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The Ups and Downs of the Far Left - When do Radical Left Parties Succeed?

Werner Krause

4 de Noviembre de 2021, 17:25

Elections in recent years have been a mixed bag for the far-left party camp (Figure 1). On the one hand, some parties experienced tremendous electoral defeats. One month ago, the German Left Party suffered its worst electoral performance since its foundation more than 15 years ago. In 2019, the Spanish far-left bloc surrounding Podemos found itself in gradual electoral decline after its electoral breakthrough from 2015. At the same time, the radical left has reached new electoral heights in other countries. In September of this year, the far-left parties in Norway collectively succeeded in gaining the highest level of public support since the early 2000s. Syriza and Sinn Féin have become the strongest leftist parties in the national parliaments of Greece and Ireland. Lastly, far-left forces struggle for electoral relevance in a third group of countries composed of Austria, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.
Figure 1.- Vote Shares of Radical Left Parties in Western Europe (2021)

Determinants of Far-Left Party Support
Several contextual factors contribute to explaining the electoral support for far-left parties. For instance, increasing unemployment rates are a well-known factor allowing radical left parties to create support at the ballot boxes. Moreover, the configuration of national party systems matters. The existence of relevant Green parties or the programmatic strategies of the Mainstream Left critically influences which voters the far left can mobilize. Next, institutional features such as electoral thresholds can play a significant role in limiting support for (smaller) radical left parties.

Although these factors help understand the electoral strengths of the far left, restricting the view to these party-external conditions risks overlooking crucial determinants. Notably, West European far-left parties are a multifaceted phenomenon. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the radical left party camp underwent a profound ideological and programmatic re-orientation. While only some parties have continued to pursue orthodox, Marxist-Leninist policy proposals, others have reoriented themselves toward economically more moderate positions. Furthermore, numerous far-left parties have started to put greater weight on so-called 'New Politics' or cultural issues, such as gender equality, minority rights, or environmental protection. 

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While historically linked to blue-collar workers and members of the lower classes, this voter group has been continually shrinking in size. At the same time, significant parts of the leftist electorate nowadays belong to the better educated, middle-class. For these voters, the above-mentioned cultural issues constitute important drivers of their vote choice. 

One of the central challenges of the 21st century has been to appeal to both of these voter groups. How much the radical left is torn between them is well illustrated by the recent parliamentary election in Germany. Here, the Left Party gained only 4.9% of the popular vote and nearly missed parliamentary representation. Before and especially after the election, prominent party figures had heavy disputes regarding the party’s programmatic strategy. Many members have favored a left-libertarian profile that focuses on attracting urban, well-educated middle-class voters. For that purpose, the party focused on issues beyond their core business, such as climate change, LGBT+ rights, or immigration. At the same time, leading figures criticized this path. The party, the argument goes, would lose touch with its core clientele by neglecting its bread-and-butter issues, such as social justice and labor rights. As put by Sarah Wagenknecht, one of the heads of this more traditionally oriented wing of the party, "the social stratum we reach has become smaller and smaller in recent years. We are in danger of becoming a party of the largely well-off academic Fridays-for-Future milieu. People without an academic education or outside the big cities hardly vote for us anymore."
A Winning Formula?
Then, a puzzling question is how the variation in far-left parties policy positions can explain their election results. Figure 2 shows the positions of radical left parties across the two most important political conflict dimensions in Western Europe. The horizontal axis describes the positions of radical left parties on the economic conflict dimension, including stances toward social justice and the redistribution of wealth. The vertical axis summarizes ‘New Politics’ or cultural issues. The figure shows that far-left parties have pursued a variety of programmatic strategies. While always putting forward an economically leftist profile, programmatic standpoints have varied between more moderate and more extreme positions. In cultural terms, the parties show even more variation. Some parties promoted a clear libertarian stance, while others have been more centrist. A third group stands for a more authoritarian position.
Figure 2.- Radical Left Party Positions (1999-2019)
Note: Scores based on data provided by the CHES expert survey.

In a recent research article published in West European Politics, I investigated the electoral performances related to these different programmatic appeals. Based on data from 1990 until 2019, the results paint a clear picture: On average, more centrist economic positions play to the electoral advantage of the far left. This finding resembles the intuition that voters are less likely to reward orthodox, traditional Marxist-Leninist policy programs. The pattern for the cultural dimension shows in the opposite direction. More centrist or authoritarian positions correlate with weaker electoral performances. Hence, non-economic policy issues and progressive-libertarian values have become a recognizable driver of citizens’ voting decisions in favor of the radical left.

Do these findings mean that the far left is best off adopting a left-libertarian profile, becoming greener and more socially liberal? The answer to this question is not necessarily yes. A green-left programmatic profile carries the risk for the far left of losing its historical identity as the self-proclaimed defenders of socio-economically disadvantaged groups. Hence, while bringing short-term electoral benefits, such programmatic re-orientations might cause long-term internal conflicts and electoral damages. As the German example above illustrates, as soon as parties suffer electoral defeats, criticism from the more traditional party factions will intensify. In short, party-internal disputes about the core orientations will remain even if far-left parties experience (short-term) electoral victories.

Making Two Out of One?
Under which conditions, then, will the radical left flourish or suffer in the future? As often in political science, a definite answer to this question cannot be given. However, one less discussed feature is the organizational split of the far-left party family.
Table 1.-Selected Elections with Two Relevant Radical Left Parties

On average, the far-left camp has managed to attract more voters, where two different parties gained electoral ground. The examples in Table 1 show that this configuration can take various forms. In Greece or Ireland, for instance, one radical left party has emerged as a dominant electoral force. Simultaneously, smaller parties continue to speak to more specialized sub-constituencies. In Portugal and, more recently, in Norway, two far-left parties compete for electoral dominance.
These examples also indicate that the success of one far-left party does not necessarily mean the failure of the other. In 2015, the Left Bloc (BE) made substantial vote gains, while the Communist Party-led Unitary Democratic Coalition (CDU) maintained stable levels of voter support. A similar point can be made regarding the recent 2021 Norwegian election. Here, the Marxist Red Party (Rødt) managed to double its electoral support. At the same time, the more moderate Socialist Left Party (VAS) equally increased its vote share resulting in two additional seats.

Obviously, one should be careful in putting too much weight on this anecdotal evidence. Little systematic knowledge exists, especially regarding the long-term electoral consequences of organizationally divided ideological camps. Nevertheless, it seems fruitful to observe whether organizationally separated party camps better manage internal disputes and attract more voters from different social strata in the long run.

The Future of the Radical Left Camp
Radical left parties are unlikely to disappear from the political landscapes of Western Europe. Undoubtedly, their future electoral attractiveness will depend on numerous factors, such as the development of the economy or the strategic orientations of the Mainstream left. Nevertheless, radical left parties are also masters of their own fate. Suppose they manage to build electoral alliances across different voter groups. In that case, they likely remain relevant political forces across Europe.
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