Party Elites in Divided Societies: Political Parties in Consociational Democracy

By Kurt Richard Luther; Kris Deschouwer | Go to book overview

9

The consociational party system

Steven B. Wolinetz

‘The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind’

Bob Dylan, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’


Introduction

A quotation from a 1960s folk song may seem like an odd way to begin an essay on party system change in the 1990s, but Bob Dylan’s refrain, once an anthem of the American civil rights movement, captures the ways in which thinking about party systems and voting behaviour has changed. Thirty years ago we thought of party systems and the voter alignments which sustained them as immutable features of the landscape. That is no longer the case. Political scientists are less surprised than before when voters in successive elections fail to replicate past choices. The need to explain changes has generated new foci, such as recent emphases on anti-party sentiment. However, the implications of such phenomena for party systems and when and how they change remain uncertain.

This chapter examines four consociational polities—Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Switzerland—in light of the broader topic of party system change. All have changed in the last thirty years. Of the four, the Dutch party system has undergone the most change, the Swiss the least. However, neither Austria nor Belgium have been immutable. Once static, the Austrian party system is undergoing rapid changes. Under Jörg Haider, the Freedom Party (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, or FPÖ) has emerged from the margins and challenged the hegemony of the SPÖ and ÖVP. In Belgium, parties based on the older pillars or families spirituelles, split into separate Flemish and Walloon parties in the 1960s and 1970s, but retain a dominant position even though smaller parties on the right and left occasionally win votes from them. This chapter will consider whether these four systems display patterns of continuity and change different from other European countries.

Two caveats are in order. Although the chapter concentrates on party system change in consociational polities, the term ‘consociational’ is used to designate a category of political systems in which party and other elites have frequently engaged in co-operative rather than adversarial behaviour, forming overly large

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