The Impact of the Economic Crisis of Southern European Democracies

July 10, 2017
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We publish an excerpt from the new book “The Impact of the Economic Crisis of Southern European Democracies” by Leonardo Morlino and Francesco Raniolo 
© 2017 Leonardo Morlino, Francesco Raniolo
Courtesy of Palgrave Macmillan

How is it possible that a conjuncture phenomenon, as economic crisis is usually considered, can bring about lasting political consequences? And if so, what are the main consequences that need to be analysed in depth? What is or what are the core mechanism/s at work to explain them? We would like to address these related questions by focusing on the economic crisis, which started in 2007 mainly in the USA and went on in 2008 still in the USA and in Europe and which on the whole has lasted at least until 2014/2015 in some countries. Within this span of time we look at how that crisis affected all the main channels of political expression that are available in a democracy. But the first, obvious, question is what are the main results of research done on this topic?

We can start from the widely accepted wisdom that a democratic regime can be deeply affected by economic crisis. In the past, this sometimes happened in the most dramatic way, with the breakdown of a democratic or quasi-democratic regime and the installation of an authoritarian or even of a totalitarian regime, as in the case of Germany. During the last century, economic crises also brought about radical, fundamental changes as well as relatively moderate, partial transformations within democracies. For example, we may recall the so called New Deal-policy in the USA and the democratic integration of Northern European Socialist parties as political consequences of the crisis in the early 1930s; the partial creation and spread of the welfare state in most of the European democracies as a result of the crisis stemming from the destruction wrought by World War II; the development of neo-corporatist arrangements, complemented by policies of privatization and deregulation at the end of 1970s, as a way to respond to the crisis in those years and to pave the way for overcoming it.

However, the way to analyse this issue is going to change when we can take for granted that there is a very broad, large legitimation of democracy as the dominant type of regime in the world, and this is so, especially after the establishment of democracies in Southern Europe and Latin America, and later in Eastern Europe at the end of 1980s with the fall of the Berlin wall, in addition to other specific cases in other key areas of the world, such as South Africa and South Korea or Taiwan. Thus, the economic crisis starting in 2008 in Europe takes place in a new different political context, where there was no longer a risk of democratic breakdown in that part of the world. Consequently, the question to address is: how to analyse the impact of the new 2008 economic crisis within a new political cultural context? Here, from our perspective, in addition to a number of articles and books by economists on the crisis, it is more important to take into consideration the political impact of the economic crisis, first of all on elections with regard to: how economic issues become dominant for voters under economic recession; how incumbent parties were punished when there was an economic crisis; the more general effects of the economic crisis on voting; the impact of the economic crisis on parties; and how the crisis deeply affected the welfare state in a specific group of countries, such as South Europe.

However, all in all, the most recurrent position on the ‘Great Recession’ is expressed by Bermeo and Bartels (‘Mass Politics in Tough Times’, 2014) when they recognize the change in voting and the punishment of incumbent leaders and parties, but at the same time stress that the reactions and consequently the impact were very limited. That is, almost everything seems to be confined to a temporary change in voting behaviour and some limited protest. Within this perspective a socio-economic analysis of the phenomenon, such as that carried out by M. Kahler and D. A. Lake (Politics in the New Hard Times: The Great Recession in Comparative Perspective, del 2013),  is even more radical. In fact, on the one hand, they start by affirming ‘the Great Recession . . . is the worst economic crisis to beset the world economy since the Great Depression of the 1930s’ (p. 1), but then continue by stressing how, ‘Despite its negative effects on incumbent governments, the economic crisis has provided few signs of fundamental political realignment, policy experimentation . . . or mobilization by new political actors. . .  rampant economic nationalism or serious erosion of international collaboration has not emerged’ (p. 2).

Our research on the four countries of southern Europe, having been carried out in later years, reveals instead: 1) the increasing uncertainty and destructuralisation of party systems, the difficulty of bipolarism and the emergence of new cleavages; 2) the crisis of interest brokerage structures, the end of concertation and the growth of unconventional participation; 3) the radicalization of competition and the emergence of new protest parties. In particular, the latter is perhaps one of the most important and counter-intuitive aspects of our work. The centrality of political parties in times of crisis in the  southern Europe democracies is highlighted, despite the creation of new protest or neo-populist parties that attract the preferences  of “resentful and dissatisfied” voters.
It would be opportune to fully reflect on these issues and come to all the political conclusions that are deemed necessary.