The Politics of Instability

Americans, with their staid tradition of choosing between Republicans and Democrats, would find themselves thoroughly confused by the choice Europeans are confronted with at the ballot box.  As an example, it was recently reported that 35 parties attempted to register for the next general election in the Netherlands, meaning that Dutch voters will face a dizzying array of options when they cast their votes – a scenario which is repeated to one degree or another throughout continental Europe. Thus if US elections are a gray competition between the same two perennial contenders, it may seem that Europeans are by contrast presented with a veritable carnival of choice.   

But, even here in Europe, there is a method to the political madness. Generally, political parties in Europe may be divided into three categories: let’s call them tier-1, tier-2 and tier-3.  The tier-1 parties are those which are usually asked to form a government, and they are typically described as your center-left or center-right party. The tier-1 parties are quite often identified by their origins in either a Christian (Protestant or Catholic) or patriotic movement, which generally holds to a more conservative line supportive of traditional values, or, on the left, with a labor union movement, which means that they will favor a degree of socialism and socially liberal policies. In recent years, the differences between the center-right and center-left have narrowed considerably, so that they are perceived as two sides of the same coin.

Tier-2 comprises those political movements with a more narrow appeal. They will often be the pro-business parties who support greater liberalization in the market place, or on the left side of things, the green parties whose message is focused on the environment.  Sometimes these parties will be regionally or ethnically based. In any case, parties of this kind may be invited into government as junior partners with a larger tier-1 party, but as a rule, do not have enough support to win an election outright.

Rounding out the selection are your radicals. These are the tier-3 parties that are, in normal times, politically unpalatable. Typically, they have a penchant for making headlines by supporting shocking, or at least strange or politically incorrect, points of view. They range from the benign and silly, like the Party for the Animals in the Netherlands, to the far more serious,  such as the right-wing National Front in France. These parties are often given the label “far right” or “far left”, and are not considered governing material but rather the parties of fringe ideologues.

The tier system has held together quite well in Europe, with elections for the past fifty years generally following the pattern that a tier-1 party will always be in power on its own, or in some form of coalition. This has ensured a certain level of stability and predictability – much like what Americans have become  used to in the US. But the financial hardships of recent times has threatened the system and seemingly caused European politics to embark on to uncertain waters.

Recent polls show that tier-1 parties are finding themselves under increasing threat from upstart, populist political movements which, until recently, you might have considered to be part of the tier-3 crazies. Consider, for example, Greece, which recently had its second election in two months,  resulting in a first place finish by the conservative New Democracy – a bona fides tier 1 party. But the real story of the election was whether the Greeks might actually turn everything upside down and bring to power the jeans-wearing,  anti-austerity radicals from the left, the so-called Syriza party. These fellows were as likely to be in power as they were to wear a tie – which they seem to find anathema – until recent events thrust them into the spotlight. The following report from Der Spiegel online tells the story:

“As Sunday’s election result shows, however, that population is deeply divided and uncertain. While New Democracy got around 30 percent of the vote, Alexis Tsipras’ left-wing Syriza got 27 percent — an increase of more than 10 percent since the May 6 election. That represents massive support for an alliance that won just 4.6 percent of the vote in the last ‘normal’ election in October 2009.”

From 4.6 % to second place finish is a scenario that tier-3 parties could only dream of before the start of the financial crisis. But it would seem the financial meltdown that began in 2008 has caused voters to reconsider their loyalties and opened the door to unpredictable politics all over Europe, not just Greece.

Take the Netherlands, where the political landscape has undergone radical change since the last election when the long ruling tier-1 party, the Christian Democratic Appeal, suffered a massive loss of support, as has its perennial challenger from the left, the Party for the Workers. These two tier-1 political titans now, as the Netherlands heads towards elections in September, find themselves lagging in the polls behind the tier-3 Socialist Party ( led by an unreconstructed Maoist ) on the far left, and the party of Geert Wilders, the anti-Islamic populist on the far right.

Moving to Italy and France, we see further examples of this trend. The following excerpt from Business AM, an English news portal, reports on the rise of an upstart tier-3 party in Italy:

“A political maverick, Grillo has mainly been campaigning for a clean-up of Italian politics. But he has also suggested that Italy should consider dropping the euro while still remaining a member of the EU, and write off at least part of its gigantic public debt. Despite having very little cash to fund its campaign, the Five Star movement did incredibly well in the latest mayoral elections, and is polling at 20 per cent – leading Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party by several percentage points.”

In France, the story focuses on the rise of the National Front, a party that has never held power and whose founder was a staunch critic of immigrant communities and known to question the occurrence of the Holocaust. Here too we see that frustration with the status quo has led to a surge in support for this party. In the most recent election this past weekend, for the first time in 30 years, National Front candidates were voted into the parliament. Previously, in the first round of the  French Presidential election in April, National Front presidential candidate Marine Le Pen attained the largest share of the national vote ever achieved by her party, turning in a strong third place finish.

One could go on to cite further examples of where the political status quo has been disrupted as of late in Belgium, Sweden, Ireland and other European states, but what is evident throughout is that the uncertain economic times and resultant financial austerity in Europe, has caused voters to seek out ways of expressing their anger and frustration. The rise of the protest vote in lieu of the economic downturn is clearly contributing to the unusual political trends across the continent. For how long this upheaval will last, and if and when, European politics will return to the status quo, are  questions that appear to be tied to the duration of the financial downturn. When prosperity returns, one may see the return of the dominance of the tier-1 again, but until then,  Europe seems set for a course of political fragmentation and instability.

Eye on Europe


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