Political Fragmentation Need Not Lead to Paralysis

European parties are adapting to a new political reality.

Chancellor Angela Merkel gives a speech in the German parliament in Berlin, October 15, 2015
Chancellor Angela Merkel gives a speech in the German parliament in Berlin, October 15, 2015 (Bundesregierung)

Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Alina Polyakova write for the Brookings Institution that Europe’s political fragmentation threatens to lead to paralysis.

With anti-establishment parties, mostly of the right, taking a quarter of the vote, remaining parties are forced into ever broader and more unwieldy coalitions that fail to address such complex issues as sluggish economic growth, immigration and defense. As voters become frustrated with a lack of results, they could look to “more effective” strongman models of the type embodied by China and Russia. The authors give Germany and Sweden as examples.

I think this is too pessimistic.

Vicious circle

The vicious circle Kendall-Taylor and Polyakova identify is real. Germany is the best example. Three of Angela Merkel’s four governments have been grand coalitions of the center-left and center-right. Voters can hardly tell the difference between the two major parties anymore.

But the far right can’t be blamed. During Merkel’s first two grand coalitions, it wasn’t even in parliament. When the Alternative for Germany first won seats in 2017, Merkel tried to form a government with the liberal Freedom Democrats and Greens; a previously untried combination. It were the liberals who refused the deal.

The situation in Sweden is also more complicated. Johan Wahlström told me last year that the problem there isn’t fragmentation per se, but the parties’ inexperience with forming coalitions across blocs. The Social Democrats were long able to corral other left-wing parties into coalitions while the four center-right parties usually stuck together. When the far right won 13 percent support in 2018, neither bloc had a majority anymore, forcing the parties to innovate.

It’s a similar problem here in Spain, where the liberal Citizens ruled out a coalition with Pedro Sánchez’ Socialists before the election in April. That meant the only possible outcomes were a right-wing government with the support of the far-right Vox or a left-wing government with the support of the far-left Podemos.

Parties are adapting

The Citizens are — slowly — coming around, though. (See El País.) In Sweden, after months of talks, the Center Party and Liberals agreed to allow a center-left government to come to power. In Germany, a government of the Christian Democrats and Greens seems only a matter of time.

As I argued here in January, countries that are accustomed to one- or two-party rule will need time to adjust. But multiparty systems are stronger in the end.

Two-party systems, like America’s and Britain’s, disempower half the electorate every four or five years and tend to oscillate between extremes.

In multiparty democracies like Belgium and the Netherlands, the broad middle of the electorate can usually live with the government of the day and policy outcomes are more predictable.

Such systems are also able to absorb, and ideally neutralize, insurgents. The rise of Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party was stunted when the Dutch center-right brought it into a coalition. Two years later, it brought down the most right-wing government in Dutch history and it has since achieved virtually nothing in opposition. Voters notice. They are switching either back to the mainstream right or to a new far-right party, Forum for Democracy — which will now have to prove it can govern or risk the same fate.