There’s life yet in the European Liberals

Ben Margulies 

For some European liberal parties, the 2010s have been an arduous, disappointing decade. As one academic noted in a recent post on the LSE’s European politics blog, the last five years have seen the precipitous decline of Germany’s venerable Free Democrats (FDP), expelled from the Bundestag in 2013 for the first time, and from many state parliaments since. In the United Kingdom, the Liberal Democrats began the 2010s with a surge in popularity, 23% of the vote and their first Cabinet seats since 1945. Five years later, they emerged from the 2015 general election with eight seats, having shed about two-thirds of their electorate. And at least these parties made it to 2010 – Ireland’s liberal Progressive Democrats won but two seats in the 2007 general elections, and dissolved two years later.

But though many European liberal parties are indeed ailing, predictions of the party family’s demise are almost certainly premature. Liberal decline has tended to be worst in Europe’s larger nation-states, and has claimed two very prominent victims in the German FDP and the British Liberal Democrats. But elsewhere, liberal parties, including some new entrants into the political arena, are prospering. In Austria, NEOS-The New Austria entered the National Council at the 2013 elections with nearly 5% of the vote. In Iceland, Bright Future, another new liberal party, won six seats (out of 63) in elections the same year. All three of the Low Countries are governed by liberal prime ministers at present.

The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE) has recently welcomed a number of strong new member parties from Eastern and Southern Europe. The new Modern Centre Party, which won the 2014 Slovenian general elections within a few weeks of its founding, is now an ALDE member. The Reform Party of Estonia recently won a fifth term as the leading party in the governing coalition.

Perhaps most notable in recent months has been the meteoric rise of Ciudadanos-The Party of the Citizens, a Spanish centrist party and ALDE member originally focused on Catalonia (where it represented the center on the center-periphery cleavage, opposing the Catalan nationalist parties). Now competing across Spain on a platform of liberalizing reform, it is nearly level with both with establishment Popular Party and Socialists and the left-populist Podemos. Ciudadanos may soon become the Continent’s most prominent liberal grouping. Ciudadanos’ explosive success was foreshadowed by the more modest inroads made by another new liberal grouping – Union, Progress and Democracy (UPyD) – which won a seat in the 2008 general elections and five at the 2011 polls.

The German FDP and British Liberal Democrats faltered less due to secular changes in the electorate than tactical and strategic errors in office. The Liberal Democrats betrayed their best-publicised electoral pledge in their rush to make Britain’s first peacetime coalition work. The FDP was hurt by an unpopular leader and a belief that it had veered too far to the right; the current party leadership appears to be attempting to correct this.

Why might liberal parties have a brighter future than the German and British cases would otherwise suggest? Perhaps the greatest reason for the optimism is the sort of social changes that have proved so corrosive to other established parties. (For a more detailed examination of this argument, please see my article in the Rivista Italiana di Scienza Politica, The future of the liberal party family: a survey of new liberal parties and other trends.”) In the last half-century, globalization, the transition to post-industrial economies, and increasing social fragmentation have eroded traditional class and confessional identities. This de-alignment has led to a steady increase in party-system fragmentation, and a steady decline in support for many established parties, especially in the social democratic family. It has also led to greater electoral volatility, as noted by Peter Mair in Ruling the Void (2011).

Liberal parties, old and new, do not have strong class, demographic or other inherited social identifications. Liberal parties have traditionally been “bourgeois” or middle class parties, and in some countries may be identified with business interests (for example, the German FDP). But for the most part, the liberals’ lack a strong class, demographic, occupational or confessional identity, just at the time when most voters are also shedding those same identities. As such, they may be very well positioned to become the “catch-all” parties of the future. The success of NEOS in Austria may prove a key example in this regard – Austrian politics is notable for its domination by two traditional class- and confession-based parties, the Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the Christian People’s Party (ÖVP), with protest votes going to the once liberal, now right-populist Freedom Party (FPÖ).

Liberal parties may also be well placed to adapt to competition along the post-materialist cleavage. This cleavage is sometimes defined as being between two sets of values-based positions: a left-libertarian camp defined by support for environmentalism and human rights, and a right-authoritarian position supportive of traditional hierarchies and authorities and hostile to outgroups. Though the left-libertarian camp is usually identified with Green parties, its focus on human rights is shared by liberals too. As Giger and Nelson (2010) note, the growth of post-materialist voting will benefit both “left-libertarian and market-liberal parties.” Though, as Marino argues, liberal parties may be losing votes to Green parties or protest parties in some nations, in others liberal parties are proving successful in spite of the presence of Greens. The Democrats ’66, a left-liberal party, made large gains at the recent Dutch provincial elections, while the Greens suffered losses, continuing a pattern observed in the 2012 general elections.

That brings me neatly to another point that favours a bright liberal future, which is the triumph of free-market politics. Mair pointed out in Ruling the Void that established parties have, since the fall of Communism, converged around a free-market consensus. This consensus undermines social democratic parties, who have lost much of their raison d’etre, but suits liberal parties much better. This is especially true if they are able to portray their liberal platform as a strike against vested interests, coddled by the old welfare state or clientelist practices, as Ciudadanos does in Spain and the supporters of Mario Monti did in Italy. This is true even outside Europe – Bruce Cumings explains that South Korean liberals embraced a painful IMF structural adjustment programme in 1997-98 because it undermined the country’s oligopolistic chaebol mega-corporations.

That said, the liberal future could easily portend as much pain as it does hope. For many liberal parties, the lack of a clear class, occupational, or demographic identity is a great advantage; it makes them attractive to many different types of voter and dissociates them from the established political parties and their hidebound ideologies and interests. But it also leaves liberal parties vulnerable to sudden shifts of opinion. Every poor policy decision made by a liberal party risks a rapid erosion of support, much more so than a similar error made by a party with a stable base. As Robert Ford noted in a Guardian piece following the May 2015 UK general election, the Liberal Democrats paid dearly for their “lack of a loyal demographic core.” Liberal parties also carry much greater risks when they go into coalition; as they are often the smaller party, they may have to make more concessions, which increases their chances of alienating a fickle base intolerant of compromise.

All that said, there is much reason to believe that the liberal party family could thrive, or at least enjoy considerable success, in the coming decade. German and British liberals may indeed face an uncertain future, but this is as much due to tactical errors on their part and specific political conditions in each country as it is to secular decline in the liberal party family. The liberals’ future may be less grim than advertised.

Ben Margulies recently completed his doctorate at the University of Essex on the electoral behaviour of liberal parties. Previously he has worked as a policy researcher and his research focuses mainly on party systems, new political parties and populism.

Europe and the 2015 Finnish election: the success of the Finns Party continues

Tapio Raunio

Before the 2011 Eduskunta elections international media had paid hardly any attention to Finnish politics. The remarkable success of the populist and Eurosceptic Finns Party (previously known as the True Finns) changed that overnight, with the media particularly interested in how the politicization of the euro crisis and the associated rise of Timo Soini’s party might influence the EU policy of the Finnish government. And it certainly did. While the National Coalition-led ‘six pack’ cabinet was overall committed to European integration it: demanded bilateral guarantees on its bailout payments (following a campaign promise by the Social Democrats); attempted, on its own, to reject 85% majority decision-making in the European Stability Mechanism, demanding unanimity instead; and, together with the Netherlands, blocked the entry of Bulgaria and Romania into the Schengen area. More broadly, it appears that the emphasis on national interests and the role of smaller member states has become more pronounced in Finland in recent years, and the success of the Finns Party has clearly pushed the other parties in the direction of more cautious EU discourse.

Hence it was understandable that European media once again closely followed the campaign in Finland, focusing especially on party positions regarding future loan packages to Greece. The party leaders mainly avoided the question through refusing to speculate on such potential bailouts and even the Finns Party did not seemed that keen on debating the EU. Four years earlier, the Finns Party had a clear electoral incentive to capitalize on the Eurozone crisis. However, this time around the picture was rather different. After the 2011 elections, Soini decided to stay in opposition, justifying his decision by the impossibility of joining a government that was committed to Eurozone rescue measures. Yet many feel that Soini shirked government responsibility, preferring instead the safety of opposition. Now Soini had publicly declared that his party wants to enter the cabinet and, hence, the Finns Party was probably happy to see the campaign dominated by national issues.

Euro area bailouts can prove difficult 

Many had predicted (or hoped) that the Finns Party would fade away quickly, but such predictions proved to be wrong. As Table 1 shows, Soini’s party finished second with 38 seats (down one) and 17.7 % of the votes – a much better result than the polls had suggested, just as they achieved four years earlier. The Finns Party won seats in each of the 12 constituencies (the Åland Islands also elects one MP), indicating both the widespread popularity of the party and that its investment in local party organization is paying off. With his eyes on post-election coalition formation bargaining, during the campaign Soini assured voters that the EU and potential bailouts would not be obstacles to his party entering the government. However, the Finns Party has consistently voted against euro area bailout measures in the Eduskunta and, hence, the question may prove tricky in government formation talks. Interestingly, Soini reminded the electorate that the Centre Party had also voted against such measures, so a workable compromise might be achievable.

Table 1: Results of the 2015 parliamentary elections in Finland

2015 Change from 2011 2015 Change from 2011
The Centre Party 21,1 5,3 49 14
The Finns Party 17,7 -1,4 38 -1
National Coalition 18,2 -2,2 37 -7
Social Democrats 16,5 -2,6 34 -8
Green League 8,5 1,3 15 5
Left Alliance 7,1 -1,0 12 -2
Swedish People’s Party 4,9 0,6 10* 0
Christian Democrats 3,5 -0,5 5 -1
Others 2,5
TOTAL 100 200

*Including the representative of the Åland Islands.

Source: Ministry of Justice.

Much will, indeed, depend upon the Centre Party and its leader Juha Sipilä. In 2011 the Centre won a meagre 15.8% of the votes, its lowest vote share since the Second World War, and ended up in opposition. However, the party’s fortunes turned around quickly and, according to opinion polls, has been the largest party in Finland for about two years now. This revival is surely in no small measure thanks to the Laestadian IT-millionaire Juha Sipilä, who became an MP in 2011 and was elected party chair in 2012. Sipilä probably profited from his ‘non-political’ background while his successful track record in business boosted his credibility in running the national economy. While the Centre did not perform as well as the polls predicted, the party finished first with 21.2% of the vote and 49 seats (up 14) and Sipilä will thus be leading the coalition formation talks. Sipilä himself was the vote king of the elections, winning 30,758 votes in the Oulu constituency.

The Centre has been internally divided over the issue of European integration ever since EU membership entered the domestic political agenda in the early 1990s. Two-thirds of Centre supporters voted against membership in the 1994 referendum, and the rank-and-file continue to be sceptical of further integration. The party’s parliamentary group also contains diverse views on Europe, and the pro-EU Sipilä may thus be under pressure not to appear too soft when representing Finland in Brussels. At the same time, it is unlikely that the new cabinet will overall cause problems for EU decision-making, even if its two largest parties are the Centre and the Finns Party. The campaigns and debates focused strongly on the country’s dwindling economic fortunes (especially rising levels of debt and unemployment) and the associated reforms of social and health services, and it is certain that the introduction of domestic austerity measures will keep the cabinet pre-occupied. While the challenges in the national economy were not linked to EU level policies in pre-election debates, the new government may well need friends in Europe when implementing un-popular policies at home.

A vote against the government 

The election result was essentially a vote against the incumbent government. It was broadly acknowledged that the cabinet – which, initially, brought together six parties but in the end consisted of four parties after the exit of the Left Alliance over economic policy and the Greens over nuclear energy in 2014 – had failed to deliver promised reforms. It was particularly damaged over the poor handling of its top priority project: the re-organization of social and health services and the related municipal reforms. The cabinet also presided over a period of consistent economic decline, with worsening public debt amidst increasing job market uncertainty: one month ahead of the election the unemployment rate stood at 10.3%. To make matters worse, the final months before the elections saw a lot of nasty public conflicts between the two leading coalition parties: the National Coalition and the Social Democrats.

The continuing downturn in the economy was particularly bad for the ruling National Coalition and prime minister Alexander Stubb who was elected as the party chair last June. A manic tweeter and a self-confessed ‘sports nut’ who competes in marathons and triathlons, Stubb’s youthful 24/7 exuberance did not appeal to all sections of the electorate. Perhaps more importantly, Stubb openly admitted that domestic issues were not his strength and, with the benefit of hindsight, was probably not the best choice as a party leader given the focus of the election debates. Stubb also supported both a federal Europe and NATO membership, while attacking trade unions and favouring more market-led policies. To be fair to Stubb, his party’s problems had already began during the premiership of Jyrki Katainen, but clearly he was unable to provide the kind of leadership many had hoped for. The National Coalition came second in terms of vote share (18.2 %), but third in the number of seats with 37 MPs (down seven).

The left weaker than ever before 

However, the main losers of the elections were the Social Democrats, who had also elected a new party chair in spring 2014: Antti Rinne, a former trade union leader with no parliamentary experience. As finance minister, Rinne predictably stressed job creation and economic growth, positing a more active role for the government in meeting these goals. Considering the financially demanding times, Rinne needed to strike a balance between defending wage earners’ benefits whilst appearing as a credible manager of the national economy. While Rinne himself won a seat, the Social Democrats finished fourth with 16.5 % of the vote and 34 seats (down 8), the party’s worst-ever performance in Eduskunta elections. The dilemma facing the Social Democrats is quite typical for centre-left parties across Europe. At its core are two interlinked questions – whether to defend traditional leftist economic goals or endorse more market-friendly policies, and who the party represents – questions that had already surfaced in the leadership contest that saw Rinne narrowly beating the incumbent Jutta Urpilainen. That debate will no doubt only intensify following this un-successful campaign.

The Social Democrats have not been as strong in Finland as in the other Nordic countries, but they were the largest party in every Eduskunta election held from 1907 to 1954, and since the 1966 elections they have finished first in all elections apart from those held in 1991, 2003, 2007, 2011 and 2015. The peak was achieved in the 1995 elections with 28.3% of the vote, the highest vote share for a single party after the Second World War. In fact, the collective vote share of the leftist parties has declined quite dramatically in recent decades. Whereas Social Democrats and the predecessor of Left Alliance, the Finnish People’s Democratic Union (FPDU), won over 45% of the vote between them in all but one election between 1945 and 1966 (when together they won 48.3%), by 2015 the electoral strength of the left has decreased to only 23.6%. The Finnish People’s Democratic Union’s decline began in the late 1960s and support for the Left Alliance has declined gradually since 1995. The Left Alliance won 7.1% of the vote and 12 seats (down two). The party has found it difficult to cater for the needs of both traditional working class voters and more urban new ‘green left’ supporters. The Left Alliance was the only Eduskunta party not advocating cuts to public spending, arguing instead in favour of public investments financed with more foreign loans, a strategy that may have cost it votes given the broad consensus behind austerity measures.

The Green League – who refuse to be categorized as belonging to either the left or the right – experienced a different fate, winning 8.5% of the vote and 15 seats (up vie). Whilst this was a solid improvement on the previous elections, in a way the Greens only returned to the level of support they reached in 2007. The Swedish People’s Party won 4.9% of the vote and 9 MPs (10 including the MP from the Åland Islands), while the Christian Democrats received 3.5% of the vote and 5 MPs (down one). Finally, the new Eduskunta will include the first immigrant MPs in Finland: Nasima Razmyar (Social Democrats) and Ozan Yanar (Greens), both elected from the Helsinki constituency. Turnout was a respectable 70.1%.

Tapio Raunio is a Professor of Political Science at the School of Management, University of Tampere.