Right/Left Splits: Gains from the Smaller German Parties Came from the Expected Larger Parties

Last September’s German election produced interesting results.  The election created a Bundestag with 6 parties, more than any election since WWII.  This has made coalition formation difficult as the Christian Democratic Union’s (CDU) Angela Merkel failed to build a coalition with the Free Democrats (FDP) and Greens, and is now trying to form a grand coalition with the Social Democrats (SDP).  Part of the reason that coalition formation in Germany is so difficult after this election is that both the CDU and SPD lost significant shares of the vote to small parties.  The CDU dropped from 41.5% of the vote in 2013 to 32.9% in 2017, while the SPD dropped from 25.7% to 20.5%.  In light of this, it is interesting to look at which smaller parties have benefited from the declines in the two major parties.  When one looks at where the CDU and SPD have lost votes, it appears that each of the smaller parties benefited from the larger parties’ decline, though the AFD did particularly well in districts where the CDU or their Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) lost significant amounts of the vote.

I took advantage of Germany’s mixed member proportional system to examine the way that votes shifted from larger to smaller parties in the last election.  Like Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, Germany is divided into districts (known in some countries as ridings or constituencies) for elections.  Unlike in Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, German voters get to vote both for a district representative and party that they prefer.  The candidate with the most votes in the district enters the Bundestag as the representative for that district, but additional members are also added to the Bundestag from party lists in order to ensure that each party’s total number of seats is equal to its share of the party of vote.  To examine shifts in vote share I looked at the way that voters’ party vote shifted in different districts, comparing the losses in the two main parties to the gains made by the smaller parties.  I used voters’ party vote and not their vote for district representative, because party votes are less likely to be subject to strategic considerations (district representative votes for weak parties are more likely to be seen as wasted than party votes) and because party votes are less likely to be influenced by the quality of the candidate being run in the district.  In all of my analysis, I look at the change in party vote share between the 2017 and 2013 elections.

The strongest differences with respect to where a minor party gained votes exist for the AFD.  The graph below compares the change in vote for the two largest parties to the change in vote for the AFD in each district.  Districts that saw AFD gains between 10 and 20 percentage points saw much larger declines in CDU/CSU vote shares (in black) than SPD vote shares (in red).  Where the AFD’s gains were weaker (between 5 and 10 points), the CDU/CSU’s and SPD’s losses where much closer to each other.  This suggests that the AFD is pulling more votes from the CDU/CSU than from the SPD.  This fits with the way that the AFD has challenged Merkel for her openness to receiving refugees during the Syrian refugees crisis.  At the same time, the fact that the AFD made gains in districts that saw similar CDU/CSU and SPD losses suggests that it is plausible that the AFD took at least some votes from the SPD.

Change in AFD, CDUCSU, and SPD Vote by District

The party with the next greatest divide in gains from the CDU/CSU and SPD is the far-left Die Linke or Left party.  The graph below shows that where Die Linke made gains, CDU/CSU and SPD losses where fairly similar.  CDU/CSU losses were greater than the SPD’s, but that is likely due the fact that the CDU/CSU losses in general where greater than the SPD’s.  This should not be seen as evidence that the Die Linke is drawing a large number of voters from the CDU/CSU.

Change in Die Linke, CDUCSU, and SPD Vote

Interestingly, the districts that Die Linke lost most in are also the districts that the CDU/CSU suffered their heaviest losses.  It is plausible, though more evidence would be needed to prove this, that the AFD has managed to appeal to disillusioned voters on both the left and the right of the political spectrum.  Voters who voted for Die Linke in 2013 out of disillusionment with the mainstream parties may have seen the AFD as plausible alternative to mainstream parties in 2017.  While Die Linke and the AFD have very different anti-establishment appeals, Die Linke’s is economic and anti-capitalist while the AFD’s is anti-immigrant and anti-European integration, it is plausible that anti-establishment voters would shift between the two parties.  This may have occured if AFD was able to increase the salience of immigration and European integration issues at the expense of the economy.  In such circumstances anti-establishment voters may shift from Die Linke as the economic anti-establishment party to the AFD as the anti-immigrant anti-Europe anti-establishment party.  This is supported by the graph below, which shows that the districts that saw the largest declines in the Die Linke vote also saw the largest gains for the AFD.

Changes in Die Linke and AFD Vote

It is finally notable that the differences between who the two mainstream smaller parties took votes from are less pronounced.  The first graph below shows that the FDP did slightly better in districts where the SPD lost more votes and where the CDU/CSU lost slightly less, but these differences do not appear to be particularly significant.  The second graph below shows that the size of SPD losses appeared to have no correlation at all with the change in the Green vote, though the party did do slightly better in districts where CDU/CSU losses where larger (the size of the Green gains in these districts however is only two of three points).

Change in FDP, CDUCSU, and SPD Vote by District

Change in CDUCSU, SPD, and Green Vote by District

The greatest damage done to the two German mainstream parties in 2017 was done by the AFD.  Their growth disproportionately affected the CDU/CSU, suggesting that they are a greater threat to the CDU/CSU than to the SPD.  At the same time, the SPD also lost votes in the districts where the AFD saw gains.  While the SPD should feel less threatened by the AFD than the CDU/CSU, it is not necessarily the case that they face no threat at all from the party.  Far-right parties around Europe have been able to take votes from anti-immigrant left-leaning voters who perceive immigration and the European integration as a threat.  This should lead the AFD to be able to take at least some votes from the SPD, even if they take a larger number from the CDU/CSU.  The gains that the AFD made at the expense of the CDU/CSU mean that, as Angela Merkel attempts to navigate her through coalition talks, she will have to pay particular attention to the threat the AFD presents to her party.

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The Declining Importance of the Left/Right Spectrum and its Consequences for Left Parties

Two weeks ago, liberals and progressives around the world breathed a sigh of relief as Emmanuel Macron defeated far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen by a healthy margin in the French Presidential election. The victory of a pro-European, pro-immigration centrist re-assured many concerned that last year’s Brexit referendum and American Presidential election were harbingers of a global rise in far-right populism. While Macron’s victory is indeed reassuring, it is also notable that the run-off portion of the French election was fought not between a traditional centre-left candidate and centre-right candidate but between a centrist globalist and a far-right nationalist, neither of who came from France’s traditionally strong political movements. This fits with a broader trend in politics in which the traditional left-right divides that have structured politics in industrialized countries since the second world war have declined in importance. As this has occurred, issues surrounding national identity and globalization have become more important. This has presented a significant challenge to traditional left parties.

Like all political movements, left parties are a coalition of groups with somewhat different interests. Many left parties are alliances of working class and socially progressive voters. They have been able to appeal to working class voters by championing wealth redistribution, promising increased funding for a wide range of social programs, strong minimum wage laws, and protection of unions’ rights. They have been able to appeal to socially progressive voters by supporting feminist, multicultural, LGTBQ, and anti-racism movements. When traditional left-right issues have dominated politics this coalition has been stable.

The increase in the salience of immigration and globalization, however, threatens the left coalition’s stability. Significant numbers of working class voters see increased immigration as a threat to their jobs and access to social services. Far-right parties have been able to take advantage of this perceived threat. Both Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen had success in working class areas that had previously supported left parties. These working class voters perceive globalization as a threat to their well-being. On the other side of left parties’ traditional alliance, socially progressive voters are largely supportive of immigration and, in many cases, stand to benefit from increased global integration. The British Labour party, in particular, faces a challenge when it comes to finding a balance between the positions its pro-globalization and anti-globalization voters support. Both a significant number of Labour ridings that voted to leave the European Union and a significant number voted to stay.

Left parties that have to compete on both the traditional left-right and the immigration/globalization dimensions of politics end up caught between a rock and a hard place. If they take strong anti-immigrant and anti-globalization positions they risk losing their socially progressive pro-immigrant voters as well as moderate urban voters that benefit from globalization. Increasingly these voters have options beyond traditional left-wing parties. Across Europe, green parties have emerged as socially progressive pro-immigration and multicultural parties that stand ready to benefit if left parties fail to defend issues important to their socially progressive voters. The success of the Dutch Green-Left party in this year’s election (they finished 5th with more votes than any of the other left parties) highlights this. Increasingly, moderate liberal parties such as Emanuel Macron’s En Marche or the Dutch D66 appear to be viable options for moderate left voters unhappy with a traditional left parties’ opposition to globalization.

If, however, left parties take strong positions in favour of globalization or free trade, they risk losing significant numbers of working-class anti-immigrant anti-globalization voters to far-right nationalist parties. It is not an accident that far-right parties from France, to the Netherlands, to Sweden link their anti-immigrant views to concerns over employment or over a country’s ability to continue to fund generous social programs. These claims, however misguided they are, are attempts to win over working class voters that have traditionally supported left parties. Recent elections in Europe and in the United States suggest that they have been successful in doing so.

The difficulty of holding their traditional electoral coalition together can explain why left parties have been struggling in recent elections. Neither of Europe’s most recent elections were kind to left parties. In the Netherlands the Labour party finished in 7th with only 6% of the vote, a decline of 19 percentage points from their total in the prior election. In France, the Socialist party Presidential candidate failed to win more than 7% of the vote and was never considered a serious threat to win the Presidency. In Britain, there is little indication that the Labour has much of a chance of winning government. This is all part of a broad trend that I wrote about earlier this year where left parties’ vote shares have be declining steadily of the past four decades. The more important to elections immigration and globalization become, the more difficulty left parties are likely to have holding their traditional electoral coalitions together, and the more likely the decline in left support is to continue.

The changing political environment will force left parties into some difficult decisions about what they want to be. They will have to face a choice about what side of immigration and globalization issues they want to come down on. Whichever side they take, they are likely going to lose a significant group of voters. This will make it more difficult for left parties to try to challenge for government on their own. Rather, they will have to build alliances with other, and in many cases, stronger parties. Left parties that decide to hold on to their socially progressive positions will have to work with moderate liberal parties. These moderate liberal parties are winning pro-immigration and pro-globalization voters from both left and right parties, and will likely force the traditional left parties that collaborate with them to move somewhat to the right in order to accommodate some of their voters. Traditional left parties that decide to take anti-immigrant or anti-globalization are likely to lose some of their more socially progressive and moderate urban voters to green and moderate liberal parties, and will struggle to find allies amongst other parties. If left parties are going to maintain their socially progressive values and continue to influence government, they are likely going to have to work with moderate liberals such as Emmanuel Macron.

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The Declining Left: Mainstream Left Parties across the Industrialized World Are Seeing Declining Vote Shares

The results of Dutch elections this year have brought liberals and progressives a great deal of relief. Geert Wilders’ far-right Party for Freedom was defeated by the centre-right VVD (Party for Freedom and Democracy) led by Mark Rutte. Lost in the discussion of this election has been the poor performance of the Dutch Labour party. Once a significant competitor for government, the party won less than 10 of the 150 seats available in the Dutch parliament and just over 5% of the vote. The Labour party is not likely to be the only mainstream left party that will see its vote decline this year. In France, the Socialist Party looks unlikely to make it through the second round of Presidential elections, despite the fact that current President Francois Hollande is a member of the party. Mainstream left party vote share has been declining across industrialized countries from 1980 through to today.

To understand trends in mainstream party vote share I looked at left and right party support in elections across a number of industrialized countries. Included were Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. I chose these countries because they have had reasonably stable party systems, at least compared to countries such as Belgium and Italy. In addition, unlike France, Japan, and New Zealand, they did not experience major electoral reform (a change from majoritarian to a proportional system or vice versa). I compared the share of mainstream parties’ vote, the vote for all left parties (social democratic or communist), and the vote for all left parties and green parties. I did this for elections from 1945 to 2016.

A look at the vote share of mainstream left parties shows a steady decline in vote share that runs from 1980 to 2016. The graph below shows the average vote share of the largest left party. Mainstream left parties start with an average vote share around 35% in 1980. By 2016, they were averaging just over 25% of the vote. Mainstream right parties have seen a similar decline, going from an average of just over 33% of the vote in 1980 to around 24% in 2016. Their support is, however, is much less stable over the full 1945-2016 period. Mainstream right support was well below 30% through a good portion of the 1950s and again around 1970. There is no evidence that mainstream centrist parties are taking advantage of this decline in mainstream left and right support. Support for the largest centrist or liberal party has been relatively stable, at 12% to 14%, over time.

Left, Right, and Centre Party Vote Share

There is also little evidence that the decline in the mainstream left support has benefited other left parties. The graph below shows that average vote share of all left parties put together declines at a similar rate to mainstream left parties. In 1980, the average country saw left parties combine to take 40% of the popular vote. By 2016 left parties as a whole were only averaging 30%. There is evidence that some of the decline in left support has gone the green parties. Combining left support with green party support makes the decline less steep. At the same time, the fact that there still is a decline shows that the weaker showings by left parties are simply a product of the rise of green parties.

Left and Green Parties

The decline of the left has been consistent across different countries. The graphs below show the trends in mainstream left support in Anglo countries (Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom), Nordic countries, and in the rest of Europe. Of the three Anglo countries I looked at, two have seen significant left party declines. In Australia, Labour party support has fallen from the 40%-50% range in the 1970s to around 35% in the 2010s. In the UK, Labour support fell below 30% in 1980, rebounded over the 1990s, and then collapsed again in the 2000s. Of the Anglo countries, only Canada has seen growth in mainstream left support. Depending on what happens to the NDP in the next decade, that growth could be short lived.

Mainstream Left Parties in Anglo Countries

Nordic countries, which tend to see higher support for left parties, have not been immune from the decline. Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden have all seen their largest left parties lose support over the past three decades. The two countries that entered the 1980s with the strongest left parties, Norway and Sweden, have also seen the largest declines in mainstream left support. Having a strong left in past, and in the case of Sweden, one that has consistently formed governments, has not protected the mainstream left from the drop in support that taken place over recent decades.

Mainstream Left Parties in Nordic Countries

Finally, the four continental European countries that I looked at mirror the trends in Nordic countries. Austria and Germany, which had the strongest mainstream left parties of the four, have seen the largest declines in mainstream left support. Both parties have seen their largest left parties go from over 40% of the vote in 1980 to under 30% by 2016. The decline in the Netherlands and Switzerland is less pronounced, but mainstream left was weaker in those two countries to begin with. This graph also does not include the most recent Dutch election, in which Labour party vote share fell to just over 5%.

Mainstream Left Parties in Europe

The decline of the mainstream left has important implications for progressive politics in Canada and across the industrialized world. The NDP used to be able to look at other mainstream left parties as a potential model of how they might be successful well. The weaker the mainstream left becomes, the less viable an option this seems to be. The NDP can no longer look to the British Labour party, the German SDP, or the Swedish Social Democrats as examples that they can follow.

Across the industrialized word, the mainstream left parties need to start re-evaluating their positions and their approaches to electoral politics. That the decline in mainstream left support is affecting a variety of parties across different countries suggests that this is not a problem that can be solved by a party trying to renew itself or try to reconnect with voters. Rather, it suggests that are broader changes occurring across countries that are weakening the appeal of mainstream left parties. Progressives need to try to determine what these changes are and how they might respond to them. In doing so, they should look for trends that cross national borders. The weak performances of mainstream left parties are not isolated events. They are challenges that progressives must try to grapple with if they hope to be successful in future elections.

*Election data comes from ParlGov.

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