What is the true impact of an economic crisis on a contemporary democracy? This is the question behind recent study conducted by Professor of Political Science and Vice Rector of Research Leonardo Morlino and Professor Francesco Raniolo, Director of the Department of Political and Social Science at the University of Calabria.
Published by Palgrave, The Impact of the Economic Crisis on South European Democracies focuses on transformations of democracies and the consequences of the most recent crisis in four Southern European countries (Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain).
“Regarding the impact of economic crises in the history of politics, there is a large amount of traditional literature,” explains Professor Morlino. “Studies begin with the crisis of the 1920s and the crash of Wall Street while there were also collapses of democracies as in Weimar Germany. With following crises, many authors support that impact was reduced and concentrated on protests, voter suppression and radical behaviors, without, however, questioning the democracy itself. Perhaps the most important result of our research was to discover that it is not correct to support that the impact on current democracies was merely partial. The impact was notable but was concentrated in countries where political conditions were already marked by uncertainty and instability that made them subject to changes. We refer to a catalyzing impact: crises affected the general picture and accelerated and sharpened the current results.”
Compared to crises in the seventies and eighties, the 2007 crisis began in the United States and hit Europe in 2008, causing a substantial change in the role of interest groups and radicalization on the political scene. “Over the last years, the growing role of European institutions has redimensioned the weight of unions and industrial groups in national politics. At the same time, the left-right conflict weakened with the emergence of these new phenomena and the effect of an acceleration or transformation of already-existing elements strongly linked to each country’s context and traditions.”
The differences between Southern Europe countries and the rest of Europe regard primarily the role of parties and the structure of the party system. Among the various consequences, the crisis, first of all, brought an evolution of protest movements into concrete political parties. “Compared to Germany, where the effects of the crisis were resolved by creating a large alliance between the main traditional parties, in the countries in question such as Greece, ideologies and protest movements slowly became institutionalized, creating a crisis for the clientelistic model of democracy. Organized parties disappeared and economic uncertainty paved the way for new ‘leaderistic’ parties that developed out of the protests.”
“In all Southern European countries we witnessed an evolution of social movements into institutionalized parties, even if it was different in each country,” continues Morlino. “In Spain, Podemos is the result of social movements that were born in civil society. Riding on the waves of protest movements in Greece, Syriza formed out of small pre-existing, yet fragmented party groups. In Italy, as soon as it became possible to develop social movements, Beppe Grillo and Gianroberto Casaleggio created the Five Star Movement, which took on a role of negative integration (according to Günther Roth) and institutionalized protest. The most paradoxical result occurred in Portugal where highly accentuated alienation from politics allowed traditional parties to survive protest parties.”
The crisis also brought on a radicalization of political language. Radicalism was more in style and language than in action, and this, translated into extremist political positions. There was even rhetoric that sustained that technological innovation would have been the basis to bring forth direct democracy. “This was not the case. Today parties are no longer organs of representation. They have become particularly relevant actors in the formation of opinions and in influencing the vote. The point is that even in the digital age, someone has to elaborate and act as an intermediary regarding the political decisions to make. Leaving questions up to citizens to vote online is not direct democracy. At best it is creating consensus, at worst, and more often it is manipulation of public opinion.”
Once radicalized language becomes dominant, the tendency of contemporary democracies to exist in a bipolar state diminishes, and according to the analysis of the two professors, a sort of tripolarization changes foundations of the democracy. “Democracy is based on the idea that the citizen can judge and punish a politician for his behavior, but this mechanism can be greatly weakened by alliances between minority parties against a third, relatively majoritarian third pole. In Spain and in Italy this tendency is very strong. While in Spain, electoral law favors parties that obtain the most votes, in Italy, the current proportional system creates greater uncertainty and confusion. In the worst of cases, this tendency will give the European Union a prevalent role in policy formation.”
“Rage and protest are not always dangerous,” concludes Professor Morlino. “Non-violent rage is positive for current democracies because it pushes governments to be more receptive to electors’ demands. However, we also need institutions to be able to do so as well, and proportional institutions are less receptive because they are weaker and less certain in their decision-making abilities, and in general, their ability to govern.”