When analysing the change of party systems, one important dimension is the degree of fragmentation, which Coleman (1995, p. 141) describes as the ‘proliferation of minor parties and the willingness of voters to vote for them’. This blog post will present data on fragmentation in European democracies over time, arguing that there is no comprehensive explanation for the steady increase in the number of effective parties per democracy.
Fragmentation has far-reaching implications for the functionality and resilience of democracies. It makes it more difficult to form and maintain single-party or even coalition-based parliamentary majorities; legislative decision-making and passing laws become harder (Taylor and Herman, 1971, p. 37). For example, in Belgium, lawmakers took 589 days to form a government after the 2010 election after 12 parties had entered parliament. Between 2019 and 2021, Israel held four elections because the Members of Parliament (MP) of more than ten parties were not able to agree on a stable government coalition.
One indicator to measure fragmentation is the effective number of parties (ENP)1See for instance Laakso and Taagepera (1979, p. 5-9). The ENP captures the number of political parties in a system and weighs them according to their numerical strength (p), either in parliamentary seats or vote share.
Data exclusively compiled for Europe Elects concludes that fragmentation is increasing in almost all European democracies over time.
In Western Europe, multiparty system elections with universal suffrage have a long tradition. Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands reached unprecedented levels of fragmentation in the most recent elections. France’s 2017 parliamentary election’s fragmentation was only topped by two elections in the 1990s. Similarly, Ireland’s fragmentation peaked in 2016 and only slightly contracted in 2020. The UK’s parliamentary system – notably operating under a first-past-the-post electoral system that discourages support for smaller parties – has seen unprecedented levels of fragmentation in the 2015 election. After Brexit, the party system contracted again.
In Southern Europe, the picture is less consistent. Malta established a rock-solid two-party system after independence. San Marino saw an increase in fragmentation between 2001 and 2016 but contracted in 2019. Italy experienced high levels of party system fragmentation in the 1990s; after efforts to combat fragmentation through institutional change via electoral reform, the system contracted significantly.
In Western-Central Europe, united Germany saw its most fragmented political party system in the 2021 election. Austria’s party system contracted until 1975, after which an almost constant upward trend reached its current peak in the 2013 election. Liechtenstein had a stable two-and-a-half party system after the introduction of universal suffrage in 1984. Fragmentation was then significantly higher in the elections in the 2010s and 2021. The only country resisting the trend towards fragmentation was Switzerland, where levels of fragmentation in the 1990s and the 2010s were comparable.
Northern European democracies show a consistent trend towards fragmented party systems.
Multiparty systems in South-Western European states arose towards the end of the twentieth century. For example, Andorra introduced partisan elections in 1993, Portugal and Spain transitioned to democracy in the late 1970s. The data shows that the party systems were highly fragmented during the first two to four multiparty elections. Then the party system started to fragment again to relatively high levels in all countries, with Spain reaching unprecedented levels of fragmentation in the most recent elections 2019.
In Eastern-Central Europe, we see an inconsistent trend regarding fragmentation. For example, in Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia, party systems consolidated from the 1990s onwards – by contrast, the opposite was the case for Czechia and Slovakia.
In North-Eastern Europe, Latvia and Lithuania show a slight increase in fragmentation. Estonia shows the opposite trend.
At first glance, South-Eastern Europe does not seem to feature party system fragmentation when purely looking at election results. Except for Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Montenegro, no party systems seem more fragmented over time. Albania, Moldova, Romania, and Serbia seem to witness a consolidation in their party systems.
Most democracies in South-Eastern Europe are relatively young. Some systems might still undergo the initial consolidation of party systems that was previously seen in South-Western Europe. In addition, multiparty alliances are common, more so in recent years. For example, in the Serbian national parliament election 2007, the first two positions were taken by the single-party lists of the far-right Serbian Radical Party (SRS) and the centre-left Democratic Party (DS). They both combined about 50% of the vote. In 2020, the winning list ‘Aleksandar Vučić — For Our Children’ consisted of nine different parties. The second-strongest list, “Ivica Dačić — ‘Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), United Serbia (JS) — Dragan Marković Palma’ was made up of four different parties. So while the two first parties won 70% of the vote together and the 2020 system appears to be more consolidated based on multiparty lists, the parliament might be more diverse in terms of parties represented. Greece saw extreme levels of fragmentation in the elections during the peak of the public debt crisis in 2012.
In sum, the data shows that in 26 out of 40 European countries, since the establishment of democracy, the number of relevant parties has increased while the average electoral strength per relevant party has decreased. This tendency was stronger in older democracies. But what explains fragmentation? Two related schools of thought dominate the debate:
The institutionalist approach emphasizes that the rules and legal restrictions which govern the electoral process determine the number and size of parties. For example, the Single Member Plurality (SMP) electoral code applied in countries like the US produces systems with large and few parties. On the other hand, proportional representation with low electoral thresholds makes many small parties (Duverger, 1954).
The sociological approach contends that pre-existing social groups have distinct political interests, producing parties along these lines. For example, labour parties represent workers; minority parties represent linguistic or ethnic minorities. More parties exist depending on how many cleavage lines run through an electorate (Lipset and Rokkan, 1990).
These two approaches are, of course, not mutually exclusive. However, they struggle to explain rapid change over time within one system. Sociological approaches fall short of explaining what would trigger new cleavages. For example, the demographics and electoral system of the Netherlands did not seem to have significantly changed between 2010 and 2021. However, the party system fragmented significantly, favouring minor parties like the animal welfare party Partij voor de Dieren (PvdD-LEFT) or the eurofederalist Volt (Greens/EFA).
Dinas and Riera (2018) suggest that the introduction of European elections benefited party fragmentation in EU member states. They explain that voters tend to punish incumbents during EU elections more than during national parliament elections. Cognitive dissonance theory then predicts that voters stick with their European election choice even during national parliament elections. However, this does not explain changes in fragmentation over time outside of the EU.
This leaves the question of why party systems fragment over time at least partially unanswered. Is there a global invisible force that drives democratic multiparty systems to fragment? And if so, how does that play out in specific cases?
Potential explanations could relate to the emergence of social media, which makes it easier for minor parties to circumvent the traditional information gatekeepers in the linear media to reach the masses. Another explanation could be that economic and class issues became less important in the overall debate with the introduction of the welfare state, leaving space for various postmaterialist – maybe even single-issue – concerns presented by individual parties, such as animal welfare parties. However, for now, these answers crucial for the functionality of democracy remain without empirical evidence and hence require more research.
Coleman, S. (1995). Dynamics in the fragmentation of political party systems. Quality & Quantity, 29(2), 141–155. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf01101895
Dinas E, & Riera P. (2018) Do European Parliament Elections Impact National Party System Fragmentation? Comparative Political Studies, 51(4):447-476. https://doi:10.1177/0010414017710259.
Duverger, M. (1954). Political Parties. London: Methuen.
Laakso, M., & Taagepera, R. (1979). Effective Number of Parties. A Measure with Application to Western Europe. Comparative Political Studies, 12, 3–27.
Lipset, S. M., & Rokkan, S. (1990). The West European Party System. O.U.P.
Taylor, M., & Herman, V. (1971). Party Systems and Government Stability. The American Political Science Review, 65(1), 28-37. doi:10.2307/1955041
Our World In Data. (2021). Political regime – our world in data. Our World In Data. Retrieved February 28, 2022, from https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/political-regime-updated2016