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Political Conflict in Europe in the Shadow of the Great Recession

Final Report Summary - POLCON (Political Conflict in Europe in the Shadow of the Great Recession)

The POLCON project has studied the structuration of political conflict in Europe during the Great Recession, based on an analysis of political contestation in the electoral arena, the protest arena and in issue-speci¬fic contentious episodes across Europe. The key question is whether the Great Recession and its consequences are changing the long-term trends in the development of political conflict in Europe. The results of the project suggest that the impact of the great economic crisis in the electoral arena vary substantially across three European regions: they have been marginal in the Northwest, while the party systems in the European South have undergone profound transformations and the party systems in Central and Eastern Europe have rather followed a path of further consolidation. In terms of protest, the South of Europe has been confronted with an impressive protest wave during the Euro crisis period, whereas protest has been weak in the other two regions. By the end of the crisis period (2015), protest has reached record low levels across Europe.

What is most notable about the action repertoire of protest during the crisis is the return to traditional forms of contentious mobilization. The rather old-fashioned protest form of demonstrations dominates when it comes to the mobilization of opposition to the political and economic crisis. Moreover, it is striking that old protest actors like the unions have been the organizations by far the most responsible for protest in the streets during the Great Recession. We also found that European protests mainly remained domestic protests. Finally and remarkably, in the case of the Great Recession, the crisis did not lead to any radicalization over the course of the years. The large-scale demobilization in the protest arena that took place at the end of the period covered by our study went hand in hand with the increasing success of new challenger parties in the electoral arena in north-western and southern Europe and, to a lesser extent in central- and eastern Europe. The rise of these parties can be interpreted as a form of institutionalization of the protest. Alternatively, they might also be interpreted as a shift of the mobilization of protest from the protest arena to the electoral arena. Electoral politics appears to have outstripped protest politics in terms of the mobilization against the financial and economic crises.

It may be too early to tell whether the Great Recession has been a critical juncture in the development of European politics. Sometimes (as in Greece), change has been less important than it seemed at first, sometimes (as in Portugal), it has been more substantial than originally met the eye, sometimes (as in Italy and Spain), the transition has been substantial, but it is still open-ended, and we are unable to tell where it will end. In central-eastern Europe, the underlying conflict structure proved to be quite stable which suggests that the party systems are on their way to institutionalization, even if volatility remains high. In northwestern Europe, party systems have gene¬rally been rather stable, whether they already had an established party of the New Right (such as Austria, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands), experienced the rise of a New Right party during the economic crisis (such as Finland, Germany, Sweden or the UK), or did not see the rise of such a party at all (Ireland). However, in two of the countries covered by this study – France and the Netherlands – political earthquakes occurred in the 2017 elections, which we have not covered in the project, but which, arguably are not unrelated to the consequences of the Great Recession.

The experience of the 2017 elections in northwestern Europe underscores the importance of the highly contingent nature of the transformation of national party systems, which we have documented throughout our analyses. The structuration of the party system not only depends on the legacy of the past, but also on the unpredictable dynamics in the critical moments. The timing of the economic crisis and its articulation with the ongoing dynamics of national politics, the prevailing strategies of the parties, as well as the composition of the government at the time when the crisis hit proved to be crucial for the kind of transformation that was to become possible. Gradual economic deterioration in the absence of a profound political crisis provoked by adversarial partisan mobilization strategies makes for the stabilization of party systems while the exploitation of economic deterioration (whether gradual or not) by an adversarial strategy of opposition parties constitutes a recipe for their restructuration. Profound transformations become particularly likely when, as it was the case in southern Europe, but also in Hungary, the harsh measures required by the economic crisis had to be taken by incumbents from the mainstream left.

We did not find a systematic revival of economic conflicts in the structuration of party competition, which is quite remarkable, given the depth of the crisis in many countries. By contrast, where cultural issues dominated party competition before the crisis, such as in the north-western countries with established New Right parties, they became increasingly important during the crisis. And in central-eastern countries, where political issues (related to corruption and personal animosities) and cultural issues (related to ethnicity and nationalism) were most politicizing before the crisis, they also became increasingly important during the crisis. What is striking is the rise of conflicts related to nationalism in all four central-eastern countries and the rise of political conflicts in all four southern countries. In three out of the four southern countries, we found the alignment of the political and economic conflicts as we expected them, and in Italy we saw the resurgence of political conflict to unprecedented proportions in the absence of economic conflicts. With regard to the drivers of transformation, we did find the expected difference between north-western and southern countries, with radicals from the radical populist right benefiting (to some limited extent) from the crisis in north-western Europe and radicals from the radical left benefiting (massively) from it in southern Europe.