Don’t Be Afraid of Political Fragmentation

If managed correctly, splintering and more volatile political systems – so-called ‘Dutchification’ – need not be a ticket to political and policy paralysis.

Expert comment Published 16 December 2019 Updated 9 January 2020 3 minute READ

Pepijn Bergsen

Former Research Fellow, Europe Programme and UK in the World Programme

Voters cast their vote as part of the Dutch general elections on March 15, 2017 at a polling station in a mill in Oisterwijk. Photo by ROB ENGELAAR/AFP via Getty Images.

Voters cast their vote as part of the Dutch general elections on March 15, 2017 at a polling station in a mill in Oisterwijk. Photo by ROB ENGELAAR/AFP via Getty Images.

In recent decades, political party systems across Europe have fragmented and electoral volatility has increased. The number of parties represented in parliaments across the continent has grown and the formerly dominant mainstream parties have seen their support base collapse, forcing parties into often uncomfortable and unstable coalitions.

From the United Kingdom to Germany, politicians and commentators talk of such scenarios in often apocalyptic terms and associate it with political instability and policy paralysis.

They shouldn’t. Instead they should focus their energy on making these increasingly competitive political markets work.

The Netherlands is frequently held up as a prime example of this process, which is therefore sometimes referred to as ‘Dutchification’. Its highly proportional political system has created the opportunity for new parties and specific interest groups to win parliamentary representation, ranging from an animal rights party and a party catering specifically to the interests of the elderly.

This has been accompanied by increased electoral volatility. In the 1970s, less than 15% of seats in the Dutch parliament would change party at any election, but in the last election in 2017, this was just over a quarter. The system also created space for the relatively early rise of populist far-right parties, though it was not the cause of their rise.

Nevertheless, despite the regularly difficult coalition politics, it remains one of the most well-governed countries in the world.

A short history of fragmentation

Looking at the effective number of parties represented in parliaments, the number of parties, corrected for their size, provides a good measure of the extent of fragmentation. In the Netherlands this steadily increased from around four in the 1980s to over eight following the election in 2017. Even the populist far-right vote has fragmented, with two parties partly competing for the same electorate. In other countries it has been a more recent phenomenon. Spain remained a de facto two-party system until the financial crisis. Dissatisfaction with both mainstream parties has seen challenger parties on both the left and the right attract significant support, making it harder to form stable coalitions. Political fragmentation decreased slightly in Italy in recent years, but that was from a high base as it shot up in the early 1990s when the post-war political settlement crumbled.

German politics, long a hallmark of stability, is struggling with the decrease in support for the parties that dominated its political scene in the post-war period. The Christian Democrats and Social Democrats only barely managed to win a majority together in the election in 2017, at 53.4% of the vote compared with the 81.3% achieved 30 years earlier. The latest polls suggest they would only get to 40% together if an election were held today.

A similar trend is visible within the European Parliament. Whereas the two largest groups in the European Parliament, the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, together won 66% of the vote in the election in 1999, they did not even manage to win a majority together in 2019, taking just 39.5% of the vote.

No crisis of democracy

If electoral volatility and political fragmentation does indeed constitute some sort of crisis of democracy, we should expect to see voters become unhappy about how their national democracy functions. Largely, the opposite seems to be the case.

In the Netherlands, satisfaction with its democracy went up at the same time as Dutchification did its work. Similar trends are visible in other highly fragmented European political systems, often those with very proportional systems. Despite regular minority governments, satisfaction with democracy is above 90% in Denmark and at 80% in Sweden, according to the latest Eurobarometer data.

In comparison, it stood at 52% in the United Kingdom and 53% in France, where the electoral system has, at least on the surface, prevented the kind of fragmentation supposedly plaguing proportional systems.

Satisfaction with democracy seems to be affected by a number of factors. This includes the state of the economy, particularly in countries that were hit the hardest by the global financial and euro zone crises. Nevertheless, the data suggests that, even if we can’t say that Dutchification by definition leads to more satisfaction with democracy, it is clearly not associated with falling faith in the system.

A competitive political market

Dutchification should be seen as accompanying a more competitive political marketplace. A more emancipated, demanding and politically engaged electorate than in the post-war decades is willing to shop around instead of merely vote according to socioeconomic class or other dividing lines, such as religious ones. The fragmented parliaments that emerge as a result provide better representation of different groups within European societies.

This makes life harder for Europe’s political parties and politicians, as they juggle large coalitions, or changing coalitions under minority governments, but provides voters with more choice and democratic renewal. If handled correctly this would also allow more responsiveness to shifts in public opinion.

Such democratic creative destruction in competitive political markets is to be celebrated in a well-functioning democracy. Just as companies prefer to operate in an oligopoly, political parties prefer the stability of limited political competition. But wishing for this kind of stability comes perilously close to preferring stability over proper representation.

Worrying about Dutchification risks confusing a crisis of the traditional mainstream parties with a crisis of democracy. For some countries, particularly those like the Netherlands and Denmark which have longer histories of consensus-based politics and coalition building, this is an easier adjustment. But this should not be an excuse to not attempt to make politics work better as they were forced to go through, arguably still ongoing, adjustment processes too.

Instead of investing in futile attempts to get back to how things were in the old days, or hoping this will somehow magically happen, political leaders and parties across Europe need to reassess how they deal with the new reality of Dutchification.