We are becoming very familiar with repeated warnings that citizens in Britain are increasingly disillusioned with democratic politics, rejecting the institutions of national government, and leaving British democracy in a state of relative crisis as a consequence. In particular, young people are often singled out for critical attention.
The young are condemned either for their declining presence at the ballot booths, or for their active participation in high-profile student protests and youth-led occupations of public spaces in major cities.
But the apparent rupture between citizens and institutions of democratic governance is not an exceptionally “British” issue, and nor is it a uniquely young persons’ one. In recent years, a deepening disconnect between citizens and formal politics has developed in many advanced democratic states.
Certainly, across Europe, evidence would seem to indicate that people of all ages, and in all countries, seem less committed to national political systems and mainstream political parties. People are increasingly moved by radical parties and their rhetoric. They also appear to be deeply sceptical of governments and of the political classes in general.
The recent European Assembly elections are a case in point. In May 2014, nearly 400 million EU citizens in 28 countries were eligible to vote for candidates to represent them, yet only 43% opted to do so. This represents the lowest turnout rate since direct elections to the European Assembly were first held in 1979, when 62% of the European electorate voted.
The rise of new parties of the right and the left
In many countries, significant numbers of people rejected traditional and mainstream parties, choosing instead to vote for anti-EU and anti-system parties. In Britain, the anti-EU UKIP topped the poll with 27% of the vote, scoring a notable victory over the traditional Westminster parties. The Green Party (on 8%) pushed the Liberal Democrats – the traditional “third” party – into fifth place.
Elsewhere across the continent, anti-immigration and far-right parties have made significant advances in countries like Greece and Denmark, while the Front National in France claimed victory over its rivals.
Meanwhile, left and anti-system parties rejecting austerity and neoliberalism scored impressive results in Greece, Spain and Portugal.
An unlikely alliance
The recent national election in Greece stands out as a landmark case, representing an eclipse of the traditional parties by relative newcomers. The centre-right New Democracy party and their social democratic governing partners Pasok have long dominated the Greek political landscape. Each were left languishing on election night, with New Democracy securing only 76 seats, while Pasok returned only 13 MPs as the sixth-placed party.
Instead, the contest belonged to emergent parties of the left and right. The left-wing Syriza party under the leadership of Alexis Tsipras arrived on the scene in 2004. This year, it came close to winning a majority with 149 of the 300 seats in the Greek Parliamentary chamber.
Committed to an anti-austerity platform and a programme of employment growth and social justice, Syriza has developed a strong social base amongst those social groups who have borne the brunt of several years of economic and social uncertainty and hardship in Greece, especially young people and public sector workers.
They have now formed a coalition with an emergent party of the right. The Independent Greeks party was formed in 2012 and share Syriza’s goal of re-scheduling the EU/IMF debt. But their broader programme would seem to be at odds with the expansionist and left orientation of Syriza. The Independent Greeks are considered to be socially conservative and nationalist, with a strong anti-EU rhetoric. How long this unlikely alliance between Syriza and the Independent Greeks will last is open to question.
An age of change
Such radical and ideological re-shaping of a traditional party system is not unique. In Canada’s 1993 election, the governing Progressive Conservatives party lost all but two of their 156 seats in the Canadian House of Commons, largely because of unpopular tax reform and unpredictable regional factors.
At the 1994 general election in Italy, the previously dominant Christian Democracy and Socialist parties were marginalised following the emergence of new political forces based around Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, the post-fascist National Alliance and the post-communist Democratic party of the left.
When all these trends are taken together, it signals that there may be a new phase of party system shift and transformation underway. The traditional parties who have dominated European politics over the post-war decades are certainly vulnerable to the forward march of emerging parties beyond the mainstream.