Against all odds? Green parties in Europe and the financial crisison 7 November 2013
By Sebastian Bukow and Niko Switek
Green parties emerged in the 1970s and 1980s in most of Western Europe in a time of economic growth and welfare system expansion, advancing a postmaterialistic agenda and quality of life issues. With the global financial crisis (the first peak being the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy in 2008) economic growth grinded to a halt in many countries and even led to a recession in some. The current political discourse seems to be strongly focused on monetary and fiscal policies - especially in Europe. But how has the financial crisis affected green parties? Do they systematically lose electoral support? How does the pressure translate into their policy positions: Have green parties transformed their electoral programs or do they stand firm?
The question of electoral support can be answered in a rather straightforward way by referring to election results such as the European Election Database. We see a mixed picture, as 13 green parties in the European Union gained votes in respect to elections before the crisis (i.e. before 2008) compared to 8 parties which lost voter support. In any case there is no evidence for a systematic downward trend (here further research to explain the diverse electoral outcome is necessary).
But what topics and goals do green parties promote in these elections – and how have their platforms changed as a result of the financial and economic turbulence? To answer these questions we must look at the policy positions in selected policy dimensions and compare them across elections from before to after the crisis. Here we can draw on data from the Comparative Manifesto Project (CMP). The CMP data set consists of quantitative content analysis of election programs in all democratic national elections for numerous countries since 1945. While only a few green parties significantly change their position on an aggregated right-left-scale, we do see quite some policy change in specific dimensions:
- If we look at the free market economy dimension, a majority of the greens take a step to the left or at any rate stay in their already left-wing position. They continue to favor market regulation, controlled economy and nationalization. Only the Estonian and Swedish Greens seem to be heavily embracing free enterprise. The high unemployment rates triggered by the crisis touch on the question of how the welfare system is set up – the answer of green parties in Europe is clear and consistent, as they all unambiguously push for welfare state expansion. Even though all parties seize distinctly left positions, we see quite some movement in both directions. It appears that they are converging on a common position.
- Environmental policies are the core dimension of green parties. In the course of two elections Finnish, German, Irish and Swedish Greens intensified demands for environmental protection and anti-growth economy. Five parties moved in the opposite direction, stressing more productivity: The Belgian Greens positioned themselves so far to the left in 2007 that despite a rightward shift they still make up the left pole of the green party family. The Danish Socialistisk Folkeparti (an associated member of the European Green Party) is a little less enthusiastic about ecological issues. This points to a fundamental friction between Social Democrats and Greens: Though frequently working together in government they often differ in their prioritization of environmental issues, as Labor parties ultimately advocate productivity and job creation – especially in times of crisis. For the Estonian Eestimaa Rohelised the shift to the right is in sync with an overall move to the center. The fact that Portuguese Greens put more emphasis on productivity is understandable given that Portugal was among the countries hit hardest by the financial and subsequent Euro crisis.
- In the multiculturalism dimension the green positions are highly diverse. Three green parties move left (Denmark, Portugal, Sweden), all of them being rather skeptical of multiculturalism before, taking up a median or even far right position (Portugal). All other green parties (except Germany) depart from their positions in favor of multiculturalism and move to the center. German Bündnis 90/Die Grünen stay put and mark the left pole of the scale. Altogether this appears to be a similar pattern to the welfare state dimension, as Greens seem to be converging on left to center positions.
- On questions of European integration the election manifestos after the crisis offer an inconsistent picture. Before the crisis an overall pro-European stance was consensus, with the exception of Denmark and Portugal (centrist position) and Sweden (rather critical vis-à-vis the European level). Ireland and Portugal, who have been affected extensively by the crisis move to more euro-skeptical positions. All in all the crisis and subsequent trends increased the heterogeneity in this area. For the European Green Party it will presumably be more difficult to align their member parties on common grounds in the future.
Parties do not have to change policy positions to react to changing voter preferences. They can rearrange their manifesto, highlighting new aspects and subordinating others. For example, green parties could stress aspects of economic policy without changing their position in their recent manifestos. To answer this question we look at the salience of the policy dimension. In general the policy importance is very stable. The main aspects of party manifestos seem to be strongly fixed, even in times of crisis. The discourse on financial and economic troubles has not led to an expansion of this topic in the electoral manifestos. Only the green party in Denmark devotes some more attention to aspects of free market economy. Interestingly enough only the green party in Estonia strengthens welfare state issues in its manifesto. It is not a surprise that environmental policy – the core issue of greens – remains important for all green parties. But there is no additional emphasis on this issue after the crisis. In fact, the relevance is stable and in one case – the already mentioned special case Denmark – the importance even decreases clearly. Multiculturalism is often said to be another core topic of green parties, at least as a result of their history. But the data shows a very low salience of this issue for all green parties. The same holds true for European integration. This is quite a surprise: First, the economic crisis is not exclusively an economic issue but a question of European integration as well. Second, green parties – though based on different perceptions – often advocate a pro European stance. Third, they founded the first real European party (EGP) with a common electoral platform. Nevertheless the importance of European issues in their manifestos is low and even shrinking. Apparently green parties are not in search for a European solution to the crisis.
The financial crisis then does not seem to pose a threat for green parties. They experience no systematic disadvantage in elections nor do they feel pressured into reassessing their policy positions. We see some policy change at the individual party level, as several Greens have moved towards the left (or stayed there) dealing with economic issues, in combination with an unambiguous push for welfare state expansion. Nevertheless their policy preferences are quite stable before and after the crisis. One could therefore argue that green topics with their postmaterialistic foundations appear to be rather ‘crisis-proof’.
Dr. Sebastian Bukow is Assistant Professor (Akademischer Rat a.Z.) at the Institute of Political Science, Heinrich-Heine-University Düsseldorf. Niko Switek is Lecturer at the Institute of Political Science, University Duisburg-Essen.
Image: Pete Birkinshaw CC-BY