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The Eurozone crisis has altered the party political landscape across Europe. The most visible effect is the rise of challenger parties. The crisis not only caused economic hardship, but also placed considerable fiscal constraints upon a number of national governments. Many voters have reacted to this by turning their back on the traditional parties and opting instead for new, or reinvigorated, challenger parties that reject the mainstream consensus of austerity and European integration. This article argues that both sanctioning and selection mechanisms can help to explain this flight from the centre to challenger parties. First, voters who were economically adversely affected by the crisis punish mainstream parties both in government and in opposition by voting for challenger parties. Second, the choice of specific challenger party is shaped by preferences on three issues that directly flow from the Euro crisis: EU integration, austerity and immigration. Analysing both aggregate-level and individual-level survey data from all 17 Western EU member states, this article finds strong support for both propositions and shows how the crisis has reshaped the nature of party competition in Europe.
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West European Politics
ISSN: 0140-2382 (Print) 1743-9655 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/fwep20
Fleeing the centre: the rise of challenger parties in
the aftermath of the euro crisis
Sara B. Hobolt & James Tilley
To cite this article: Sara B. Hobolt & James Tilley (2016): Fleeing the centre: the rise
of challenger parties in the aftermath of the euro crisis, West European Politics, DOI:
10.1080/01402382.2016.1181871
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01402382.2016.1181871
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WEST EUROPEAN POLITICS, 2016
http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01402382.2016.1181871
© 2016 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
Fleeing the centre: the rise of challenger parties in
the aftermath of the euro crisis
Sara B. Hobolt and James Tilley
ABSTRACT
The eurozone crisis has altered the party political landscape across Europe. The
most visible eect is the rise of challenger parties. The crisis not only caused
economic hardship, but also placed considerable scal constraints upon a number
of national governments. Many voters have reacted to this by turning their back
on the traditional parties and opting instead for new, or reinvigorated, challenger
parties that reject the mainstream consensus of austerity and European integration.
This article argues that both sanctioning and selection mechanisms can help to
explain this ight from the centre to challenger parties. First, voters who were
economically adversely aected by the crisis punish mainstream parties both in
government and in opposition by voting for challenger parties. Second, the choice
of specic challenger party is shaped by preferences on three issues that directly
ow from the euro crisis: EU integration, austerity and immigration. Analysing both
aggregate-level and individual-level survey data from all 17 Western EU member
states, this article nds strong support for both propositions and shows how the
crisis has reshaped the nature of party competition in Europe.
KEYWORDS Challenger par ties; mainstream parties; euro crisis; party competition; voting behaviour
‘ere is no alternative’ was the recurring refrain from many national gov-
ernments during the euro crisis, referring to the necessity for austerity and
structural reforms. e consequences of the sovereign debt crisis that followed
the global nancial crisis of 2008 have been felt acutely in many European
countries. Yet in most of Europe the policy response by the mainstream, on
both the le and right, focused on tackling debt rather than reducing unemploy-
ment. e external constraints on national governments’ room to manoeuvre
also became more obvious, especially in the countries facing a sovereign debt
crisis. Governments of debtor states were asked to impose severe spending cuts
and structural reforms in return for bail-outs from the European Union and
the International Monetary Fund (IMF). e emergency politics of the crisis
dramatically limited the political choices available to citizens (Cramme and
Hobolt 2014; Hobolt and Tilley 2014; Laan 2014; Scharpf 2011).
CONTACT Sara B. Hobolt s.b.hobolt@lse.ac.uk
The supplemental material for this paper is available online at http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01402382.
2016.1181871
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2 S. B. HOBOLT AND J. TILLEY
Voters have reacted to this by rejecting the traditional parties and turning
instead to challenger parties. Challenger parties seek to challenge the main-
stream political consensus and do not ordinarily enter government. ese
parties are unconstrained by the responsibilities of government and tend to
compete on extreme or ‘niche’ issue positions (Adams et al. 2006; van de Wardt
et al. 2014). ere are multiple examples of the success of challengers in the
aermath of the euro crisis. ese include the emergence of successful new
parties, such as the Alternative for Germany, the Five Star Movement (Italy)
and Podemos (Spain), the surge in support for the established radical right
parties across Northern Europe, and notably the election of a radical le-wing
Syriza-led government in Greece in 2015.
Why did certain voters defect from mainstream political parties and opt
for challenger parties in the aermath of the crisis? We oer two explana-
tions. e rst is rooted in the classic theory of retrospective voting, where
voters punish incumbents for poor economic performance. e expectation
is that voters will ‘throw out the rascals’ in government when the economy
performs poorly. However, given the perception that mainstream parties,
whether currently in government or not, were responsible for the economic
woes, we expect the sanctioning to extend beyond government parties to all
mainstream parties, including those currently in opposition. We thus hypoth-
esise that voters negatively aected by the crisis—e.g. through job loss or
reduced earnings—will punish mainstream parties and turn to challenger
parties instead.
is retrospective model of economic voting helps to explain the elec-
toral punishment of governing parties during the crisis, but it cannot be
the full story. Our second explanation thus focuses on the specic appeal
of dierent challenger parties. Our argument is that defectors choose chal-
lenger parties because they oer a rejection of, and an alternative to, the
mainstream response to the crisis. Whereas the mainstream le and right
have converged on a policy of austerity and an adherence to the scal pol-
icy-making guidelines of the EU, successful challenger parties have sought
to oer clear alternatives. On the le, challenger parties reject the austerity
agenda and are critical of the EU’s insistence on reduced government welfare
spending. On the right, the focus is on the desire to reclaim national sover-
eignty, specically to control immigration and repatriate powers from the EU.
In both cases, challenger parties reject the ‘there is no alternative’ argument
and instead claim that national governments can control their own destiny
and oer distinct policies.
To test these propositions we examine who defected from mainstream par-
ties aer the onset of the crisis. First, we track the changes in the success of
challenger parties since the beginning of the crisis and show that there has
been a sharp increase in support across Western Europe since 2010. en we
use the 2014 European Election Study to show that retrospective economic
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WEST EUROPEAN POLITICS 3
voting matters to peoples decision to defect from the mainstream to challenger
parties: people who were personally adversely aected by the crisis are more
likely to defect. Crucially, we demonstrate that voters not only punish parties
in government, but also mainstream opposition parties. Defection is also likely
when individuals are disconnected from mainstream party policy, not least
regarding three issues that are closely tied to the EU and the euro crisis: EU
integration, austerity measures and immigration. We conclude by discussing
whether the rise of challenger parties is likely to be a temporary blip due to the
crisis or a more permanent feature of West European politics.
Fleeing the centre
e nancial crisis that erupted in late 2008 vividly demonstrated both the
interconnectedness of nancial markets and the increasingly limited power of
national governments. As the nancial turmoil travelled from the US to Europe,
it evolved into a sovereign debt crisis. By 2012, eight out of 28 EU member states
had received some form of nancial bailout (Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, Ireland,
Latvia, Portugal, Romania and Spain). In return for these credit arrangements
by the EU, jointly with the IMF, the debtor countries had to engage in sig-
nicant scal retrenchment and structural reforms, mainly to social welfare
programmes. e economic and social consequences of the crisis within the
EU have been far-reaching, with high levels of unemployment and low levels
of growth. is situation was worst in debtor countries in Southern Europe,
notably in Greece, Spain and Portugal, where a quarter of the workforce were
unable to nd a job in 2014,1 whereas other countries such as Germany enjoyed
a considerable current account surplus and relatively low levels of unemploy-
ment. e contrast with the reluctantly provided rescue credit to debtor states
under rigid ‘conditionalities’ formulated by the EU/IMF/ECB ‘Troika’ is stark
(Scharpf 2014). Looming over these unpopular decisions by certain national
governments were the constraints that European integration imposed. Even
in areas at the very heart of state power, namely scal policy-making, national
governments looked impotent (Laan 2014). Unsurprisingly, there has been
a political backlash. e most notable sign of this reaction has been the rise
of challenger parties that reject the mainstream consensus. Challenger parties
highlight issues such as European integration and immigration that have oen
been downplayed by the mainstream, and foster new linkages with voters who
feel le behind by established parties (Meguid 2008; van de Wardt et al. 2014;
Wagner 2012).
A variety of terms have been used to describe such parties that challenge
the mainstream, including ‘niche parties’ (Adams et al. 2006; Jensen and Spoon
2010; Meguid 2008), ‘challenger parties’ (Hino 2012; van de Wardt et al. 2014),
‘populist parties’ (Kriesi 2014; Mudde 2007; Pauwels 2014) and ‘new politics
parties’ (Poguntke 1987). Regardless of nomenclature, all these authors focus
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4 S. B. HOBOLT AND J. TILLEY
on parties that defy existing patterns of party competition by rejecting the
traditional economic dimension of politics and mobilising on new issues or
adopting more extreme positions on existing issues. In the case of populist
parties, this also involves a more wholesale rejection of the existing ‘corrupt’
elite and the claim that they alone are the true voice of the people (Canovan
1999; Kriesi 2014; Mudde 2007).
Not surprisingly, there is no consensus on how to dene or measure such
parties in the literature. As an example, niche parties have become one of the
most used labels in the literature (see e.g. Adams et al. 2006; Jensen and Spoon
2010; Meguid 2005, 2008; Wagner 2012), yet there is no agreement on the actual
distinction between niche and mainstream. Some studies dene niche par-
ties as those that reject the traditional class-based orientation of politics, raise
novel issues (Meguid 2005, 2008), and ‘compete primarily on a smaller num-
ber of non-economic issues’ (Wagner 2012). Others propose a more inclusive
denition where niche parties represent ‘either an extreme ideology (such as
Communist and extreme nationalist parties) or a noncentrist “niche” ideology
(i.e. the Greens)’ (Adams et al. 2006: 513).
is paper also seeks to identify parties that challenge the mainstream party
political consensus, but we adopt a novel approach to the measurement that
focuses on participation in government. We argue that measuring whether
or not parties ordinarily participate in government has the advantage that it
indirectly captures many of the features of niche and populist parties (the mobi-
lisation of new issues and/or extreme positions on existing issues as well as the
rejection of the political establishment), yet with greater parsimony and sim-
plicity than measuring what qualies as ‘niche’, ‘populist’ or ‘extreme’. Moreover,
it highlights an important aspect of challenger parties that is not captured by
existing classications, namely the degree to which a party has government
responsibility for political outcomes for which they can be held to account.
Hence, in our classication, mainstream parties are those parties that fre-
quently alternate between government and opposition. eir policy platforms
are likely to be aected by both their past experience in oce and their desire
to enter oce again. In the eyes of voters, such parties nd it dicult to escape
responsibility for prolonged crises, such as the eurozone crisis. By their very
nature, mainstream parties, in opposition and in oce, are also more cautious
in mobilising around new issues or adopting positions far from other parties,
since both would make it more dicult to enter into coalition government (de
Vries and Hobolt 2015; Tavits 2008; van de Wardt et al. 2014). By contrast, chal-
lenger parties are untarnished by oce. While these parties are not necessarily
new, they have not formed part of any government. Rather they have sought to
reshape the political landscape by putting new issues on the agenda (de Vries
and Hobolt 2012).2 Successful challenger parties include Front National in
France, Podemos in Spain and the Five Star Movement in Italy. Such parties
have changed the nature of party competition and restructured the political
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WEST EUROPEAN POLITICS 5
agenda, in most cases without ever setting foot in government. Indeed, their
appeal is partially based on the fact that they are not tainted by holding oce
when the seeds of the crisis were sown. Just as importantly, their lack of gov-
ernment experience and limited incentive, and opportunity, to join future gov-
ernment coalitions enables them to adopt more risky political platforms. is
allows challenger parties to oer a clear alternative narrative to the mainstream
consensus. Challenger parties on the le reject the notion that austerity politics
is a necessary evil. On the right, challenger parties argue that powers should
be repatriated from the EU to national government and parliaments, and that
they can stem the threat of globalisation (especially foreign immigrant labour).
In this article we examine the causes of the rise of these challenger parties,
focusing on the individual-level motivations of voters. Since the very notion
of challenger parties assumes that there is an established party system to defy,
our empirical focus is on Western European members of the EU that have
established party systems.3 To illustrate the change that has occurred since the
onset of the crisis, Figure 1 plots the vote shares of mainstream and challenger
parties across the 17 West European members of the EU between 2004 and
2015. We dene three types of challenger party. All three types are parties that
were not part of any national-level government in the 30years preceding the
euro crisis (1970–2010).4 We also use the Chapel Hill Expert Survey (CHES)
to distinguish between right-wing and le-wing challenger parties (Bakker
et al. 2015), using the general le—right question in CHES: ‘Please tick the
box that best describes each party’s overall ideology on a scale ranging from 0
(extreme le) to 10 (extreme right)’. Parties scoring more than 5 are classied
as right-wing and parties scoring less than 5 are classied as le-wing.5 While
challenger parties oen mobilise on issues that do not clearly coincide with
25
35
45
2000 2005 2010 2015
% vote share
Mainstream
right
Mainstream
left
0
5
10
2000 2005 2010 2015
% vote share
Challenger
left
Challenger
right
Challenger
green
Figure 1.Vote shares of different types of parties in Western Europe, 2004–2015.
Note: These graphs show the mean vote share in national general elections holding vote share constant
between elections.
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6 S. B. HOBOLT AND J. TILLEY
the classic economic le—right dimension (Meguid 2008; Wagner 2012), such
as issues relating to immigration, the environment and European integration
(Kriesi et al. 2006; van de Wardt et al. 2014), most parties are nonetheless
perceived by experts and citizens alike as belonging to either the general ‘le’
or the ‘right’ of politics.6
e le-hand graph in Figure 1 clearly demonstrates the decline in the vote
shares of mainstream parties. In 2004 mainstream parties on the le and right
dominated West European party systems with 86 per cent of the total vote
share. is declined by 14 percentage points to 72 per cent in 2015. Mainstream
parties on the centre-le and on the centre-right saw similar falls in their vote
share, around 7 percentage points, over the 11year period. In the right-hand
gure, we observe a corresponding increase in support for challenger parties
on both the le and the right, while green challenger parties have experienced
less change. Overall challenger parties have increased their vote share from
around 10 to 23 per cent during the period.7 On the right, these include the
Finns Party in Finland, the Swedish Democrats in Sweden and the Danish
People’s Party in Denmark, whereas on the le these include the Red—Green
Alliance in Denmark, Syriza in Greece (although in government aer the crisis)
and Die Linke in Germany.
Of course, dierent shades of challenger party politics had unsettled Europe
long before the onset of the sovereign debt crisis, as parties like the Front
National in France, the Northern League in Italy or Geert Wilders’ Freedom
Party in the Netherlands successfully exploited popular anxieties about migra-
tion, globalisation, Islam and European integration. Could the success of chal-
lenger parties simply be a product of the secular decline of the mainstream le
and right parties, or what some have called the end of the ‘age of party democ-
racy’ (Mair 2013; Dalton and Wattenberg 2002)? Our aggregate data suggest
not, in that most of the change is more recent. Aer all, in 2004 only 10 per
cent of voters supported challengers. Nonetheless, aggregate data cannot tell us
whether the rise of challenger parties is linked to people’s experiences during
the crisis. To answer this question, we need to examine the motivations of voters
who defected from the mainstream to challenger parties over the last few years.
We argue that this type of defection is determined by the economic crisis,
and the governmental response to the crisis. e choice to defect to a challenger
party is about sanctioning and selection (Banks and Sundaram 1993; Fearon
1999). If we understand elections as mechanisms for political accountabil-
ity, then they must function as a sanctioning device in which voters reward
or punish incumbents on the basis of past performance (Fiorina 1981; Key
1966; Manin 1997; Powell 2000). is is the core intuition of the economic
voting model, which suggests that voters punish governments for poor eco-
nomic performance and reward them for good performance (Lewis-Beck and
Stegmaier 2000; Nannestad and Paldam 1994). In times of crisis, we would thus
expect governments to be more likely to be thrown out of oce. Bartels’ (2013)
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WEST EUROPEAN POLITICS 7
aggregate-level analysis of the ‘Great Recession’ has shown that this pattern
holds. Citizens punished incumbent governments for slow economic growth
during the crisis, although it does appear that heightened perceptions of the
EU’s economic responsibility reduced domestic economic voting in Southern
Europe (Lobo and Lewis-Beck 2012).
Most empirical studies of economic voting use either macro-level indicators
of the economy (e.g. unemployment and ination) or survey data on people’s
view of economic change as an indicator of macro-economic performance
(see Lewis-Beck and Stegmaier 2000, 2007 for overviews). ese studies have
shown a strong relationship between the economy and incumbent performance.
ere are, however, reasons why we may want to focus on people’s direct expe-
rience with the crisis, rather than indicators of macro-economic change. First,
country-level studies using aggregate data make it dicult to disentangle the
individual-level motivations for defection. Second, although perceptions of the
economy are normally highly correlated with party choice, there is increasing
concern that the direction of causality is actually from party support to eco-
nomic evaluations (Evans and Andersen 2006; Evans and Pickup 2010). By
focusing on personal experiences, or what is known as the pocketbook model of
economic voting, we circumvent many of these problems. ere is also increas-
ing evidence that personal economic circumstances, such as declining wages,
benet cuts or unemployment, are important determinants of voting behaviour
(Bechtel and Hainmueller 2011; Margalit 2011; Richter 2006). In the context
of the crisis, we expect that people who experienced a deterioration in their
personal nancial situation, such as through job loss or reduced income, will be
more likely to defect from mainstream parties. is leads to our rst hypothesis:
H1: People who were adversely economically aected by the economic crisis are
more likely to defect from mainstream parties to challenger parties.
However, the pocketbook voting model does not in itself fully explain why
voters turn to challenger parties rather than to other mainstream parties in
opposition. Voters do not see elections as simply sanctioning devices, but also
as opportunities to choose a political representative with the right set of pref-
erences and qualities (Besley 2005; Fearon 1999). is is about the prospective
selection of specic parties, rather than retrospective sanctioning of the govern-
ment. Our argument is that the convergence among mainstream parties during
the crisis has led to defection to challenger parties from people who are dissat-
ised with that consensus. During the crisis, the mainstream consensus was
based on a shared acceptance of scal austerity and deference to the discretion-
ary authority of the EU (Scharpf 2014; White 2014). While challenger parties
are united in the fact that they oer an alternative to established mainstream
policies and oen mobilise new issues, they dier signicantly in their focus.
Radical right challenger parties tend to mobilise support along the cultural or
‘new politics’ dimension, emphasising the repatriation of powers from the EU
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8 S. B. HOBOLT AND J. TILLEY
and the introduction of more restrictive immigration policies, oen with a dis-
tinct ethno-centric message (Kitschelt and McGann 1995; Rydgren 2008; van der
Brug et al. 2005). While le-wing challenger parties share the opposition to the
political establishment and elite, they propose more extreme le-wing positions
on the economic le—right spectrum. ese typically reject the neoliberal char-
acter of the responses to the crisis and are oen accompanied by mobilisation of
more novel political issues such as anti-globalisation, freedom of information and
direct democracy (March and Mudde 2005). Some le-wing challenger parties
are also Eurosceptic, arguing that the EU is a vehicle of global capitalism and
a threat to the national welfare state (Hooghe and Marks 2009; Halikiopoulou
et al. 2012). Building on this literature, we thus expect that individuals who
reject a pro-European mainstream consensus and who favour more restrictive
immigration policies are more likely to defect to challenger parties on the right,
while those opposed to neo-liberal economics and austerity are more likely to
turn to challenger parties on the le. is leads to the following two hypotheses:
H2a: People who are Eurosceptic and more opposed to immigration are more
likely to defect from mainstream parties to a right-wing challenger party.
H2b: People who strongly favour more economic redistribution are more likely
to defect from mainstream parties to a le-wing challenger party.
Explaining defection from the mainstream
As Figure 1 shows, challenger parties have become increasingly important com-
ponents of party systems across Western Europe, especially in the aermath
of the crisis. Our analysis here focuses on the question of why some people
have defected from mainstream parties, of le and right, and lent their support
to these various challenger parties. To do this we analyse the 2014 European
Election Study (EES), which is ideally suited to examine individual-level moti-
vations for defection as it asks identical questions about vote intention, vote
recall, nancial situation and policy preferences of representative samples of
voters from all EU member states (Schmitt et al. 2015).8 We focus on why
certain individuals have switched support between parties over the electoral
cycle in dierent countries in Western Europe. Specically, we look at people
who previously cast a vote for a mainstream party in the last national election,
but by 2014 supported a challenger party. Before looking at the reasons behind
defection, it is important to note how defection from the mainstream has been
crucial to challenger party success on both the le and right.
Table 1 shows how people in the 17 Western European member states said
they voted in the previous national election and how they would choose to
vote in June 2014 when they were interviewed. It is noteworthy that the pat-
tern of change that we see here matches the aggregate data shown in Figure 1.
Both mainstream right and le parties have fewer people supporting them in
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WEST EUROPEAN POLITICS 9
2014 than they did in the previous national election. Who benets from these
defections? Challenger le and challenger right parties benet roughly equally.
Both increase their support by about half.
Table 2 shows more clearly the ow of voters. e gures show the percent-
age vote for dierent types of parties as a percentage of previous party type.
Loyal supporters, those who previously supported a particular party type and
continue to do so, are shown on the diagonal. Roughly 8 out of 10 supporters
of both mainstream right and le parties are loyalists. While there is some
switching between le and right, overall to the benet of the le, and some
mobilisation from previous non-voters, the overwhelming picture is of stability.
e makeup of challenger party support is very dierent to mainstream party
support. All three types of challenger party have barely half of supporters that
are loyalists. Challenger parties pick up support from both mainstream parties
and from previous non-voters. Almost half of the support for challenger parties
is due to defection from the mainstream or mobilisation from non-voting.
But that does not mean that defection is that common. In total about 9 per
cent of people who voted previously and now express a vote intention switch
Table 1.Percentage vote for different types of parties (2014).
Note: Non-voters and people who said don’t know or refused to give their vote choice are not shown here.
Source: EES (2014).
Party type Previous vote Vote intention Change
Mainstream right 42% 36% −6%
Mainstream left 37% 33% −3%
Challenger right 8% 12% +4%
Challenger left 10% 14% +3%
Challenger green 4% 5% +1%
All 100% 100%
(N) 11,424 11,614
Table 2.Percentage vote for different types of parties as a percentage of previous party
type vote share (2014).
Note: Percentages less than 1% are not shown here. The ‘None’ category includes people who said they
did not vote, or were not intending to vote, people who didn’t know how they voted, or how they were
intending to vote, and people who refused to give a response to the question.
Source: EES (2014).
Party type intending to vote for
Mainstream
right
Mainstream
left
Challenger
right
Challenger
left
Challenger
green None
Mainstream right 83% 6% 18% 8% 9% 12%
Mainstream left 3% 78% 9% 14% 17% 9%
Challenger right 1% 50% 2% 2% 2%
Challenger left 1% 3% 56% 2% 2%
Challenger green 1% 3% 54%
None 12% 13% 20% 18% 17% 74%
All 100% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100%
N4110 3858 1385 1566 569 5515
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10 S. B. HOBOLT AND J. TILLEY
from the mainstream to the challengers (only 1 per cent switch the other way).
While that is not a huge proportion of the electorate, it is a proportion that has
transformed challenger parties from insignicant to signicant players. at
raises the question of what makes those people switch. Why has a tenth of the
electorate turned away from mainstream parties?
As discussed above, there are two major drivers of electoral behaviour: sanc-
tioning and selection. Our argument is that both sanctioning on the basis of
economic experiences and selection on the basis of policy preferences deter-
mine whether people defect. Our dependent variable is thus defection. We
restrict our analysis to those individuals who supported mainstream parties
in the previous national election and we see what factors made people more
or less likely to defect, in terms of supporting a dierent party today, to chal-
lenger parties.9
To capture sanctioning and selection, we use two sets of independent vari-
ables. Economic sanctioning is modelled by including a measure that captures
how the crisis aected individuals nancially. is consists of two questions.
e rst asks whether the respondent, or someone in their household, lost their
job over the last two years. e second asks whether the respondent’s house-
hold saw a decrease in income over the last two years. We add up the number
of adverse impacts, so people who said their income decreased and someone
lost their job score 2, people who just mention one adverse impact score 1 and
people mentioning neither score zero; 48 per cent of people in the 17 Western
European states score zero, 32 per cent score 1 and 20 per cent score 2.
To capture selection based on policy preferences, we use a series of 11-point
policy scales. ese concern the redistribution of wealth, raising taxes to spend
more on public services, restricting immigration, furthering European inte-
gration and the trade-o between environmental protection and economic
growth.10 We have recoded these so that the more ‘right-wing’ responses are
higher numbers. is means that high scores indicate that a person is against
redistribution, against increasing taxes, against further European integration,
favours economic growth over environmental protection, and favours restrict-
ing immigration further.11
We include a number of demographic control variables in the models: age,
occupational social class, religiosity, sex, education, citizenship and trade union
membership.12 We also include political interest as an important control when
looking at switches to non-voting, and this is measured on a 1–4 scale from not
interested to very interested. Finally, we include a series of dummy variables
for each country (xed-eects) to control for country eects.
Table 3 shows the rst two models that test hypothesis 1: does sanction-
ing happen and does it aect all mainstream parties? Because the sanctioning
model is focused on the punishment of governments, we separate out those
who previously voted for a mainstream party in government from those who
previously voted for a mainstream party outside government. According to the
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WEST EUROPEAN POLITICS 11
classic model of economic voting, we would only expect it to aect governing
parties. However, if voters are sanctioning the mainstream consensus then we
should expect it to aect all mainstream parties. e two models presented here
are thus multinomial logit models which compare either (1) defection from
mainstream governing parties to challengers or non-voting or (2) defection
from mainstream opposition parties to challengers or non-voting. We group
all challenger parties together.
Included in this model are the measures of the economic impact of the crisis
on individuals, political interest and demographic controls mentioned ear-
lier, although we just show the coecients for economic impacts and political
interest in the table. In the main, the eect of any of the social characteristics is
small, with the exception of age. Older people are generally less likely to switch
away from mainstream parties, no doubt because they have built up stronger
partisan loyalties over many years (Converse 1969; Tilley 2003).
A clear story emerges from these results. People who defected from main-
stream parties to challengers are those disproportionately aected by negative
economic factors in their own lives. Crucially this is true whether the main-
stream party they previously voted for is currently in government or not. People
are not simply punishing governing parties, they are voting against mainstream
parties as a whole. In fact, people in poor economic circumstances are actually
more likely to defect to challengers from mainstream parties outside govern-
ment than from mainstream parties within government. Hence, in line with
our rst hypothesis, we nd that those who experience economic hardship
during the crisis are more likely to turn their backs on all mainstream parties.
Figure 2 shows the rates of defection from mainstream parties in government
Table 3.Multinomial logit model predicting defection from mainstream parties.
Note: Reference category for model 1 is vote intention for mainstream governing party, reference cate-
gory for model 2 is vote intention for mainstream opposition party. Only people who previously voted
for a mainstream government party are included in model 1, and only people who voted for a main-
stream opposition party are included in model 2. Other control variables included in both models, but
not shown above, are fixed effects for country, and individual-level control variables of age, occupational
social class, religiosity, sex, education, citizenship and trade union membership.
Source: EES (2014).
*p < 0.05; **p < 0.01.
Model 1 Model 2
Defection from government
mainstream
Defection from opposition
mainstream
Opposition Challenger Non-voter Government Challenger Non-voter
B B B B B B
Affected by crisis 0.30** 0.24** 0.15*−0.19 0.30** 0.10
Political interest −0.08 −0.07 −0.40** 0.13 0.00 −0.34**
Constant −2.62** −0.93*−0.60 −18.4 −2.59** −2.03**
Pseudo R-square 0.13 0.15
N5814 2989
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12 S. B. HOBOLT AND J. TILLEY
and in opposition for people who experienced no negative economic eects
compared to those in households who experienced both unemployment and
declining income. Positive numbers indicate that parties attract more voters
negatively aected by the crisis.
e le-hand chart in Figure 2 shows how defection rates dier by economic
circumstance for people who previously supported a governing party. ere is
clearly an eect of poor economic circumstances on defection to mainstream
opposition parties—they get more defectors from those severely aected by the
crisis. But so do challenger parties. In fact the eect on defection to challengers
is greater. More importantly though, the right-hand gure shows defection
from mainstream opposition parties given dierent economic experiences. In
contrast to classic economic voting models, we nd that adverse experiences
generate more defection to challengers from people who previously voted for
mainstream opposition parties even though those mainstream parties are not
in government. ese are fairly sizeable eects as well. e average defection
rate from both mainstream governing and opposition parties to challengers is
about 25 per cent (given the specic type of person described in the gures).
Moving from good to bad economic experiences thus makes a substantial dif-
ference to the possibility of defection.
Hence, there is evidence of economic sanctioning and support for our rst
hypothesis, but on what basis do voters decide which party to select? Table 4
shows the coecients from a multinomial logit model that predicts defection
from mainstream parties (both in government and in opposition) to the three
-5%
5%
15%
Previously voted for a mainstream party
in government
Challengers
Non-voting
Mainstream
opposition
-5%
5%
15%
Previously voted for a mainstream party
in opposition
Challengers
Non-voting
Mainstream
government
Figure 2.Changes in the predicted probability of defection for those who experience two
economic impacts compared to those who experience none.
Note: These probabilities come from models 1 and 2 in Table 3. They represent the difference between
people who score 2 on the economic impact scale and those who score 0 on the scale in the probability
of defection/loyalty. The predicted probabilities are for a Dutch man with a white-collar job, low level of
education, who is not in a trade union and has the mean age and mean political interest of someone who
voted for a mainstream party in the last national election. Source: EES (2014).
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WEST EUROPEAN POLITICS 13
dierent types of challenger party and also to non-voting. It is rst worth not-
ing that all four types of defector are more likely to have directly experienced
economic problems. Interestingly, the question of which specic party they
defected to is not aected by the impact of the economic crisis; the size of the
economic eect is rather similar across all four types of defector. How do we
explain which specic party these defectors turn to?
In line with our second set of hypotheses (H2a and H2b), Table 4 shows that
there is signicant variation in the ideological prole of defectors to dierent
parties. People who le the mainstream to join the challenger right-wing parties
are much more anti-immigration and anti-EU than mainstream loyalists, but
they dier very little in terms of their views on the environment and redistri-
bution, and are only very slightly more in favour of restricting government
spending. Defectors to the challenger le are a little more anti-EU and a little
more pro-environment and immigration than mainstream party loyalists, but
these are not big dierences. e big dierence between loyalists and defectors
to the challenger le is attitudes towards redistribution. ose in favour of
greater redistribution are much more likely to defect to challenger le-wing par-
ties. is is also the case for challenger green parties, although unsurprisingly
the best policy predictor is support for environmental protection. Finally the
best predictor of people who become non-voters is not ideology, but political
interest. While political interest appears to have little eect on defection from
mainstream to challenger parties, it is the politically uninterested that leave
mainstream parties and exit the system altogether.13
Table 4.Multinomial logit model predicting defection from mainstream parties to chal-
lenger parties and non-voting.
Note: Reference category is vote intention for mainstream party. Only people who previously voted for a
mainstream party are included in the model. Policy position is measured on a 0–10 scale for each of the
five policy areas. Other control variables included in the model, but not shown above, are fixed effects for
country, and individual-level control variables of age, occupational social class, religiosity, sex, education,
citizenship and trade union membership.
Source: EES (2014).
N = 8680. Pseudo R-square = 0.15. *p < 0.05; **p < 0.01.
Challenger
right
Challenger
left
Challenger
green Non-voter
BBBB
Policy position (high
scores = against)
Immigration 0.16** −0.02 −0.08*0.00
EU 0.14** 0.04 −0.07*0.03*
Environment 0.01 −0.03 −0.24** −0.02
Redistribution 0.02 −0.18** −0.09*−0.01
Govt spending 0.07** −0.00 −0.06 0.02
Affected by crisis 0.18*0.19*0.21 0.11*
Political interest −0.11 0.04 −0.13 −0.36**
Constant −5.02** −2.74*−0.53 −1.47**
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14 S. B. HOBOLT AND J. TILLEY
ese eects are not trivial. Figure 3 shows how a two standard deviation
move (from a position of one standard deviation below the mean to one stand
-
ard deviation above the mean) on the three most important policy scales aects
rates of defection. ese are clearly substantial eects given the relative rarity
of defection. Challenger right-wing parties get substantially more defectors
from those who are opposed to EU integration and immigration, in line with
ndings in the existing literature on the far right (van der Brug et al. 2005;
Rydgren 2008), whereas challenger le-wing parties get substantially more
defectors from those in favour of redistribution. Mainstream parties hang on to
-10%
-5%
0%
5%
10%
In favour of redistribution compared to
against redistribution
Challenger
right
Challenger
left
Challenger
green
Non-voter
Mainstream
party
-10%
-5%
0%
5%
10%
In favour of restrictive immigration
compared to less restrictive
Challenger
right
Challenger
left
Challenger
green
Non-voter
Mainstream
party
-10%
-5%
0%
5%
10%
In favour of less EU integration
compared to more integration
Challenger
right
Challenger
left
Challenger
green
Non-voter
Mainstream
party
Figure 3.Changes in the predicted probability of defection/loyalty when changing policy
position on the three policy scales.
Note: These probabilities come from the model in Table 4. They represent the difference between people
who score one standard deviation below the mean on the policy scale compared to those who score one
standard deviation above the mean on the policy scale. The predicted probabilities are for a Dutch man
with a skilled manual job, low level of education, who is not in a trade union, and has the mean age, mean
political interest and mean policy positions on the other four scales of someone who voted for a mainstream
party in the last national election. Source: EES (2014).
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WEST EUROPEAN POLITICS 15
supporters who are more in tune with the mainstream party consensus on EU
integration, immigration and redistribution. It is rejection of this mainstream
consensus, in any of its forms, that motivates people to leave the embrace of
mainstream parties, but the policy area that is being rejected is a crucial pre-
dictor of which challenger party will benet from that defection.
Conclusion
Challenger parties are the political success story of the aermath of the euro
crisis. Both on the le and the right it is parties that have not recently been in
government that have beneted from the exodus of voters from mainstream
parties. e decline in the vote shares of mainstream parties since the onset of
the nancial crisis in 2008 is around 12 percentage points. With the exception
of Greece, mainstream parties have remained the dominant actors in govern-
ment in Western Europe, yet those defections have nonetheless transformed
challenger parties from oen very marginal political players to repositories of
a substantial proportion of people’s votes.
Why has this happened? We have argued that the classic model of elections
as mechanisms for sanctioning and selection oers a helpful framework to
understand defection from mainstream to challenger parties. Starting with
sanctioning, defection is clearly linked to the economic crisis. People who were
subject to declining economic fortunes are more likely to desert mainstream
parties, whether in government or opposition. Voters are not simply reacting
to the perceived failures of mainstream parties however. ey are also choos-
ing challenger parties on the basis of policy. Challengers on the right gain
voters from the mainstream who disagree with the mainstream consensus
on immigration and EU integration. Challengers on the le gain voters from
the mainstream who disagree with the consensus on scal policy. us, both
sanctioning and ideological selection matter in how challenger parties convert
mainstream party voters.
While the majority of people remain loyal to the mainstream, the increas-
ing proportion of voters that opt for challenger parties is likely to have a sig-
nicant impact on party systems and European democracy. First, voters are
oen attracted to challenger parties because of their stances on issues such as
European integration and immigration. e more Eurosceptic position adopted
by most challenger parties has put pressure on national governments and made
it more dicult to reach agreement on political issues, as demonstrated not
least during the recent Mediterranean immigration crisis. Second, the success
of challenger parties has inuenced the stability of governments. Since chal-
lenger parties tend to stay in opposition, the formation, and maintenance, of
stable coalitions has become more and more dicult. It has also meant the rise
of ‘grand coalition’ governments spanning le and right mainstream parties,
which has, ironically, strengthened the claims of challenger parties that all
mainstream parties oer the same policies.
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16 S. B. HOBOLT AND J. TILLEY
is raises the question of whether the success of challenger parties is a
eeting phenomenon that will dissipate as the economy improves, or whether
it is the beginning of a new type of party politics in Western Europe. e crisis,
and the mainstream party response to it, has facilitated the success of challenger
parties, but it is not clear that the demand for such parties will simply disappear
as economic conditions improve. Voters are less partisan than they were and
more disillusioned with the established political class and this will continue
to add to the appeal of challenger parties. Nonetheless, much will depend on
how parties, both mainstream and challenger, respond to the changing polit-
ical landscape. Some successful challenger parties choose to eventually enter
government. If such stints in oce are more than passing, these parties are
likely to be held to account for the decisions and compromises taken in oce,
and this is likely to diminish their appeal to many of their current supporters.
Such challenger parties may cease to be ‘challengers’ and become part of the
mainstream. e example of the Syriza-led government in Greece shows how
government responsibility can force challenger parties closer to the mainstream
consensus. Equally, much of the appeal of challenger parties during the crisis
was that mainstream parties were perceived to oer very similar positions on
important issues relating to the economy, Europe and immigration. Hence, the
continued success of challenger parties will also depend on the policy choices
oered by the mainstream.
Notes
1. Source: Eurostat (seasonally adjusted gures from May 2014).
2. Most of these challenger parties are also ‘niche parties’ (Adams et al. 2006;
Meguid 2008) and/or ‘populist parties’ (Mudde 2007). However, in this article
we focus specically on government experience as the distinguishing factor,
since it aects whether such parties can be held to account by voters and also
their ability to challenge the mainstream policy consensus (van de Wardt et al.
2014). To check the robustness of our party classication in comparison to other
measures, we have replicated all of our analyses using the standard Adams et al.
(2006) operationalisation of niche parties based on the Comparative Manifesto
Project classication of parties into party families. Parties belonging to the
Green/Ecological (10), Communist/Socialist (20) and Nationalist (70) party
families as well as Special Issue parties (95) with non-centrist niche ideologies
are classied as niche parties. All our main ndings hold using this alternative
operationalisation (see Tables A2 and A3 in the Appendix). Table A4 in the
Appendix lists all parties (in 2014) included in both the challenger and niche
party categories.
3. Although party systems and party competition are beginning to stabilise in
Central and Eastern Europe, these political systems are still characterised by
high volatility which makes it dicult to clearly identify mainstream parties
(Bakke and Sitter 2005).
4. Any cut-o point in terms of government experience to determine when a
party is, or is not, a challenger party is somewhat arbitrary. However, this
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WEST EUROPEAN POLITICS 17
operationalisation both oers parsimony and captures parties without any
recent government experience. Using a slightly dierent operationalisation
that looks at post-war participation in government yields very similar results.
5. For parties scoring 5, we classify them on the basis of coalition partners or
their membership of European Parliament political groups. Green parties are
those parties whose ideology centres on the principles of green politics and
environmentalism. e full list of challenger and mainstream parties can be
found in the Appendix Table A4.
6. One exception is the Five Star Movement in Italy, which is very dicult to
classify. Our results are robust to the classication of this party in either of the
three challenger party categories.
7. Less than 100 per cent of vote shares were allocated, since only parties with
over 1 per cent of the vote (or at least one MP) were classied. is estimate
of challenger parties is therefore conservative, since most of these very small
parties and candidates are likely to belong to the challenger party category.
8. Approximately 1100 respondents were interviewed in each EU member country,
totalling 30,064 respondents. Our analysis only focuses on the 17 West European
member states. e EES 2014 was carried out by TNS Opinion between 30
May and 27 June 2014. All the interviews were carried out face to face. More
information can be found at: http://eeshomepage.net/voter-study-2014, where
the EES questionnaire can also be found.
9. One issue is the coding of non-voters. We have excluded all people who refused
to answer the previous vote question (9 per cent of respondents) but included
don’t knows’ (2 per cent of respondents) as non-voters along with the 23 per
cent of people who stated that they did not vote previously. In terms of current
party support, we include anyone who did not give a party name as a non-voter,
including people who answered ‘don’t know’, did not give an answer, and people
who specically said that they would not vote. In total this includes 32 per cent
of respondents. e only dierence we make in terms of coding challenger party
support is to categorise support for very minor parties that fail to make the 1
per cent threshold that we applied to the aggregate data.
10. Respondents were asked about the extent to which they agreed/disagreed with
the following statements on an 11-point scale: ‘You are fully in favour of the
redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor’; ‘You are fully in favour of
raising taxes to increase public services’; ‘You are fully in favour of a restrictive
policy on immigration, ‘e EU should have more authority over the EU
Member States’ economic and budgetary policies’; ‘Environmental protection
should always take priority even at the cost of economic growth.
11. We have also recoded ‘don’t know’ responses to the mid points of the scale (6)
in order to maximise the number of cases included in the models. Don’t knows
make up 4–5 per cent of the responses, and including them in this way makes
no material dierence to the results.
12. e occupational social class categories are self-employed, managerial,
professional, white-collar worker, skilled manual worker, unskilled manual
worker, student, unemployed and out of the labour force. Education is based
on terminal age of education and consists of three categories: education nished
before 16, education nished before 19, education nished at 20 or over.
Religiosity is measured using church attendance divided into four categories:
weekly, monthly, yearly and never. Age is measured in years, trade union
members are distinguished from non-members and citizens are distinguished
from non-citizens.
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18 S. B. HOBOLT AND J. TILLEY
13. Table A1 in the Appendix shows similar models that look at mobilisation from
non-voting to voting for the dierent party types. e results here echo, albeit
more weakly, the same processes that we see for defection from mainstream
parties. Moreover, as we might expect, mobilised voters are more politically
interested than those that remain non-voters, but there are no real dierences
in how political interest aects mobilisation to dierent types of party.
Acknowledgements
We would like to thank Julian Hoerner for excellent research assistance and the
European Research Council for generous funding. We are also grateful for the insightful
comments from the anonymous reviewers as well as the participants in the workshop
on ‘Re-inking European Integration in the Shadow of Crisis: Politics, Institutions
and Governance, organised by Brigid Laan at the European University Institute, 2015.
Disclosure statement
No potential conict of interest was reported by the authors.
Funding
is work was supported by the European Research Council [grant number EUDEMOS
647835].
Notes on contributors
Sara B. Hobolt is the Sutherland Chair in European Institutions at the London School
of Economics and Political Science, and an Associate Member of Nueld College,
University of Oxford. She is also the Vice Chair of the European Election Studies.
[s.b.hobolt@lse.ac.uk]
James Tilley is a Professor of Politics at the University of Oxford and a fellow of Jesus
College, Oxford. He works on public opinion and electoral behaviour in Britain and
Europe. His most recent book (co-authored with Sara Hobolt, 2014) is Blaming Europe:
Responsibility without Accountability in the European Union. [james.tilley@politics.ox.ac.
uk]
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