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Party competition in Austria, Germany and the Netherlands: The Limits to Bipolarisation

Fraser Duncan
Glasgow Caledonian University
Fraser Duncan
Glasgow Caledonian University
Open Panel

Abstract

Although interest in constructing party system typologies has waned in recent decades, a common theme emerging from a range of studies is the growing bipolarisation of party systems in Western Europe. According to a number of analysts, notably Bale (2003) and Mair (2001, 2006), competition between parties was increasingly structured into bipolar blocs, resembling, at least to some extent, the French party system in the Fifth Republic. Alongside Italy and many of the Scandinavian countries, the party systems of Germany, the Netherlands and Austria have been identified as exemplifying this trend. In the Dutch and Austrian cases, centre-right parties now seemed amenable to bringing the radical right into office-holding responsibilities, bringing about increasing bloc polarisation, whilst in Germany the formation of the Red-Green Schröder government also seemed to confirm an underlying bipolar logic to party competition. This paper, however, contests the extent of bipolarisation in the three countries. Contrary to Mair’s claim (2006: 70) that ‘parties will almost inevitably find themselves drawn towards bipolar competition’, the last decade has witnessed not just bipolar bloc coalitions in the three countries but also governing coalitions spanning the main centre-right and centre-left parties. This paper explores the causes of, and obstacles to, bipolarisation in the three countries, arguing that at most a limited bipolarisation of each party system has taken place. Lacking the institutional incentives to form stable bipolar blocs that are present in other countries, there exist instead strategic incentives for parties to form alliances that cut across the bloc logic of bipolarisation, particularly given continuing doubts about the governmental suitability of the radical right and radical left, the opening up of the Greens to other parties and the ideological flexibility of Christian democratic parties.