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EL PAÍS

First Voters Are Partisan, and Then Democratic

Paolo Gerbaudo

5 mins - 20 de Abril de 2023, 07:05

How does polarisation affect European political systems, what are the factors that favour the authoritarian drift of different leaders and political parties, and why do some politicians remain popular even when they attack democratic principles? The study 'Identity, Partisanship, Polarization' published by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) tries to examine these burning questions for the understanding of contemporary politics. In recent years, much has been said about polarisation and its damaging effects on democracy. But as FES President Martin Schulz, former President of the European Parliament and politician of the SPD, the German Social Democrats, states in the preface, it is not very clear how polarisation affects the political process. The study therefore attempts to study in detail different processes and factors that are usually attributed to polarisation in general, in order to understand what are indeed forms of 'toxic polarisation' that put democracy at risk. 

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The analysis focuses on Germany, Poland, Sweden, Spain, Estonia, Ukraine and Serbia, using 10,000 interviews with voters to explore why voters support leaders who violate democratic norms, and how these leaders make their countries more autocratic. The analysis shows that voters are 'first partisans and then democrats', i.e. many voters are willing to ignore violations of democratic norms by their own representatives that they would never forgive those of other parties. Moreover, a significant number of voters find it acceptable to suspend democratic norms (e.g. the presence of checks and balances and the division of powers) in order to achieve the policies they believe to be just. 

This predisposition to 'forgive' positions that put democracy at risk when it comes to representatives of their own political option is, according to the study, particularly marked among right-wing parties; but especially in some countries, left-wing voters also tend to put their own party interests before democratic health. In other words, as the authors of the study themselves put it, 'party loyalty trumps democracy'. It is clear that this trend is worrying because it jeopardises the acceptance of shared rules of the game: it is that suspicion for democratic rules that we have clearly seen in action on 6 January 2021 in the Trumpist assault on the US Congress and on 8 January 2023, in the attack by Jair Bolsonaro's supporters on the Three Powers Square in Brasilia. 

What is interesting about the study is that polarisation manifests itself particularly on issues that have strong identitarian significance for the different political forces; for example, according to the researchers the most polarising issue is LBGTQ rights. According to the study, right-wing partisans and, to a lesser extent, left-wing partisans are willing to 'forgive' undemocratic behaviour on the part of their political force in order to achieve their goals on this issue. Comparatively, socio-economic issues, e.g. tax policy and redistribution, do not appear as polarising; they certainly create differences of views, but they are not as likely to force the rules of democracy in order to win the battle. 



The study highlights significant differences between countries: Sweden and Spain are the leading countries where citizens consider it important to have a democratic system, while the percentage is considerably lower in Serbia and Poland. But Spain also appears to be the country where voters are most willing to turn a blind eye to the behaviour of their own political option, and where there is also a high degree of tolerance among some voters on the left to condone undemocratic attitudes: for example, disciplining judges and journalists. But what stands out from the study are the common challenges facing European countries, where identification with one's own political option seems to come before identification with the country as a whole and its institutions. 

If this is clearly a problem, in part the fact that there are still some party identifications can be seen as a positive element. Parties have traditionally been the fundamental vehicle of democracy, as a means to represent the will of the people, and to confront - peacefully - different interests in society. In itself, partisanship, i.e. identification with a party, should not pose a danger to democracy; indeed, it can serve as a mechanism to mobilise more people and thereby strengthen democracy. But as the study suggests, it is necessary, on the one hand, to prevent forms of confrontation from turning into an all-out struggle, as happens in forms of 'toxic polarisation'; on the other hand, it is necessary for countries to strengthen institutions and common identities, to remind citizens that even if we are all partisan, we can never turn political conflict into a struggle to eliminate the adversary. By investing in the reconstruction of democracy as a battlefield, but with common rules and shared interests for all, regardless of political identities, it is possible that polarisation, far from being a threat (as it is perceived to be), could become a force for democracy, and a politics in which citizens can choose between clearly different options.
 
 
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