The 1990s will be remembered as years during which liberal democracy emerged triumphant; they may also be remembered as years during which serious questions were raised about the future of the main instruments of liberal democracy, the political parties, in many, if not in all Western European countries. Several older parties suffered serious electoral setbacks; a few even disappeared. Yet there were few signs that a challenge was seriously coming from new phoenixes: on the whole, the protest parties on the right and centre and the Greens on the centre and left have obtained a place, but one which has remained modest. The old guard may be shaken, but not because it is being replaced by other, more dynamic elements. Almost nowhere is there a realignment: what is occurring is an erosion of the weight of the traditional parties and of some of the grip of these parties on society.
The phenomenon of the decline of parties in Western Europe has long exercised observers. Indeed, parties have been said to be in decline almost from the moment they became established. However, since the 1970s at least, empirical analysis seemed to provide evidence for the view that slow, but long-term changes were affecting parties and party systems. These changes were leading, not merely to the emergence of new parties, but also to increased abstention and to greater 'independence' of the electorate vis-à-vis the established parties, as well as to a drop, indeed in some cases a substantial drop, in party membership. Although the incidence of these developments is not uniform across Western Europe, some movements along these lines have taken place almost everywhere: they have naturally been linked to the societal changes of the second half of the twentieth century which have eroded the traditional political cleavages on which Western European parties and party systems had been built, and in particular the class cleavage and the religious cleavage. 1
As these long-term changes were slowly reducing the 'weight' of Western European parties, a further shock came from a different quarter, a shock