Party Competition

Two Faces of Party System Stability: Organizational Continuity and Programmatic Consistency

Despite the prominent role scholars attribute to party system instability in forming and maintaining consolidated democracies, the concept is often reduced to the survival of party organizations. Notwithstanding their importance, stable organizations alone do not ensure programmatic stability. Parties may radically shift their programmatic appeal, even if their organization stay the same. Therefore, the paper argues for introducing programmatic stability as a separate dimension of party system stability and shows how the combination of organizational and programmatic instability shapes patterns of party competition. The literature on party system stability can be divided according to its empirical focus which has implications for its research question and its normative and theoretical claims. Scholars of North-Western European party systems examine the link between historically stable cleavages and parties’ programmatic appeal in the context of party system dealignment and/or re-alignment. The general stability of party systems in this region allows for treating organizational and programmatic stability as two faces of the same phenomena. Although not a new phenomenon (e.g. Tangentopoli in Italy), the study of party system stability in Southern Europe gained momentum with the dramatic collapse of established parties in response to the economic and political crisis. Although new parties have emerged in these systems, the extent to which they provide programmatically different alternatives is unclear. Scholars of Eastern European party competition consider stability a pre-requisite of consolidated democracies and are divided in their view regarding the general level of stability. The paper sets out to provide a comparative analysis of party system stability in the three regions and shows that despite regional differences in organizational stability, programmatic instability is present across systems with different socio-economic histories. The paper relies on an updated version of the dataset used by Kriesi et al. (2012, 2008), collected by the POLCON ERC project. The dataset covers party competition as reported by two national newspapers during a two-months-long window of observation in 51 electoral campaigns. The fifteen democracies under scrutiny represent the over-time dynamic in the three regions of Europe, during the period of the Great Recession. The dataset relies on core sentence coding and provides a map of parties’ issue positions and salience. The paper distinguishes between four ‘ideal’ types of party competition, depending on the interaction between organizational and programmatic stability. On the one hand there are generally stable or unstable systems, where programmatic stability aligns with organizational stability. On the other hand, there are systems where the two do not align and create either ephemeral parties or systems with empty party labels. In the case of the former, the party systems provide programmatically stable alternatives, despite the general instability of party organizations. In the case of the latter, the party system provides programmatically instable alternatives, despite the relatively long life-span of party organizations. The paper presents empirical examples to all four types to illustrate how different conditions of instability affect patterns of party competition.