segunda-feira, julho 29, 2013

Crisis and party system change: Greece, Portugal, and others

Alexandre Afonso makes interesting points about how and why the financial crisis and austerity policies hit the Greek party system more severely than the Portuguese one (here, in Spanish and here, in English). A summary, hoping to do it justice:

1. First, according to Afonso, Greek parties relied more on state-sponsored clientelism and patronage than the Portuguese ones. Economic crisis and austerity thus hurt the Greek parties more severely in terms of their ability to sustain mass support.

2. Second, PASOK ruled alone in 2009 and thus could not avoid being held responsible and massively punished for the economy and economic policies. In contrast, the Portuguese Socialists were a minority government since 2009, implemented austerity policies negotiated with the PSD even before the bailout, and this made “responsibility more difficult to attribute,” thus mitigating incumbent losses.

3. Finally, according to Afonso, “technocratic governments” and “grand coalitions”, creating “a political cartel where participants make a commitment to avoid blaming each other in order to minimize electoral costs” (…)”may be the only one available for parties to survive in the current situation”.

My feeling is that the first point sounds about right, the second only partially so, and the third not at all, at least to me.

I’m ready to accept that Greek parties relied more extensively on patronage to muster support, and thus that it is plausible that the crisis and the austerity policies forced by the EU/IMF bailout had bigger consequences in Greece than in Portugal from that point of view. I also agree (I have made that point myself on the basis of a post-election survey) that, in the Portuguese 2011 elections, voters’ propensity to assign blame not only to the incumbent Socialists but also to a variety of other forces and factors (although not so much to the opposition parties) seems to have mitigated the punishment exacted upon the PS for the economic situation then faced and for the very need for a bailout.

However, from the point of view of Afonso’s arguments, it sometimes seems that the debacle of the Greek party system was basically something very bad that happened to the incumbent PASOK. But that’s not exactly right, is it? “Very bad” things have also happened to other incumbents in financially troubled European countries, including to Fianna Fáil in Ireland, to the Independence Party in Iceland, or even, for that matter, to the Socialists in Portugal (with a cumulative loss of 17 percentage points from 2005 to 2011). What makes the Greek crisis  different from said countries was the overall massive level of electoral volatility, including the fact that the major party of the opposition (New Democracy) was also punished in 2012, even in comparison with its 2009 loss (as Afonso shows in his own graph), as well as the dramatic rise of other parties that were either new or previously much less relevant. Nothing like that happened in the 2009 elections in Iceland, in the January February 2011 elections in Ireland, or in the June 2011 elections in Portugal, where the existing major alternatives to incumbents did predictably well. In fact, an even longer view shows us that the defeats suffered by the incumbents in those elections did not prevent their later (at least partial) electoral recovery since then, as the performance of the Independence Party in the 2013 Iceland elections (or of Fianna Fáil and the Portuguese PS in the opinion polls today) show.

So, if we want to treat party system “resilience” or ”change” as the thing we want to explain, what are the two cases among the ”financial crisis” countries where party systems were more badly shaken? Interestingly, and, I think, countering Afonso’s argument, these are precisely the two cases where ”technocratic” or “national unity” governments were formed. In Greece, it is fascinating to see how the performance of ND in the polls plummeted in the aftermath of the formation of the Papademos cabinet in November 2011. In Italy, one and a half years of Monti (as well as Berlusconi’s tactical withdrawal of support by the end of the term) ended up leaving the Democratic Party awkwardly associated with austerity and crisis, something that, in other circumstances, an opposition party would probably be able to avoid (if not capitalize from). The result, in both countries, is that the punishment of incumbents was not accompanied by a reward for the main challengers in the party system. Instead, protest voting appeared with enormous strength and new parties emerged or strengthened, a result, I would argue, of the shared responsibility of the major traditional parties for increasingly detested policies and their consequences.

So to me, the question is: why have the Greek and Italian party systems been so transformed, while the Portuguese, Irish, and Icelandic ones were  less so? The answer, I think, may be the opposite to the one provided by Afonso: cases of “national unity”/”technocratic” governments were followed by the deeper manifestations of party system transformation. In contrast, where party government prevailed, punishments for incumbents may have been very large in some cases and smaller in others, but party systems seem (so far) to have basically preserved most of their main features.

P.S.- I cautiously avoided Spain where, in the absence of any sort of “national unity” or “technocratic” cabinets, there’s an argument to be made about an important change away from a basic two-party system and towards a more fragmented one. However, this is mostly based on polling data, and I would reserve judgment on this until an actual election takes place…
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