The last two decades have seen increasing fragmentation and polarisation, dropping levels of citizen satisfaction in democracy and the rise of parties that have challenged – in some countries quite successfully – the established political order. “Like disruptive entrepreneurs, these challenger parties offer new policies and defy the dominance of established party brands,” says Sara Hobolt, professor of government at the London School of Economics (LSE). “ EUDEMOS has shown that party systems in Europe are changing and this has important implications concerning the nature of choice offered to citizens within the democratic system.”
The paradox of political choice
Europeans have more choice than ever when it comes to the menu of party options offered by their national political system due to the decline of mainstream parties. One example of this is Germany, which in the last 15 years has evolved from being dominated by four ‘traditional’ parties to six, with the inclusion of the radical left Die Linke and the radical right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), the latter currently being the third largest party in the German Bundestag. “On top of this, there has also been a rise in the number and variety of issues on the public agenda, such as immigration and the environment,” continues Hobolt. “These are a central feature of the public debate in most European countries and citizens also have many more opportunities to express their political voice, for example in referendums. Challenger parties have in particular been very innovative in mobilising these issues to obtain electoral success.” Hobolt also points out that political choice has become more constrained as nations have become increasingly interdependent. “Integration has given citizens more democratic opportunities, such as European Parliament elections. Yet, it also implies that national governments in Europe operate under the growing constraints of European integration that limit the choices they can offer citizens and the policy instruments they can use,” she adds.
Political choice and the pandemic
EUDEMOS has documented that European voters increasingly resemble critical consumers rather than party loyalists. “Understanding political change means looking at how parties act like firms, and the political sphere has become more market-like,” continues Hobolt. “And this can also provide some interesting insights about political choice and the current COVID-19 crisis.” When the pandemic first swept through Europe in March 2020, dominant mainstream parties were gifted an opportunity to showcase their competence and long experience in governance and this boosted their popularity, at least in the short term. “Early evidence shows that European citizens rallied around their political leaders and institutions, at the expense of the populist challenger parties,” Hobolt explains. “During the pandemic, challenger parties have failed to excite electorates with their usual policy staples, such as immigration, because citizens are now prioritising a competent response to the health crisis and are much more concerned about, for example, the number of available hospital beds.” So, will the pandemic be the death knell of the populist political phenomena that we’ve experienced over the last decade? “Don’t be so sure,” Hobolt says. “In many European countries populist parties have become part and parcel of the political system. It seems highly unlikely that the demand for these parties will simply dry up, especially as the pandemic has triggered a deep global recession that populist challengers could eventually exploit to their gain. Our work in EUDEMOS shows us that we definitely shouldn’t count them out yet!”
Reflections and moving forward
Overall, it’s clear that EUDEMOS has been an absolute joy to work on for Hobolt. “It has been an immense privilege to work on such an important research project with such excellent young scholars, especially alongside such monumental real-time events, such as Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and now of course the COVID-19 crisis,” she adds. EUDEMOS officially ends in January 2021 but there are still many upcoming projects for Hobolt and her team. She concludes: “We are currently fielding large-scale survey experiments that examine how voters choose when faced with democratic backsliding and illiberal politicians. How to ensure democratic resilience is an important issue, even in developed democracies, which also relates to the question of political choice. I plan to continue working on these issues even after EUDEMOS officially ends.”
EUDEMOS, political choice, populist, political system, challenger parties, immigration, COVID-19, pandemic, EU, European Research Council