globalisation, has proven to create significant downsides in terms of risks, and to distribute these risks unevenly. It has deepened the rift between two categories of people: skilled workers who can benefit from the opportunities of the globalised economy, and unskilled labour that is affected negatively by the rising risks. Consequently, the Socialist-Conservative consensus on the welfare state is evolving into a consensus on the politics of opportunity (expressed by centre-left and centre-right, Third Way, parties) versus the fear of risk, embraced by far-right and radical left formations.

As a result of the political shifts analysed above, the current political agenda in Europe is dominated by a fusion between centre-right and centre-left platforms into a new policy paradigm which combines a stress on safety and authority (inherited from the traditional political right) and an emphasis on economic opportunity: economic liberalism and labour market flexibility. On the other side of the political spectrum are parties and their constituencies for which the new economy incurs rising risks: the fruits of labour-market flexibility, which translate into lower incomes and reduced social protection.

Therefore, despite preserved differences in political culture, we can assert that the new policy axis that aligns the old centres and the old extremes is the opportunity – risk divide of the new economy. On this basis a realignment is taking place between centre and periphery, between, on the one hand, the centre-left and centre-right midpoint, and, on the other, the circumference of far-right and radical-left parties. In this new alignment, the new centre (a simultaneous shift of the moderate left and right to the centre) becomes one of the poles in the political axis, embracing the ‘opportunity’ side of the dilemma, while the far-right and radical-left constitute the opposite pole responding to societal fears of the hazards of the new economy of increased competition and open borders. The old left – right extremes have come to overlap on two policy lines: First, in their protectionist reaction to economic and social risk. Second, in their increasing preference to national, at the expense of international solidarity.

Mobility of economic, social and occupational structures, insecurity of the employment environment, volatility of political preferences and voting behaviour are the particular forms in which the transformative process of the early twenty-first century finds its expressio n. In terms of electoral mobilisation the transitional nature of the described social dynamic translates into two phenomena: First, the link between parties and electorates based on social class – a link which, arguably, has been eroding throughout the twentieth century – loses decisive relevance for electoral mobilisation. Second, as a reaction to the weakening of the class-alignment link, the capacity of parties to address urgent social concerns become the vital criterion in electoral mobilisation, taking precedence over voters’ ideological orientation or social background.

Europe after the Third Way

With the economic boom of the nineties, it seemed that the growing middle class of owners of small-scale businesses, who had increased their wealth and value during stock market boom and economic recovery of the late nineties, together with the group of white collar workers which evolved into the class of highly skilled professionals, would compose a stable social base for the centre-left and centre-right political parties, embracing the politics of opportunity within the Third Way paradigm. In the past economic conjecture of growth, the newly enriched middle class was the group that disliked social spending and lent its support to Third Way policies. However, it is exactly the group of small and medium business owners that is now facing competitive pressures and is likely to reconsider their belonging within the opportunity-risk dilemma. With increasing risk factors in the current economic slowdown this groups have turned into a group of volatile voters which would embrace the policy platform which proposes the most convincing minimisation of risk while keeping opportunities available. The vote against the centre-right and centre-left incumbents of the Third Way vocation (especially in Britain, Germany and France) at the latest European elections was a result of these parties’ failure to find the synergy between social safety and economic opportunity. This synergy will be the key to political success at next rounds of national elections in Europe.


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