Decreasing trend of Two party systems

This topic was covered in the course on European Politics I took at University. I wanted to do a piece and take in the ideas of community activism which have been walked about recently and wrote this.

The stable situation of two party systems which were all too common in Europe is under threat. Increasingly over the past 50 years, people have stopped voting for the two establishment parties as staunchly as before and instead are more inclined to becoming “floating voters”. These voters not only switch between the two parties at election time, but also are voting for smaller parties too. This essay will argue that if parties want to protect their established roles in their countries then they must know why this trend is occurring and learn how to cope with this by utilising an approach of artificial cleavage reinforcement as an alternative to seeking “center-ground” and “presidential” politics.

The Rise of Two Party States

In Europe we tend to find that well established two party systems are dominated by a Democratic Socialist/Social Democratic Party and a Conservative/Christian Democratic party. This is true for The UK, Germany, Austria, France and many other countries. These two parties represent the conflicting interests of workers against business owners, and conservative christians against the secularisation and radical change of society or also in modern cases being supportive of a greater role for business instead of the state.

Traditionally these parties would have strong support bases who would be likely to vote for these parties at every election. For example, in 1957, 61% of SPD voters in Germany identified as working class [1]. It is theorised by Lipset and Rokkan that these parties formed along “electoral cleavages”, with the left forming along a cleavage between workers and business owners and the Christian Democratic parties along a split between secularism and Christianity. Obviously however, there is often more to the story of these splits in partisanship. What is notable is that people would continually vote for parties whom they felt represented them, and would be more likely to attend Church or be active in trade unionism where these political ties were reinforced.

 The trend of voter de-alignment

 In many countries however, a trend has been occurring. People are less inclined to vote for the main two parties in their countries, and even if they do they are less likely to vote for the same party at every election.


For example, in the United Kingdom there has been a trend from elections in the 50s where almost everyone voted for Labour or Conservative to only 60-70% of people voting for them. Although it would appear that Labour and the Conservatives are the two dominant party still, the trend is clearly downwards with landslides such as 1997 (number 12) accounting for less of the vote than Labour achieved in when struggling electorally in the 50s and 60s. When Harold Wilson lost the 1970 election he did so with 43% of the vote, whereas when Tony Blair won in 97 he did so with the same percentage.

This trend is occurring outside of the UK. In Germany, which notably has a more visible effect due to its proportional system, this trend has been occurring to the traditionally working class SPD and Catholic CDU/CSU.


Although it’s notable that there are differences, such as a significant break in party politics after the 1930s, the proportional Additional Member System and the existence of the third party (the FDP) there is a similar trend where people are voting in smaller numbers for the two Volksparteien. In recent years the German party system has changed from a three party system, to a five party system partially as a result of the rise of post-material and environmental issues and the reunification of Germany leading to the election of the Die Gruenen and Die Linke respectively.

Another example of what is on the face a different party system following the same trend is Austria’s. This is where the SPO has for a long time won elections at federal level, but still over time lost support at the same time of their rival, the OVP.


Even though the SPO appears to win election after election, the downwards trend of people voting for the main two parties mirrors that of Germany and the United Kingdom where in the times of high church attendance and high involvement in trade unions the two parties were achieving over 90% of the vote. This however drops quite dramatically as voters begin to vote for other parties instead of the establishment until it reaches the point of below 60%.

Some party systems in Europe don’t follow these trends because they have experienced a totally different experience of parties than we find in long established Western European democracies. In countries of the former Warsaw Pact it is common for there to be more parties with smaller activist bases and a public who lacks traditional ties to these parties like in Western Europe. This was notable for example during the reunification of Germany where the trend in the party system appears to be affected less than would be expected under the circumstances.

The last example is that of Greece, who has been included as an example of a more radical alteration in party systems and partly due to the situation occurring in their elections at present.


Greece is an interesting country for many reasons, such as its geopolitical situation as a culturally Western European state in the East of Europe, next to Turkey and which has experienced a military coup after problems occurring with the political stability of the state following the post war years. The graph shows all free and fair elections occurring after the fall of the colonels and shows the rise of a fairly stable two party system and a sudden collapse in the latest two elections (including the May 2012 election). This will be explained due to a different phenomena occurring in this country as a result of the Eurozone Crisis.

 Why are two party systems decreasing?

 The simplest answer to the fall in the number of people voting for the two main parties is that people are less likely to be involved with churches or unions to the extent that they used to. Whereas your party affiliation was closely linked to the communities in which you were raised and exposed to, people are less likely to remain in these communities and voting is more likely to be an activity which people take part in personally rather than collectively. This is why we tend to find older people as being more partisan.

 Voter turnout at elections has been falling for a long time too, with turnout in UK elections following a slow decreasing trend. [2]


Voter turnout as well as establishment party voting appears to be occurring as a result of voter de-alignment. This presents a major problem for parties of the left such as the United Kingdom as turnout appears to be lower in areas which are less financially affluent then they are in areas which are more affluent. A result of this is the phrase “centre ground” which becomes skewed in its definition as what is really being referred to here as the most electable ground as opposed to a media point for politics existent in the views of the entire population.

 Different issues have also come on the agenda, which previously lobby groups would represent and now smaller political parties represent. Notable examples include the rise of Green Parties in Europe who economically may have more in common with left wing parties but place the post material issue of the environment on the table, and more recently the rise of Pirate Parties across Europe which appear to be more liberal, less well economically defined and centred around legislation regarding copy right laws and the internet.

 Put simply, political parties are less involved with the everyday lives of the people they seek to represent as the manner in which they used to interact with the public has decreased as the public has become less inclined to attend community events. What has occurred as a result of this is that voting behaviour is more affected by people’s individual decisions at election time and people are more likely to change party at election time.

 In Greece there is the interesting effect of a new voter cleavage in the elections in 2012. As in other countries more cleavages have occurred, the issue of austerity has allowed both PASOK and ND to be on the same side of a political cleavage. The other anti-austerity side of the cleavage has capitalised on the opportunity to pick up the votes of disenfranchised PASOK and ND voters and the two parties have allowed themselves to be defined by the political environment of the time rather than their fundamental values of Social Democracy and Conservatism.

 Ways parties have tried to cope with these trends

 Parties have tried to cope with the change in voter behaviour by trying to appeal to the changed voter habits. The method of doing this is that they try to appeal to floating voters at election time by offering them more moderate and “centrist” policies. The classic example would be the Third Way project which Social Democratic parties adopted in the late 90s which led to Blair becoming Prime Minister and Schroder becoming Chancellor. Parties on the right have attempted to change their message to appeal to the wider electorate, with David Cameron discussing his “Big Society” and Merkel trying to take votes from SPD voters by offering policies such as a minimum wage. Even parties not aligned to cleavages along economic matters have tried to moderate their messages, with the SNP playing down the issue of secession at election time and instead trying to look like a more competent governing party.

 The other method which is noticeable is the presidentialisation of party politics too. Parties are less likely to be defined by an overall mantra and instead be represented in the media by their leader. This is by no means a new phenomenon but has played a more important role in parties’ election strategies by trying to look competent through their leader’s personality (even though someone’s personality may play a smaller role in doing the business of running a country).

 The issue with these approaches is that parties have exploited the move to the centre ground and risen due to the disenfranchisment of traditional supporters of these parties. In Germany, the WASG (which merged into Die Linke) attacked the SPD vote from the left leaving the party vulnerable to losing voters from both the right and the left. In France, Nicholas Sarkozy was troubled by the fact that he had to take votes from both Francois Hollande’s Socialist Party and Marine Le-Pen’s Front Nationale. The political alignment of parties therefore has suffered in the long term as a result of populist election strategies as people feel that the parties represent the interests of their voters less and less. Populism is not a sustainable election or political strategy, and evidently has not managed to change the tide of voter disenfranchisement in European Political Parties.

 Artificial Cleavage Reinforcement

 There is often talk in parties of community activism and involvement in local politics as a bass. But there is often no analysis of why this is a more sustainable trend in parties gaining sustainable support networks in communities.

 As traditional methods of involving people in community politics have decreased, it is easy for parties to appear distant from individual voters and politics to appear irrelevant to the needs of everyday working people. Community activism and involvement in issues surrounding their everyday lives whether that be in the workplace or in their local areas is a method of parties to reinforce the values and political cleavages directly and so make people more inclined to feel a personal link to these parties. The term Artificial Cleavage Reinforcement is used because parties instead of being fed into from community groups are going out of their way to create the political networks for empowering members of the community along issues pertaining to these parties. This reinforces the issues which the parties are based on and thus moves away from populist and presidential politics as a method of political engagement.

 This method of voter realignment however has its faults. Firstly, there is a tendency for parties to centrally dictate party strategy from the centre and therefore it may make the exercise of involving people in the process of party activism look opportunistic and fake. If people are being asked to get involved with issues in their communities which contradict a party line then people are likely to become angered by the party and look for alternative methods of changing their communities and expressing their viewpoints.

 As well as this, it requires a lot of time and investment from party machines in hiring and funding the organisers who will be responsible for creating, maintaining and liaising between these networks and the wider party. For example, a well functioning student movement requires people with adequate time to check on student political networks in universities across the state which they find themselves in. This may require the funding of a full or part time member of staff to do so which requires a student to give up their degree for a year and a party to employ a member of staff on a reasonable wage for a year. This is opposed to the more traditional method of people being employed by the subsidiary organisations who took the role of feeding into party machines when elected members or party staff would liaise with trade unions or influential members of the church directly in order to maintain good relations with these declining bases of power.

 Regardless of these issues, the method of ACR is much more sustainable due to the fact that people see and experience parties in a similar manner as they previously did during the 50s, 60s and 70s. As a long term strategy it may give parties the extra ability to trump smaller parties with smaller access to funds and activist bases and thus reinforce the dominance of larger parties. The inclusion and improved communication with pressure groups can also make sure that issues which interest the public are being noted and policy is being developed before parties exploit new cleavages being created along the lines of the internet and the environment.

 For situations such as that of Greece, PASOK may want to look at trying to keep the vision for Greece’s future based on that of Social Democracy and should not let itself be defined by Austerity. That means that as a long term strategy, ACR could be a method for rebuilding social democracy in Greece following the election defeat in May 2012. PASOK has access already to a more moderate and stable vision for Greece than its more radical competitors which means that ideologically it has the potential to appeal to a greater number of voters and offer a fairer and more sustainable future, legitimised by its efforts to utilise grass roots democracy, something which it has not often been traditionally linked with.


 [1] Dalton R. J (2003), “Voter Choice and Electoral Politics”, in Smith G., Paterson W. E and Padgett S (2003) Developments in German Politics 3, Macmillan Press, Basingstoke


 On church attendance in the UK

 On trade union membership decline in the UK

 On the leftwards shift of Merkel


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