A casual glance at a political map of the European Union reveals what appears to be chaos. Almost everywhere, more parties are jostling into parliaments as the old blocs on right and left dissolve. Some chambers, not least the European Parliament, have become as confusing as Weimar Germany’s, which seated an average of 14 parties. Governing coalitions back then were incoherent, fragile and short. And you know what came next.
Is the EU heading in that direction? Superficially it might look that way. Six member states are being run by minority governments. Another two have caretaker administrations, including Spain, which will hold its fourth election in as many years in November. Yet another (Austria) is in the hands of bureaucrats pending a snap election on September 26. Twelve nominally have working coalitions but some of those (Germany and Italy) are involuntary, miserable or bizarre. The UK’s House of Commons is in a category of its own, best described, with understatement, as flux.
As though to display their disdain for the old structures, some of Europe’s younger politicians are walking out of their own parties and founding new ones. Emmanuel Macron did this in France. On September 16 Matteo Renzi said he wanted to do the same in Italy.
Instability — the new norm
Elusive or fragile coalitions, minority governments, deadlock: Instability seems to be the new normal. But there is another, more optimistic, way of looking at these trends.
As Europe’s societies become more pluralistic and diverse, so do their party landscapes. Yes, this makes building coalitions harder. In time, however, it’s also likely to weaken party structures while raising the stature of individual parliamentarians. Good reasoning and oratory and the individual consciences of lawmakers may gradually replace party orthodoxy as the drivers of policymaking.
The main reason to fear fragmentation, of course, is that some of it is caused by the rise of populist parties on the far left and right. But upon scrutiny, the populists may be nearing their limits, or even peaking. For a case study, move your magnifying glass over the EU map to the two German states of Brandenburg and Saxony.
Both regions held elections this month and most headlines screamed that a right-wing populist party triumphed, casting the mainstream parties into crisis. That’s because, compared to the previous elections in 2014, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) gained the most: in Saxony by 8 points to 27.5 per cent; in Brandenburg by 11 points to 23.5 per cent.
In a fragmented party landscape the burden of democracy shifts from party cadres to the elected representatives themselves. Coalitions will become ad hoc and fluid, and more administrations will govern with minorities tolerated by the opposition.
But a different picture emerges when simply counting the absolute numbers of votes. In both Brandenburg and Saxony, fewer people voted for the AfD this time than in the federal election of 2017. The same was true in other regional elections since 2017, in Bavaria, Hesse and Bremen. Manfred Guellner, a leading German pollster, thinks that the AfD, born only in 2013, has maxed out.
The bigger trend, fragmentation, began long before the populists started rising. In West Germany during the 1970s about 80 per cent of votes went to either of two big-tent blocs, the “black” Christian Democrats on the centre-right and the “red” Social Democrats on the centre-left. That share started declining in the 1980s. It is now about 40 per cent and looks likely to keep falling as more people opt for smaller or younger parties such as the “yellow” Liberals, the “purple” ex-Communists or the environmentalist Greens.
Taken together, these two trends — ongoing fragmentation in the presence of unsavory populists — necessarily will make coalitions more colourful and unfamiliar. Brandenburg and Saxony are close to forming “Kenyan” governments, made up of parties with the colours black, red and green, like the Kenyan flag. They used to be arch-rivals but are ganging up against the populists. Germany as a whole could soon become “Jamaican,” run by a black-green-yellow coalition.
These increasingly eclectic palettes reflect heterogeneous societies. In the 1970s most Europeans identified either with the working class and tweed-jacketed intellectuals or with the middle class and pinstriped entrepreneurs. Today that left-right spectrum still exists. But it is overlaid by others: urban-rural, young-old, pro- and anti-immigrant, pro- and anti-globalisation, cosmopolitan and nativist.
New (or newly divisive) issues cut across all parties, such as climate change or artificial intelligence and automation. And sometimes one issue, like Brexit, drowns out all the others. New and protean tribes jostle in: vegans, Pentecostals, sceptics. There is already a party for satirists in Germany. Philatelists could be next.
To some Europeans, especially Germans, this is indeed reminiscent of Weimar and thus scary. Precisely to avoid parliamentary Balkanisation, post-war Germany explicitly sanctioned parties in its constitution and erected a 5 per cent threshold for entering parliament.
Other Europeans, such as the Danes, are more sanguine about fragmentation. Denmark has a long tradition of minority governments. It hardly resembles Weimar.
An even older philosophical tradition in fact leads to the exact opposite conclusion: that fragmentation is to be welcomed because it is good for democracy. James Madison in the Federalist Papers worried not about too many parties (he called them “factions”) but too few. The biggest threat to liberty, he argued, is that a majority oppresses minorities. Better to have many fluid groups that can hold one another in check while still coalescing around sensible policies. With Madison in mind, the “stable” but illiberal majorities in today’s Hungary and Poland are hardly preferable to the messy coalition haggling in, say, Spain.
In a fragmented party landscape the burden of democracy shifts from party cadres to the elected representatives themselves. Coalitions will become ad hoc and fluid, and more administrations will govern with minorities tolerated by the opposition. This means that members of parliament must individually read up on the hard problems, stand up to argue their case, listen to the alternatives and finally vote their conscience. Constituents can always fire them in the next election.
This, in effect, is what some Tory rebels did this month in Westminster. It should become routine. The result looks like chaos. It is in fact liberty.
Andreas Kluth is a member of Bloomberg’s editorial board. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist.