The inconclusive results suggest that the most significant trend in Western democracies at the moment might not be the rise and fall of populist nationalism. Instead, it is arguably the disintegration of political parties. The story here is less about which specific type of politician people want to be represented by than about a crisis of democratic representation altogether—less about the empowerment of populists than about the broader diffusion of political power.
As Cas Mudde, a Dutch expert on populism, has noted, the first-place finisher in the Dutch election, Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s center-right VVD, and the second-place finisher, Wilders’s far-right PVV, together secured only a third of seats in the country’s parliament, with 11 other parties taking the remainder. The Netherlands’ proportional-representation system has long encouraged an array of parties (micro-parties explicitly cater to immigrants, pensioners, even animal-rights advocates), but what’s new is that the major mainstream parties aren’t so major anymore, and the minor fringe parties are no longer irrelevant.
“In 1986, the top three parties together won 85 percent of the vote,” Mudde points out. “In 2003, it was down to 74 percent. Today it is just around 45 percent.” In the 1980s, three parties—the VVD, the centrist CDA, and the center-left PvdA—consistently gobbled up roughly 80 percent or more of parliamentary seats. This week they collectively won only 40 percent of those seats, with the PvdA picking up a measly nine.
Similar dynamics are evident in the United Kingdom, where the once-dominant Conservative and Labour parties now vie for influence with the Scottish National Party, the Liberal Democrats, and the U.K. Independence Party. As Mark Leonard, the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, has explained, “Parties of the left, which used to be anchored in the working class, in the trade union movement and factories, are now increasingly dominated by public-sector employees and creative industries like the media. Parties of the right, which used to stand for the aspirational classes, are now more elitist and metrosexual. The countryside is disgusted by the metrosexual cosmopolitanism of the conservatives, and the workers are disgusted by the new left.”
In fact, these trends are on display across Western Europe, Mudde writes:
The main center-right and center-left parties are shrinking, smaller parties are growing and unstable coalition politics are becoming the norm. ...
The consequences have been painfully visible across Europe for some time. It took Belgium 541 days to form a government after its 2010 election. Both Greece and Spain were in recent years forced to hold second elections after the first Parliaments failed to form coalitions. In the Netherlands, forming a government is not quite as difficult, but the next one will most likely be a coalition of four to six parties [ranging ideologically from conservative euroskeptics to liberal environmentalists].
In a 2013 paper, Robin Best, a political scientist at Binghamton University, noted that the number of political parties receiving votes in elections had increased since the 1950s in nearly all the 18 Western parliamentary democracies she examined, and that in most cases the number of parties with seats in each country’s legislature had also grown (one exception was France, which has a semi-presidential political system). These trends typically began in the 1970s and 1980s and gained strength in the 1990s and 2000s, accelerated most recently by developments such as economic crises and terrorist attacks.