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How Party System Fragmentation has Altered Political Opposition in Established Democracies

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This article examines the consequences of increased party system fragmentation for oppositions, their respective governments and representation more generally, focusing on 18 established democracies. Two of the findings presented here suggest that there is reason to be concerned about the future of parliamentary representation in established democracies. Firstly, an increasing proportion of votes now go to parties that do not receive a proportionate share of legislative representation, implying that a growing degree of organized opposition is extra-parliamentary. Secondly, the findings show that parliamentary oppositions have generally become more fragmented than their respective governments. This suggests that the composition of governments may not be keeping up with current trends in electoral preferences and, in some cases, that governmental majorities have become smaller and more tenuous. Thus, the overall picture is one of a growing and increasingly fragmented opposition, against a smaller and relatively cohesive government.
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How Party System Fragmentation has
Altered Political Opposition in Established
Democracies
Robin E. Best
Government and Opposition / Volume 48 / Special Issue 03 / July 2013, pp 314 -
342
DOI: 10.1017/gov.2013.16, Published online: 05 June 2013
Link to this article: http://journals.cambridge.org/
abstract_S0017257X1300016X
How to cite this article:
Robin E. Best (2013). How Party System Fragmentation has Altered
Political Opposition in Established Democracies. Government and
Opposition, 48, pp 314-342 doi:10.1017/gov.2013.16
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Government and Opposition, Vol. 48, No. 3, pp. 314–342, 2013
doi:10.1017/gov.2013.16
Robin E. Best*
How Party System Fragmentation has
Altered Political Opposition in
Established Democracies
This article examines the consequences of increased party system fragmentation
for oppositions, their respective governments and representation more generally,
focusing on 18 established democracies. Two of the findings presented here suggest
that there is reason to be concerned about the future of parliamentary representation
in established democracies. Firstly, an increasing proportion of votes now go to
parties that do not receive a proportionate share of legislative representation,
implying that a growing degree of organized opposition is extra-parliamentary.
Secondly, the findings show that parliamentary oppositions have generally
become more fragmented than their respective governments. This suggests that the
composition of governments may not be keeping up with current trends in electoral
preferences and, in some cases, that governmental majorities have become smaller
and more tenuous. Thus, the overall picture is one of a growing and increasingly
fragmented opposition, against a smaller and relatively cohesive government.
DEMOCRACIES ARE UNIQUE IN THEIR ABILITY TO CHANNEL SOCIETAL
conflicts into institutionalized patterns of political interaction. It is
only in democratic systems that we can expect to find opposition
forces that accept the legitimacy of the current government, have
their rights guaranteed by law and hold seats in the legislature.
Oppositions themselves are critical components of democratic
systems of government, ensuring the proper functioning of
democratic systems by holding governments accountable for their
actions in office and providing voters with a viable alternative to
those in power (Dahl 1966; Ionescu and de Madariaga 1968). In
established democracies, these important roles have been entrusted
mainly to political parties, meaning that the nature and quality of
representation that occurs through governments and oppositions
depend almost entirely on parliamentary political parties.
* RobinE.BestisaResearchAssistantProfessorofPoliticalScienceatBinghamton
University (State University of New York). Contact email: rbest@binghamton.edu.
J
cThe Author 2013. Published by Government and Opposition Limited and Cambridge University Press
The characteristics of parliamentary oppositions are intimately
connected to the party system, to the point where the two are
often equated. Discussions of institutionalized parliamentary
oppositions invariably involve accounts of political parties, while
extra-parliamentary opposition often appears to be equated with
non-party forms of opposition (see, for instance, Blondel 1997). As
demonstrated below, the distinction between party opposition and
extra-parliamentary opposition is becoming less clear over time.
Throughout the post-war era, the number of parties receiving votes
in elections – hereafter referred to as the electoral party system – has
increased significantly since the 1950s and 1960s in almost all
of the established democracies examined here. In most cases
the number of parties within the legislature – hereafter referred to
as the legislative party system – has also increased. Since the
distribution of electoral support among political parties plays a
strong role in defining the type of opposition present in a democracy,
it is likely that these increases in party system size have also changed
the characteristics of parliamentary oppositions (Dahl 1966).
In this article I examine the consequences of increased party
system fragmentation for oppositions, their respective governments
and representation more generally, focusing on 18 established
democracies. Any observer of democratic politics would expect a
certain degree of fluidity and change as party systems adapt to shifts
in the political environment, so that it is possible that the increases
in fragmentation are entirely benign. However, two of the findings
presented here suggest that there is reason to be concerned about
the current and future state of parliamentary representation in
established democracies. Firstly, an increasing proportion of votes
now go to parties that do not receive (a proportionate share of)
legislative representation. In fact, in some cases the discrepancy
between seat and vote shares has grown large enough that levels of
disproportionality in West and East European democracies look
quite similar. In short, the effects of electoral systems on electoral
behaviour appear to have weakened. Secondly, the fragmentation
that does get translated into legislative representation manifests
itself more readily as fragmentation among opposition – rather than
governing – political parties. This suggests that the composition of
governments may not be keeping up with current trends in electoral
preferences and, in some cases, that governmental majorities have
become smaller and more tenuous.
315 CONSEQUENCES OF PARTY SYSTEM FRAGMENTATION FOR OPPOSITIONS
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I begin by documenting changes in party system fragmentation in
18 established democracies, before moving on to examine how well the
party composition of legislatures matches the support for parties in
elections. The results of this analysis point to a growing disjuncture
between electoral and legislative party systems, with electoral party
systems growing at a faster pace than legislative party systems. I then
examine changes that have occurred within the legislature, in terms of
the fragmentation of governments and oppositions. Here, I find that
parliamentary oppositions have generally become more fragmented
than their respective governments. In the final sections I discuss
potential causes and consequences of the growing disjuncture between
electoral and legislative party systems, focusing on increases in sincere/
expressive voting, discontent with major political parties, increases in
the numbers of parties contesting elections, and spillover effects from
other elections. Irrespective of their precise causes, these changes in
party systems and democratic representation appear unlikely to reverse
themselves in the near future.
PARTY SYSTEM FRAGMENTATION IN ESTABLISHED DEMOCRACIES
In one of the founding studies of political oppositions in established
democracies, Dahl (1966) lists six characteristics that capture the
differences in patterns of oppositions: organizational cohesion or
concentration, competitiveness, the site of the encounter between
government and opposition, distinctiveness, goals and strategies. In
more recent work, Jean Blondel (1997) demonstrates how these six
categories can be combined into two dimensions of political opposi-
tion: (1) organizational cohesion, which subsumes competitiveness and
distinctiveness; and (2) the goals of the opposition, which subsumes the
site of the encounter and strategies. The extent to which the opposition
is cohesive or diffuse depends on both the number and the distribution
of strength among political parties, which can be measured by the
amount of each party’s electoral appeal. Opposition cohesiveness can
therefore be conceptualized and operationalized as fragmentation,
where a highly fragmented opposition has low levels of cohesion, and a
low level of fragmentation represents a high level of cohesion. It is this
characteristic of oppositions that will be focused on here.
1
In the archetypical Westminster model, one-party control of
government is matched by one-party control of the opposition.
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This scenario is often portrayed not only as representing one of the
strongest and most cohesive forms of government and oppositions,
but also as one of the strongest forms of party-in-government
(Blondel 1997; Dahl 1966; Strøm 2002). In more fragmented party
systems, the opposition is less concentrated and the distinction
between governments and oppositions is less clear. When there are
greater numbers of parties within the legislature, wholesale
alternation in government becomes less likely and clarity of
responsibility may decline (Lundell 2011; Mair 1997; Powell and
Whitten 1993). Additionally, legislative fragmentation can lead to
higher numbers of parties within government, which can shorten
the lifespan of the cabinet (see, for instance, Warwick 1994).
The Westminster model, as derived from the British political
experience, has always had limited application to other systems.
Electoral changes in established democracies have made this ideal
type even less applicable over time and, at present, it fails to
characterize the British coalition government. Figure 1 plots the
effective number of parties (ENP) receiving votes (electoral party
system size) and seats (legislative party system size) in 18 established
democracies from 1950 to 2010. Focusing first on electoral party
system size, there has been a clear trend towards increased
fragmentation in almost all the countries considered. Country-
specific regressions of the effective number of electoral parties on
time produce statistically significant and positive coefficients on the
time variable, supporting the significance of the observed trends.
2
Two countries appear to be exceptions. The French party system, as
one of the more fluid and volatile party systems under considera-
tion, has not experienced any consistent increases in electoral party
system size. The other exception is the Dutch party system, where
fragmentation plummeted after the merger of three denomina-
tional parties into the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) in 1977.
The increases observed in Belgium may also be considered suspect
due to the split of the country’s major parties along linguistic lines
in the 1970s. To examine the latter two cases, Figure 2 plots the
effective number of parties in Belgium, treating the parties that split
along linguistic lines as one unified party across the entire time
period, and the effective number of parties in the Netherlands after
treating the three denominational parties that merged into the
Christian Democratic Appeal as one unified party. In both cases we
observe increases in fragmentation over the post-war era that are
317 CONSEQUENCES OF PARTY SYSTEM FRAGMENTATION FOR OPPOSITIONS
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Figure 1
The Effective Number of Parties in Established Democracies, 1950–2011
1950 1970 1990 2010
Election Year
Australia
1950 1970 1990 2010
Election Year
Austria
1950 1970 1990 2010
Election Year
Denmark
1950 1970 1990 2010
Election Year
Finland
1950 1970 1990 2010
Election Year
Ireland
1950 1970 1990 2010
Election Year
Italy
1950 1970 1990 2010
Election Year
Norway
1950 1970 1990 2010
Election Year
Sweden
Notes: Solid line: effective number of electoral parties; dashed line: effective number of legislative
parties; dotted line: effective number of long-standing electoral parties. The effective number of
parties summarizes the number of parties in a country by weighting each party by either vote
share or seat share.
Source: See Laasko and Taagepera (1979). Data on party vote and seat shares are from Mackie
and Rose (1991), official election statistics websites and various issues of the European Journal of
Political Research. The analysis of the Italian party system stops prior to 1994, when the entire party
system was reconfigured.
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statistically significant. Only France, then, presents a solid exception
to this overall trend.
An increase in the ENP may arise from two sources: (1) an
equalization of the vote share between existing parties, so that
all parties receive increasingly similar proportions of the vote; and
Figure 1
(Continued)
1950 1970 1990 2010
Election Year
Belgium
1950 1970 1990 2010
Election Year
Canada
1950 1970 1990 2010
Election Year
France
1950 1970 1990 2010
Election Year
Germany
1950 1970 1990 2010
Election Year
Netherlands
1950 1970 1990 2010
Election Year
New Zealand
1950 1970 1990 2010
Election Year
Switzerland
1950 1970 1990 2010
Election Year
United Kingdom
319 CONSEQUENCES OF PARTY SYSTEM FRAGMENTATION FOR OPPOSITIONS
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(2) the entry and vote gains of new parties. To distinguish which of
these sources has driven the observed increases in party system size,
I have calculated the effective number of parties on the basis of only
the vote shares of long-standing parties, where a long-standing party
is defined as a party that contested an election in the 1950s and
every election thereafter.
3
Figure 1 also plots this calculation of the
effective number of long-standing parties over time. Any increase in
the effective number of long-standing parties signals an equalization
of the vote share among existing parties, while the difference
between the effective number of long-standing electoral parties and
the total number of effective electoral parties will tell us the extent
to which new parties have driven the increases. In all but a few cases,
new parties appear to be the primary reason why party system size
has increased. The entry of new parties appears to be almost the sole
reason for the increases in Australia, Canada, Denmark, Ireland, the
Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden and Switzerland. In Belgium, a
substantial portion of the increases in party system size can be
explained by the entry of new parties, suggesting that the linguistic
splits only accentuated fragmentation that occurred from new party
entries. Equalization of long-standing party vote percentages
appears to be the primary source of the increase in the United
Kingdom (UK), and a strongly contributing factor to increases in
Figure 2
The Effective Number of Parties Combining Belgian Linguistic Parties and
Dutch Christian Parties
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Austria and Belgium. In the UK, this is due primarily to increases in
the vote share of the Liberal Democrats and growing support for the
regionally based Scottish Nationalist Party and Plaid Cymru. Overall,
the trends suggest that the increases in the effective number of
parties best represents an increase in the actual number of parties
receiving substantial portions of the vote.
As is clear from Figure 1, increases in electoral party system size have
not always been accurately reflected in the legislature. Electoral party
system size has increased significantly almost everywhere, and legislative
party system size has increased in a majority of countries; however, in
Australia, Canada, Finland and Switzerland the increases occurring at
the electoral level have not been translated into the legislature.
4
In a good number of countries there appears to be a growing gap
between electoral and legislative party system size, particularly in
countries such as Belgium and the UK. Figure 3 illustrates the
discrepancies between electoral and legislative party system size by
subtracting legislative party system size from electoral party system
size and plotting this difference for each country. In most cases,
there has been a clear and consistent increase in the gap between
the number of parties receiving votes and the number receiving
seats. In 11 of the 18 countries the increases in this gap over time are
statistically significant: Australia, Belgium, Canada, Finland, France,
Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK.
New Zealand’s switch from a single-member-district plurality electoral
system to a mixed-member proportional electoral system in the mid-
1990s appears to have put an end to the growing gap between the
electoral and legislative party system, while in Austria and Germany the
gap appears to have increased only in recent decades.
ELECTORAL SYSTEM CONSTRAINTS ON PARTY SYSTEMS
The gap between the number of parties receiving votes and the
number receiving seats can largely be expected to be a result of
the proportionality of the electoral system. The more proportional the
vote-to-seat translation, the more we would expect to observe a
legislative party system that was a direct reflection of the electoral party
system, and the less likely it would be to observe a (growing) gap
between the two. Thus, at first glance the growing gap in the more
proportional systems such as Belgium, Finland, Luxembourg and
321 CONSEQUENCES OF PARTY SYSTEM FRAGMENTATION FOR OPPOSITIONS
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Sweden may be more surprising than in the more disproportional
systems of Australia, Canada and the UK. These trends, however, signify
the failure of electoral rules to direct electoral behaviour. When viewed
from this perspective, the growing gap in the single-member-district
Figure 3
Differences between Electoral and Legislative Party Systems in Established Democracies
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systems may actually be more surprising, since these electoral
systems should exert the strongest effect on electoral behaviour.
All electoral systems are capable of excluding some parties from
the legislature. Disproportionality can arise from any number of
Figure 3
(Continued)
323 CONSEQUENCES OF PARTY SYSTEM FRAGMENTATION FOR OPPOSITIONS
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electoral system attributes, most notably district magnitude, thresh-
olds for representation and the electoral formula used to translate
votes into seats. Thus, we would expect to find some discrepancy
between the numbers of parties receiving votes and those receiving
seats. However, there is no reason to expect this discrepancy to
grow over time, especially in countries that have not radically
restricted entry into the legislature.
5
Our theories of how electoral
systems structure behaviour, in fact, tell us exactly the opposite: that
disproportionality should be kept to a minimum in stable
democracies with institutionalized party systems.
Electoral systems constrain the size of the party system in
two ways. Through the mechanical process of translating votes into
seats, electoral systems often privilege large parties at the expense of
small parties, which may not receive any representation in the
legislature. The second way electoral systems constrain the size of
the party system is through the strategic actions of voters and
political elites who perceive the electoral system’s mechanical effects
and, as a result, direct their efforts in support of only the parties that
stand a viable chance of winning seats in the legislature (Benoit
2002; Cox 1997; Duverger 1963). Voters, aspiring candidates and
party donors who care only about which party wins the election
should desert sincerely preferred, but small non-viable parties in
favour of their most preferred viable party.
6
In short, the strategic
actions of voters and political elites should produce an electoral
party system that closely resembles the legislative party system. This
tendency for the number of parties receiving votes to be kept
roughly in line with the number of parties receiving seats underlies
what Taagepera and Shugart (1989: 123) call the ‘law of conserva-
tion of disproportionality’. Although some proportion of political
actors will always behave sincerely, the deviation between the
electoral and legislative party system should be kept to a minimum
through strategic behaviour. When short-term deviations from this
relationship occur, perhaps when a new electoral rule is introduced,
these deviations should dissipate over time as voters and parties
gather information about the new rule and adjust their behaviour
accordingly.
What we should observe, then, is a relationship between electoral
and legislative party system size that is precisely the opposite of that
depicted in Figure 3. If voters and political elites are strategically
responsive to the mechanical effects of the electoral system, then we
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should expect to observe the gap between electoral and legislative
party system size decrease or remain steady across time, but in no
circumstance should it increase.
The relatively new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe
present an interesting point of comparison here. Most European
countries are now linked through membership of the European
Union (EU) and increasingly exposed to similar political and
economic environments, although the recent democratic transitions
among Central and Eastern European countries separate them from
the established democracies of Western Europe. If electoral
institutions are functioning as we expect and acting as constraints
on electoral behaviour, then the gap between electoral and
legislative party system size should decline over time in these newer
democracies. Figure 4 illustrates the trends in this gap for nine
Central and Eastern European countries since the early 1990s.
Despite the relatively short time frame and the reputation of Central
and Eastern European democratic politics as being volatile, most of
these nine countries do show the diminishing gap between electoral
and legislative party system size that would be expected if electoral
rules were acting as constraints on electoral behaviour. These trends
make those found in the established democracies all the more
striking. Although convergence between West and East European
countries may be moderate, at best, with respect to many other
political factors (see Casal Be´rtoa 2013), it appears that many of
these countries have converged when it comes to the typical number
of parties winning votes, but not seats, in elections. In the case of
Central and Eastern European countries, this number has often
declined to a difference of between 0.5 and 1.0, while in established
democracies this number has increased to similar levels.
In previous research, I examined this relationship between
electoral and legislative party system size and found that, for most
years and most established democracies, legislative party system size
did direct electoral party system size in ways we would expect:
after accounting for short-term deviations, electoral and legislative
party system size were in a long-term one-to-one relationship
(Best 2010; 2012). However, in recent decades the relationship
between electoral and legislative party system size appeared to break
down completely in single-member-district electoral systems. I extend
and update this analysis here, adding two additional countries –
Luxembourg and Iceland – and five additional years of elections.
325 CONSEQUENCES OF PARTY SYSTEM FRAGMENTATION FOR OPPOSITIONS
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The relationship between electoral and legislative party system size is
modelled using the following error-correction model:
7
DENPvotest¼a0þa1ðENPvotest1Þþb0ðDENPseatstÞþb1ðENPseatst1Þþ
In the above equation, b
0
will capture the immediate mechanical
effects of the electoral system and tell us the extent to which the
current electoral party system reflects the current legislative system.
Under perfectly proportional electoral rules, we would expect this
coefficient roughly to equal 1. In more disproportional systems, we
can expect it to be between 0 and 1. The estimate of a
1
will provide
us with the rate of error correction. In this equation, the rate of
error correction will tell us how quickly ENPvotes adjusts in response
to any deviation from its relationship with ENPseats, by estimating
the proportion of this deviation that is corrected per election.
Figure 4
Differences between Electoral and Legislative Party Systems in Central and
East European Democracies
Source: Electoral returns for Central and Eastern European countries are from national
election websites and statistical offices, various editions of the European Journal of Political
Research, the database on Political Transformation and the Electoral Process in Post-
Communist Europe, available at www2.essex.ac.uk/elect/database/database.asp,
Election Resources on the Internet at www.electionresources.org and Adam Carr’s
Election Results Archive at http://psephos.adam-carr.net.
326GOVERNMENT AND OPPOSITION
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In substantive terms, the rate of error correction will tell us how
quickly voters and political elites respond to any unexpected change
in the numbers of parties receiving legislative representation
through their strategic actions. The coefficient of greatest interest
is b
1
. Dividing b
1
by the rate of error correction (a
1
) produces an
estimate of the long-run multiplier, which tells us the total long-term
effect of a one-unit change in ENPseats on ENPvotes. If political
actors are strategically responsive to the electoral system’s mechan-
ical effects, then – once we have accounted for the current
difference between the electoral and legislative party system size
(b
0
) – ENPvotes and ENPseats should be in a long-term, one-to-one,
equilibrium relationship. In terms of the above error-correction
model, this means that the total long-term effect calculated as b
1
/a
1
should equal – or be statistically indistinguishable from – 1.
Table 1 presents the results of this error-correction model estimated
for the 18 democracies for the entire time period (1950–2011) and
broken down between the first half (1950–80) and second half
(1981–2011) of the post-war era. All models were estimated with panel-
corrected standard errors and country dummy variables (not
reported). Most of the findings presented in Table 1 are in line with
expectations, suggesting that electoral party system size does respond
as expected to changes in legislative party system size. In the entire
post-1950 time period, the coefficient on DENPvotes
t
(b
0
)representsa
near-proportional short-term relationship between electoral and
legislative party system size, and the estimated rate of error
correction (ENPvotes
t21
) suggests that a healthy 58 per cent of
any deviation from the equilibrium relationship between ENPseats
and ENPvotes is corrected in each election. However, the long-term
relationship between ENPseats and ENPvotes looks over-responsive
from the estimate of the long-run multiplier, which is statistically
higher than the expected value of one. This suggests that, for every
increase in one (effective) party in the legislature, ENPvotes will
respond over the long run by increasing by 1.13 parties. This over-
responsiveness disappears when the time period is broken in two
halves, where the estimated long-run multiplier is statistically
different from 0 and statistically indistinguishable from 1.
Table 2 presents the models separated by electoral system type.
Here we observe quite different results for single-member-district
and proportional representation systems. In single-member-district
systems, we observe the expected effects for all variables in the
327 CONSEQUENCES OF PARTY SYSTEM FRAGMENTATION FOR OPPOSITIONS
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post-1950 and 1950–80 time periods, where the total long-term
effect of ENPseats on ENPvotes appears to be slightly under-
responsive, but is statistically indistinguishable from 1, and the error-
correction process corrects between 49 and 71 per cent of deviations
per election. In the 1981–2011 period, however, there is no observed
long-term relationship between legislative and electoral party system
size. The estimated long-run multiplier of ENPseats is statistically
indistinguishable from 0. What we appear to be observing is a
complete breakdown of the relationship between the number of
parties receiving votes and the number receiving legislative seats in
single-member-district systems. The situation is different in propor-
tional representation systems, where there is a long-term relationship
between electoral and legislative party system size in all time periods.
However, this relationship becomes over-responsive in the 1981–2011
period, where the estimated long-run multiplier is 1.14 and statistically
different from 1, suggesting that electoral party system continues to
grow above and beyond what the legislature accommodates.
These findings tell us that the relationship between electoral and
legislative party systems has broken down in recent decades, but has
done so in different ways across electoral system types. In single-
member-district systems the relationship appears to have disappeared
altogether, while in proportional representation systems the relation-
ship appears over-responsive. In substantive terms, the increases we are
observing in electoral party system size in these countries appear to
have little to do with legislative representation. An increasing amount
Table 1
An Error-correction Model of Electoral and Legislative Party System Size in
18 Established Democracies
DV: DENPvotes After 1950 1950–80 1981–2011
ENPvotes
t21
20.57 (0.10) 20.82 (0.18) 20.74 (0.19)
DENPseats 0.94 (0.03) 0.91 (0.05) 0.95 (0.06)
ENPseats
t21
0.65 (0.11) 0.85 (0.20) 0.75 (0.22)
Constant 20.13 (0.07) 0.05 (0.12) 0.17 (0.22)
N 296 147 149
R
2
0.78 0.86 0.79
Total long-term effect
of ENPseats
t21
1.13 (0.04) 1.04 (0.05) 1.02 (0.08)
Notes: Table entries are OLS coefficients with panel-corrected standard
errors in parentheses. Country-specific fixed effects were included in all
models. Significance tests are two-tailed. p ,0.05, p ,0.10.
328GOVERNMENT AND OPPOSITION
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of political opposition in these systems is not only excluded from
the legislature, but is strikingly undeterred by a lack of legislative
representation. The growth in electoral fragmentation appears to be
changing the shape of political opposition in established democracies
by keeping higher proportions of parties outside of the legislature,
particularly in single-member-district systems. The following section
examines the different ways in which increases in party system
fragmentation are changing the nature of representation inside the
legislature in the form of governments and oppositions.
FRAGMENTATION OF GOVERNMENTS AND OPPOSITIONS
To examine whether governments and oppositions have been
affected by fragmentation, Table 3 presents the results of regressions
Table 2
The Relationship between Electoral and Legislative Party System Size by
Electoral System Type
Single-member district After 1950 1950–80 1981–2011
ENPvotes
t21
20.49 (0.14) 20.71 (0.19) 20.69 (0.17)
DENPseats 0.51 (0.17) 0.50 (0.14) 0.61 (0.22)
ENPseats
t21
0.37 (0.22) 0.56 (0.19) 0.40 (0.31)
Constant 0.61 (0.44) 1.48 (1.03) 2.33 (1.06)
N864739
R
2
0.41 0.63 0.46
Total long-term effect
of ENPseats
t21
0.76 (0.26) 0.79 (0.18) 0.59 (0.46)
Proportional representation After 1950 1950–80 1981–2011
DENPseats 0.91 (0.05) 1.04 (0.02) 1.05 (0.03)
ENPvotes
t21
20.76 (0.09) 20.80 (0.16) 20.96 (0.11)
ENPseats
t21
0.89 (0.11) 0.85 (0.16) 1.09 (0.12)
Constant 20.31 (0.07) 20.01 (0.51) 20.27 (0.11)
N 209 100 110
R
2
0.93 0.95 0.93
Total long-term effect
of ENPseats
t21
1.18 (0.02) 1.06 (0.03) 1.14 (0.04)
Notes: Table entries are OLS coefficients with panel-corrected standard
errors in parentheses. Country-specific fixed effects were included in
all models. The mixed-member-proportional systems in Germany and
New Zealand are included in the proportional representation category.
Significance tests are two-tailed. p ,0.05, p ,0.10.
329 CONSEQUENCES OF PARTY SYSTEM FRAGMENTATION FOR OPPOSITIONS
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Table 3
Trends in Government and Opposition Fragmentation, 1950–2011
Governments change in fragmentation per annum Oppositions change in fragmentation per annum
coefficient se R
2
coefficient se R
2
N
Australia 20.01 (0.00) 0.33 0.01 (0.00) 0.16 30
Austria 20.01 (0.01) 0.04 0.02 (0.00) 0.54 23
Belgium 0.06 (0.01) 0.72 0.06 (0.01) 0.52 31
Canada 0.01 (0.01) 0.24 22
Denmark 0.01 (0.06) 0.04 0.01 (0.02) 0.02 31
Finland 0.01 (0.01) 0.05 0.01 (0.01) 0.00 37
Germany 0.00 (0.00) 0.00 0.01 (0.01) 0.27 24
Iceland 0.00 (0.01) 0.01 0.01 (0.01) 0.10 15
Ireland 0.00 (0.00) 0.04 0.00 (0.01) 0.00 23
Italy 0.03 (0.00) 0.44 20.01 (0.01) 0.00 42
Luxembourg 0.00 (0.00) 0.07 0.02 (0.01) 0.40 14
Netherlands 20.01 (0.01) 0.22 0.02 (0.01) 0.09 18
New Zealand 0.01 (0.00) 0.28 0.02 (0.01) 0.35 27
Norway 20.00 (0.01) 0.00 0.01 (0.02) 0.01 26
Sweden 0.01 (0.01) 0.05 0.02 (0.01) 0.07 25
UK 0.02 (0.00) 0.83 22
Notes: Table entries are coefficients obtained by individual country regressions where fragmentation of either the government
or opposition is treated as the dependent variable and time (the date when the government took office) is treated as the
independent variable. The estimated coefficient for Denmark becomes positive and significant with government-supporting
parties treated as governing parties. I omit Switzerland from the analyses of governments and oppositions due to the collective
and static nature of the government, and France due to its semi-presidential system and lack of party system fragmentation.
Significance tests are two-tailed. p ,0.5, p ,0.1.
Source: Data on party compositions of governments and parliaments are from McDonald and Mendes (2002), and updated
using various issues of the European Journal of Political Research.
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of the effective number of government and opposition parties
(calculated using each party’s government or opposition seat
proportion), against time. Looking first at the composition of
governments, it is quite clear that in most countries there has been
no change in their level of fragmentation. Virtually all of the
estimated coefficients for the time variable are equal to 0, with few
exceptions. In Australia and the Netherlands, the coefficients are
negative and significant, suggesting that government fragmentation
has declined over time. In the Netherlands, this result is due to the
merger of the three Christian parties into the Christian Democratic
Appeal. In Australia, the result is not wholly surprising since
legislative fragmentation generally has not increased. In Canada
and the UK, the dominance of one-party governments makes any
increase in fragmentation unlikely.
8
It is only in Belgium, where the
party system split along linguistic lines, and Italy where we observe
significant increases in government fragmentation.
The increases in party system fragmentation manifest themselves
more clearly in the composition of oppositions, rather than
governments. Half of the countries exhibit statistically significant
and positive changes in opposition fragmentation over time, and in
no country has opposition fragmentation declined. Interestingly,
opposition fragmentation has increased in two of the countries
where legislative fragmentation has not: Australia and Canada. From
these results, it appears that the increases in legislative fragmenta-
tion have translated mainly into a fragmentation of the opposition.
Stated differently: it suggests that a good number of the newer and
smaller parties winning seats in the legislature do not typically
participate in government.
The analysis of government and legislative fragmentation weights
parties according to the proportion of their seats in either
government or opposition. Thus, it accounts only for the relative
sizes of parties within governments or oppositions, not for the size of
governments as a whole. Although government fragmentation has
not increased, it is possible that the size of the governing majority
(or, in some cases, minority) has changed over time. Table 4 displays
the results of regressions of the size of the governmental majority
(calculated as the percentage of legislative seats held by governing
parties – 50) over time. In five countries there is a statistically
significant and negative trend in the percentage of seats held by the
government: Austria, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand
331 CONSEQUENCES OF PARTY SYSTEM FRAGMENTATION FOR OPPOSITIONS
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cThe Author 2013. Published by Government and Opposition Limited and Cambridge University Press
and Norway. A visual inspection of the data revealed a couple of
outlying cases in Sweden and Denmark, both of which experienced
very small governing minorities for short periods of time: Sweden in
1978 and Denmark in 1973. When these two governments are
removed from the analyses, Sweden and Denmark also display
significant and negative trends in the size of the governing
majorities. Combining the results presented in Tables 3 and 4
shows that oppositions have become increasingly fragmented and/or
larger vis-a`-vis governments in 12 of the 16 countries considered.
CAUSES AND CONSEQUENCES OF INCREASED FRAGMENTATION
In established democracies, the number of parties receiving votes
has increased irrespective of the confines of electoral rules. Not all
Table 4
Trends in the Size of Governmental Majorities, 1950–2001
Change in the size of the governmental majority per annum
coefficient se R
2
N
Australia 20.07 (0.07) 0.04 30
Austria 20.74 (0.23) 0.34 23
Belgium 0.06 (0.11) 0.01 31
Canada 20.06 (0.13) 0.01 22
Denmark 20.11 (0.09) 0.05 31
– excluding 1973 20.12 (0.07) 0.10 30
Finland 0.26 (0.16) 0.07 37
Germany 20.15 (0.12) 0.07 24
Iceland 0.02 (0.21) 0.00 15
Ireland 0.03 (0.40) 0.03 23
Italy 0.22 (0.09) 0.13 42
Luxembourg 20.30 (0.14) 0.28 14
Netherlands 20.29 (0.29) 0.27 18
New Zealand 20.12 (0.12) 0.12 27
Norway 20.26 (0.09) 0.27 26
Sweden 20.17 (0.12) 0.08 25
– excluding 1978 20.17 (0.07) 0.21 24
UK 0.10 (0.05) 0.18 22
Notes: Table entries are coefficients obtained by individual country
regressions where the government’s seat percentage – 50 – is treated as
the dependent variable and time (the date when the government took
office) is treated as the independent variable. Significance tests are
two-tailed. p ,0.5, p ,0.1.
332GOVERNMENT AND OPPOSITION
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of these parties have received a proportionate share of representa-
tion in the legislature, and the number of parties excluded from the
legislature has grown over time. Of those new parties that have
received legislative representation, most have entered parliaments as
part of the opposition, rather than the government. These findings
are based on analyses that have addressed only numbers of parties in
national elections to national legislatures. As such, they have paid
little attention to a large number of other factors that inform the
quality of democratic representation in established democracies,
such as ideological platforms, issue positions and subnational or
supranational levels of government. In short, they have not explored
which parties have received votes (but not seats), which parties have
entered into legislatures (but not governments) and the political
context surrounding party fortunes. Despite these limitations of
national, aggregate analyses, the results presented above are broadly
indicative of two major trends in democratic representation in
established democracies. Firstly, there are increasing numbers of
parties that receive votes but do not receive (a proportionate share of)
legislative seats. Secondly, those new parties that do manage to gain
entry into national legislatures are more commonly opposition
parties than governmental parties. The remainder of this section is
devoted to exploring the potential reasons why electoral systems may
no longer be constraining electoral behaviour and the implications
of these trends for governments, oppositions and representation in
established democracies.
Weakened Constraints on Electoral Behaviour
Why are voters increasingly likely to support parties that do not
receive legislative representation? Our theories of electoral systems
and electoral behaviour tell us that voters should support only those
parties that stand a viable chance of winning legislative representa-
tion. This expectation is based upon two important assumptions:
(1) that both voters and parties care only about which party wins the
upcoming election; and (2) they have a good idea of which parties
are likely to meet the threshold for legislative representation.
If either of these assumptions fails to hold, we are likely to observe
lower numbers of voters behaving strategically and higher numbers
of parties receiving votes but not seats. If voters cast a purely
expressive ballot with no regard for the likely losers or winners of the
333 CONSEQUENCES OF PARTY SYSTEM FRAGMENTATION FOR OPPOSITIONS
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election, or if they are unable to determine the electoral viability of
parties, then the relationship between electoral systems and voting
behaviour will weaken.
One of the most discussed aspects of voting behaviour in recent
decades has been the decline of traditional party linkages, such as
partisanship and traditional social cleavage structures (see, for
instance, Best 2011; Dalton et al. 1984; Franklin et al. 1992; de Graaf
et al. 2001; Knutsen 2006; see also Stubager 2013). A de-aligned
electorate may serve as an important precondition for a decline in
strategic voting, since loosening party ties provide room for other
factors to affect voting behaviour. Work by Dalton (1984, 2007)
suggests that voters in established democracies have become
‘cognitively mobilized’ as a result of higher levels of education
and political knowledge and are therefore more likely to cast ballots
based on their own consideration of the available options, rather
than rely on partisan shortcuts. Voters with higher levels of
knowledge may be more likely to know about minor parties and
may therefore be more likely to support these parties in elections
(Bowler and Lanoue 1992). More highly educated voters may be
even more inclined to support minor parties if they also know
more about the shortcomings of major party policies.
9
However,
while a de-aligned and cognitively mobilized electorate may provide
the right opportunity to observe increases in expressive voting, it
cannot explain why voters might choose to behave in a more
expressive manner.
Insight into this question may be better provided by changes in
the policy and/or issue preferences of voters and parties. As party
alignments have deteriorated in established democracies, traditional
patterns of political competition based on, for example, social
class and religion have also shown signs of decay, and political
competition now commonly includes political issues such as
environmentalism, multiculturalism, immigration, nationalism and
European integration.
10
While mainstream parties have adopted
some of these issues into their platforms (see, for instance, Meguid
2005), smaller and newer parties – primarily green and radical right-
wing populist parties – have been the parties primarily associated
with the promotion of these new issues. Smaller and newer parties
are, of course, those most likely to receive a higher proportion of
votes than they do legislative seats. Furthermore, the analysis of party
system fragmentation presented above suggests that support for new
334GOVERNMENT AND OPPOSITION
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political parties has driven most of the observed changes in party
system size. This is especially likely to be the case in countries where
major parties have failed to address the issues promoted by green
and radical right-wing populist parties.
According to the expected effects of electoral systems previously
discussed, we expect strategic voters to cast a ballot for the most
preferred major party instead of a more preferred but non-viable
smaller party. But what if there is no preferred major party? Changes
in the ideological nature of political competition may mean that
mainstream and smaller parties are emphasizing very different sets
of issues, so that a voter predisposed to support a minor party
because of its position on European integration, for example, has no
comparable major party alternative. A lack of acceptable major party
alternatives on a particular issue may provide the proper motivation
to voters to cast expressive rather than strategic ballots (with
reference to the EU, see de Vries and Hobolt 2012). These voters
may also have longer-term goals of seeing their party enter the
legislature in the future, or to encourage major parties to adopt
some of the policy positions of their preferred minor party
(Indridason 2012).
A different form of expressive voting may manifest itself as protest
voting, which results from some kind of discontent with the political
system, the current government or mainstream political parties.
Such voting is usually not understood as being rooted in policy
preferences; rather, it is aimed to punish or send a message to
mainstream politicians. Smaller and more radical parties are often the
recipients of protest votes (for example, Denemark and Bowler 2002).
It is doubtful that the prospects of legislative representation matter
much–ifatall–tothosecastingprotest ballots. As discontent with
mainstream parties and politicians has grown over time, the incidence
of protest voting may have grown along with it (Dalton 2004).
Increases in the Numbers of Parties
The effects of electoral institutions on electoral behaviour are
equally, if not more, important when it comes to the behaviour of
political parties. The actions of political parties can make it difficult
for even the most strategically minded voter to cast a strategic ballot.
When more than two political parties compete in an electoral
district, voters may have difficulty in figuring out which among these
335 CONSEQUENCES OF PARTY SYSTEM FRAGMENTATION FOR OPPOSITIONS
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parties are the most electorally viable (Blais and Turgeon 2004;
Merolla and Stephenson 2007). Impaired voter coordination driven
by increases in the numbers of parties contesting elections could
easily produce the growing gap between electoral and legislative
party system size found above. But why would growing numbers of
parties be contesting elections? Although there are many potential
answers to this question, there are two that characterize political
developments in almost all established democracies over the post-
war era: the introduction and expansion of state subventions and
the increasing salience of other levels of elections.
State subventions are public funds that are provided to political
parties according to some kind of criteria, typically vote or seat
proportions, and are one of the most obvious changes in electoral
law to have occurred over the post-war era (Biezen 2004, 2010).
On the one hand, the provision of public funds is thought to result
in the ‘cartelization’ of the party system, since the provision of
funds is sometimes exclusive and benefits only major parties
(Katz and Mair 1995). However, a significant number of studies
find that the introduction of state subventions does little to preserve
the status of major parties and in some cases does exactly the
opposite (Detterbeck 2005; Pierre et al. 2000; Scarrow 2006). For
example, the German Greens and the Canadian Quebec Party (Parti
Que´becois) were able to use state subventions to their own benefit
(Nassmacher 1989; Paltiel 1989). Subventions with payout thresh-
olds lower than the electoral threshold are particularly likely to
increase electoral, but not necessarily legislative, party system size
(Scarrow 2006) since anti-system parties, single-issue parties or even
issue lobbies or individuals may be able to take advantage of them.
Regional or European-level elections may provide similar benefits
to small and nationally uncompetitive parties, particularly where the
electoral system is more proportional than at the national level, such
as UK elections to the European Parliament. A small party that
stands little chance of gaining representation in the national
legislature may have better luck in either regional elections or
elections to the European Parliament, where incentives to behave
strategically are weaker and small parties tend to fare better. For
instance, the British National Party was able to capture two seats in
the 2009 European Parliamentary elections, despite its inability to
win representation in the national parliament, and the nationally
small United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) amassed an
336GOVERNMENT AND OPPOSITION
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impressive 13 seats in the European Parliament. An enterprising small
party may use success at other levels of elections to gain momentum
and support for national elections, and a small party organized to
compete in other elections may find it relatively costless to contest the
national election too. Furthermore, party campaigns at the regional or
European level may ‘spillover’ to affect the results of national elections
(Bechtel 2012). Increasing awareness of these smaller parties may fuel
support for them even in national elections.
Implications for Political Oppositions and Representation
The growing disjuncture between electoral and legislative party
system size calls into question the distinction between party
representation inside parliaments and alternative forms of extra-
parliamentary opposition. What we are observing is a growth in
support for political parties that are, in essence, extra-parliamentary.
Parties that do not receive legislative representation do not neatly fit
into working concepts of democratic oppositions: they may be
formally organized oppositions, but do not necessarily provide a
viable alternative to governmental parties.
Not all new parties have been excluded from the legislature. In all
but a few cases, fragmentation has increased within the legislature as
well, although typically to a lesser extent. In the most basic sense, this
meansthatmostofthecountrieshere are moving further away from a
Westminster opposition model with a one-party dominant opposition,
and closer to a consensus model that includes multiple political parties
(Helms 2004). This suggests that we may be less likely to observe
wholesale alternation in government and more likely to observe
instances of partial alternation. To the extent that partial alternation in
government blurs the distinctions between government and opposition
parliamentary parties, accountability may become more difficult.
In terms of Blondel’s first dimension of opposition characteristics
(1997), countries have moved towards less cohesive and more
fragmented oppositional structures. Fragmented oppositions are
less likely to act as viable alternatives to the government in power,
as they do not represent a cohesive set of political interests.
Fragmented oppositions may also face more difficulties in holding
governments accountable for their actions in office. Depending on
the extent to which opposition parties must compete with one
another, they may have incentives to focus some of their attention
337 CONSEQUENCES OF PARTY SYSTEM FRAGMENTATION FOR OPPOSITIONS
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on other opposition parties rather than the government. Although
there have been few changes in the cohesiveness of governments,
there are some signs that legislative fragmentation is leading to
governments with smaller majorities or even minority status. Thus,
the overall picture is one of a growing and increasingly fragmented
opposition, against a smaller and relatively cohesive government.
Overall, governments appear to have remained relatively immune
from changes in the electoral realm. Whether the increase in
fragmentation has brought with it any changes in ideological
diversity is an open question. However, it is worth noting that if
this fragmentation has been associated with an increase in
ideological diversity, this diversity may be better reflected in the
composition of oppositions rather than governments. In other
words, governments appear to be less representative of the changes
occurring in the electoral realm than their respective oppositions.
The findings presented here can only suggest that increased
fragmentation may pose challenges for the representational func-
tions of governments and oppositions in established democracies.
While dissatisfaction with the current government may drive support
for extra-parliamentary parties, this growth in support may further
fuel citizen discontent. Unless major parties manage to recapture
the support lost to these alternative parties, it is a trend unlikely to
abate. Notably, the levels of citizen discontent generated by recent
political events such as the lingering effects of the financial and
eurozone crises do not bode well for the future of public support for
major political parties. This is especially the case in Greece, as well as
in other countries that have been hit particularly hard by the
financial crisis, where public concern over the handling of the crisis
by major political parties appears at times to fuel support for other,
often extreme, political parties. Since the economic crisis occurred
against a political backdrop of diminishing support for major
parties, its effect may be to exacerbate further the changes we have
observed in governments and oppositions.
NOTES
1
The other major characteristic of oppositions can be operationalized as
polarization or ideological dispersion. Although this is certainly an important
characteristic of political oppositions, a thorough analysis of polarization is beyond
the scope of this article.
338GOVERNMENT AND OPPOSITION
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2
In Iceland and Italy p ,0.10. In all others except France p ,0.05.
3
In Finland, the True Finns (formerly the Finnish Rural Party) is coded as a long-
standing party, although the party began contesting elections in the 1960s.
In Belgium, successor parties to parties that split along linguistic lines are coded as
long-standing parties.
4
The changes in all other countries except France and the Netherlands (as noted
above) are statistically significant at p ,0.10, two-tailed tests.
5
Among the countries considered here, only Italy and New Zealand have radically
changed their electoral system type over the time period considered, and in
New Zealand the electoral system was changed from a highly disproportional single-
member-district plurality (SMD-p) system to a more proportional mixed system.
Among the remaining countries, some have changed aspects of proportional
representation systems that would increase disproportionality, but these changes have
generally not been of the magnitude to explain the growing gap between electoral and
legislative party system size (Best 2012).
6
More specifically, this type of strategic behaviour assumes short-term instrumental
rationality (see Cox 1997).
7
For a general description of error-correction models and their properties, see
de Boef and Keele (2008).
8
However, the current governing coalition in the UK suggests that it is certainly
possible.
9
I would like thank an anonomous reviewer for this point.
10
The literature on changes in political competition in established democracies is
too vast to recount here, but see, for example, Inglehart (1977) for discussions of
postmaterialism, Kitschelt (1994) for a description of the new left-libertarian/right-
authoritarian dimension, Mudde (2007) and Albertazzi and Mueller (2013) for an
overview of contemporary radical right populist parties, and de Vries (2013) for an
account of EU issue voting.
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... A fragmented legislature is also detrimental for coalition building and compromise on policy issues (Le Maux et al., 2011;Maeda, 2010;Taagepera and Shugart, 1989). In a highly fragmented party system, the distinction between the government and the opposition is less clear (Best, 2013), hence any future alternation in government is considered less likely, given that the clarity of assigned responsibilities in governance is obscure (Lundell, 2011). ...
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... This prediction stems from the observation that higher fragmentation is increasing across presidential and parliamentary systems, thus weakening governments. 43 That said, the higher the party fragmentation, stronger the opposition to recentralization and thus the need for an all-encompassing coalition for the approval of health laws. Focusing on party system fragmentation among the two countries, which can be assessed through the effective number of parties, Brazil has a high party fragmentation in relation to Spain, which present a moderate degree of fragmentation. ...
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... As pointed out by Mair (1992), those changes are often exaggerated where a relatively small increase in electoral volatility or a modest success of a new party is taken as an indicator of a party system change. Other scholars have pointed to the success of those parties as a symptom of a party system change (Dalton & Flanagan, 1984), that new issues have been placed on the political agenda (Hobolt & Tilley, 2016) and that their success has come with increased fragmentation and electoral volatility (Best, 2013;Chiaramonte & Emanuele, 2017). One of the core questions of these debates is what constitutes a party system change and to what extent the entrance of new parties is a symptom of a change in how politics work, a debate that has so far, at least to our knowledge, been inconclusive. ...
... When one party controls all opposition seats in a municipality, co-ordination problems are minimised, whereas a fragmented opposition faces more coordination problems. This can affect the opposition's ability to oversee government action and block proposals (Best, 2013) and shape performance evaluations of multiparty councils. Our measure of fragmentation is the effective number of opposition parties (OENP) in each council calculated based on Laakso and Taagepera's (1979) formula. ...
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... In politico-scientific literature, the notion of (party system) "fragmentation" is normally used to depict an increase in the number of political parties [1]. In this study, analysing the political geography of Sweden, the meaning of "fragmentation" is tied to the number of different recognizable voting patterns in the municipalities. ...
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Chapter
Understanding how the electoral behaviour of a population changes in a country is key to understand where and why social change is happening. In this paper, we apply methods from network science to the study the middle-long-term evolution of Swedish electoral geography. Sweden is an interesting case since its political landscape has significantly changed over the last three decades with the rise of the Sweden Democrats and the Green Party and the fall of the Social Democrats. By partitioning the Swedish municipalities according to their similarity in voting profiles, we show that Sweden can be divided into three or four main politico-cultural communities. More precisely, a transition from three to four main politico-cultural communities is observed. The fourth community emerged in the early 2000s, and it is characterized by a large vote-share for the Sweden Democrats, while almost all other parties underperform.
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