Our new Advisory Board member, Sarah de Lange, introduces herself to NECE

NECE is happy to welcome a new Advisory Board member: Professor by special appointment at the Department of Political Science at the University of Amsterdam, Sarah de Lange focuses in her research on European party systems. To introduce herself, she the commented on the on-going fragmentation affecting many European party systems and its implications for the upcoming EU elections.

NECE: In your academic work you have focused on European party systems and politics in several Eastern and Western European countries. How do you explain the on-going fragmentation of the mainstream party system as we used to know?

Sarah de LangeSarah de Lange (© private)
Sarah de Lange: In Western Europe we are currently witnessing two developments. Firstly, the number of parties represented in West European parliaments is increasing. New parties that campaign on specific issues or for the rights of specific societal groups (e.g. animal rights parties, feminist parties, immigrant parties, parties for the elderly) are gaining ground. Secondly, mainstream parties are loosing support in West European countries, and their former voters are transferring to so-called niche parties: parties that first and foremost campaign on socio-cultural issues, such as green parties or populist radical right parties. As a result, the bigger parties are getting smaller and the smaller parties are getting bigger. When parliaments are populated by many mid-sized parties that each have between 10 and 25 per cent of the seats, the formation of government coalitions becomes challenging and governments run the risk of becoming short-lived.

There are a number of reasons for the high level of fragmentation we are currently experiencing. One of the most important is that citizens’ identities are increasingly fragmented as well. Young, university educated citizens working in the public sector and living in large cosmopolitan areas, for example, have different attitudes to all kinds of political questions than older voters, lower educated voters, voters working in the private sector, or voters living in more rural areas. These groups of voters do not only differ from each other with respect to their opinions, but also, and perhaps more importantly, with respect to the kinds of issue they worry about (e.g. climate change, immigration, pension age etc.).

However, it should be noted that by and large the left and the right have remained more or less stable in their support. While some citizens within the left and the right have shifted their allegiance to newer and often more radical parties (e.g. from social democrats to greens, or from Christian democrats to conservatives) their more fundamental political orientation is relatively stable.

In Central and Eastern Europe, party systems have been volatile since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Many parties have been short-lived and have been replaced by parties with new leaders or ideologies. Moreover, a number of parties, such as Fidesz in Hungary or PiS in Poland have become unusually large, obtaining an absolute majority. Conclusions about fragmentation in Western Europe can therefore not easily be applied to Central and Eastern Europe.

NECE: Lately you have examined the contextual factors for radical right-wing parties’ support: In your opinion, which are the origins/reasons of radical right-wing parties’ rise and success in Europe?

Sarah de Lange: The success of the populist radical right is often framed as either a cultural or an economic backlash to globalisation. In our recent research project we find it is not either or. Cultural and economic factors both play a role, and their role varies in urban and rural areas. In urban areas, for example, we find that the influx of immigrants in particular neighbourhoods increases anti-immigrant attitudes and as a consequence support for the populist radical right. In rural areas, however, we find that structural economic decline fuels sentiments of political discontent and anti-immigrant attitudes.

NECE: With regard to the upcoming European elections: how would you describe the danger emanating from new and powerful nationalistic parties and movements for the European parliament? And what role do you wish to see for initiatives and institutions of citizenship education in such a context?

Sarah de Lange: Populist parties in general, and populist radical right parties in particular, pose a threat to liberal democracies, because they are hostile towards individual and minority rights and checks and balances in the political system. Although it is not likely that populist radical right parties will dominate the European Parliament after the May elections, it is possible they will make it more difficult for mainstream parties to adequately protect liberal democracies across Europe.

Citizenship education is essential in order to instil the value of liberal democracy in citizens, and especially in adolescents. Research has demonstrated that the political orientations they develop in high school years form the basis for their political interest, knowledge and participation later in life. Unfortunately, young citizens are in many EU countries less likely to participate in European Parliament elections than older citizens (see Table). As a result, their representation is not optimal, and their voice is not sufficiently heard. Citizenship education can address this imbalance.

European elections 2014 by country and by age of voters

figures in per cent

18–24 (AT: 16–24)25–3940–5455+
United Kingdom35,4019213253
Czech Republic18,2016171820

Quelle: European Parliament, "Post-election survey 2014", S. 10, taken from

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