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Why the fragmentation of European politics could bode poorly for democracy

Reaching consensus in the new E.U. Parliament just got harder.

After last week’s elections, the European Parliament is more fragmented than ever — growing discontent with the mainstream meant that centrist and mainstream parties took a beating. For the first time in 40 years, the center-right and the center-left will no longer control a majority of the European Parliament, and power will be spread over eight party groupings rather than seven in the last parliament. Although the far right did well, so too did the liberals and Greens.

This mirrors the fragmentation that has been happening in national European parliaments. Across the continent, political party systems are splintering. Some of this reflects the resurgence of existing parties. Support for the Greens, for example, has risen in recent years. But much of the fragmentation has been the result of the emergence of new political parties. Since 2000, 94 new parties have won seats in national legislatures in Europe.

So what does this mean for European politics? Some observers point to the benefits of new political parties, which could express suppressed opinions and bring politics closer to the people. Others hope that these new parties, and the fragmentation they produce, will revive debate and deliberation in Europe.

The new European Parliament will balance dramatically different ideologies and interests

But there also may be problems: Research suggests that the widespread creation of new parties across Europe, especially those that are personalist in nature, has troubling implications for democracy’s future in Europe.

Fragmentation creates more veto players

New political parties may strengthen democracy by increasing political debate — but hurt it by making it harder to get things done. Political science research shows that an increase in the number of veto players — those whose agreement is required to change the status quo — makes it harder to make policy. In parliamentary systems, more parties will often mean more veto players, making it harder to reach consensus.

Furthermore, the more ideological difference between veto players, the harder it will be to reach agreement. Because many new European parties are concentrated on the far ends of the political spectrum, ideological differences are going to be bigger in the E.U. Parliament, as well as national legislatures. If more parties make it harder for democracies to deliver, citizen frustration with democracy will mount.

Personality-dominated parties may be even more problematic

And there may be further issues when new parties form around single individuals. Our observations of contemporary situations where democracy has broken down suggest that democracy is weakened when leaders of democracies come to power with the backing of newly created political parties (as opposed to established ones).

This is especially so when these parties are personalist in nature — when they are geared toward launching the political career of a single individual, such as France’s En Marche party, founded by Emmanuel Macron in 2016 to pave his way to the presidency. Although French democracy, like America’s, is well-entrenched and resilient, the emergence of personalist parties in less mature institutional settings poses risks for democracy.

Consider Hugo Chávez’s Fifth Republic Movement in Venezuela, Alberto Fujimori’s Cambio 90 party in Peru and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development party in Turkey. All of these parties were created in support of those leaders, all of whom went on to dismantle democracy.

Even where democracy has not fully given way to authoritarianism, we have seen it deteriorate to varying degrees in those European countries where leaders created their own personalist party, including in Hungary (Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party), in Poland (the Kaczyńskis’ Law and Justice party) and to a lesser extent in the Czech Republic (Andrej Babiš’ ANO 2011), where Babišhas installed a loyalist to head the justice ministry to avoid fraud charges.

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Powerful individuals can dominate new parties better

Time and time again we see democratically elected leaders backed by newly created parties that are organized to launch their careers subsequently dismantle democratic institutions. We think there’s no coincidence. When such leaders make grabs for power, these parties are less likely to push back.

Personalist parties are less organized and have fewer organizational advantages like financial resources, human capital and organizing knowledge than well-established parties. Moreover, leaders of these parties are more likely to eschew government appointments from the political establishment and instead fill high government positions with individuals from personal networks — typically family members and other loyalists who lack government experience. Such individuals are less likely to constrain a leader’s efforts to subvert democracy because their future positions in government are closely tied to the fortunes of the leader.

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We are currently involved in cross-national data collection coding whether incumbent democratic leaders govern with the backing of a newly created personalist party or an established one, so that we can examine the implications of these dynamics for contemporary democratic backsliding and breakdown.

Though our research is preliminary, it indicates that we should not be overly complacent about the fragmentation of European politics, and what just happened in the E.U. Parliament elections.

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Andrea Kendall-Taylor is Senior Fellow and Director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).

Erica Frantz is assistant professor in the Political Science Department at Michigan State University.

Joseph Wright is a political scientist at Pennsylvania State University and co-director of the Program in Global and International Studies.