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ECPR 50th Anniversary Fund

Masters of Their Own Fate? Multi-Dimensional Political Competition and the Electoral Performance of West European Radical Left Parties

Political Competition
Political Parties
Werner Krause
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
Werner Krause
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

This article investigates the impact of radical left parties’ policy positions on their electoral support in the context of multi-dimensional party competition. The central theoretical argument in this article is based on the insight that issue strategies of political parties can be divided into two groups. The first rests on the Downsian idea of political competition and, thus, focuses on “mainstream” party behavior. Plain and simple, this perspective maintains that parties are best advised to promote centrist policy positions close to the median voter in order to maximize their vote shares. The second, “outsider” strategy centers on niche-seeking policy programs that focus on so far neglected positions in the political space. Here, political parties are assumed to profit from raising novel issues by providing an extreme position (Downs 1957; Adams et al. 2006; Ezrow et al. 2010; Abou-Chadi/Orlowski 2016).

Although research widely acknowledges the multi-dimensionality of the political space, little work tackles the question whether political parties profit from applying both - “outsider” and “mainstream” - strategies simultaneously on different conflict dimensions. This paper aims to clarify – using the example of West European radical left parties – whether political parties benefit electorally if they promote centrist and radical policy positions on different issue dimensions. The radical left constitutes excellent testing ground for this research question because this party family occupies an intermediate position between mainstream and niche parties. Although economic issues constitute the bread and butter of these parties, they increasingly started to pay attention to new cultural conflicts since the beginning of the 1990s.

The core argument of this paper is, thus, that radical left parties benefit from applying different strategies on the two dominant conflict axes within West European electoral politics, i.e. the economic and the non-economic issue dimension. Relying on the distinction of pragmatic and principled issue domains (Tavits 2007), I argue that radical left parties profit electorally from moderating their stance on economic issues, while they are punished at the ballot boxes if they do the same on the non-economic issue dimension. Using data provided by the MARPOR Project from 1989 until 2017 for 18 West European countries, the proposed paper utilizes a time-series cross-section design to test these claims empirically. Moreover, the analysis investigates to which extent the positions of competing mainstream parties moderate the success of these strategies.

This study, thus, contributes to the current literature in a twofold way. First, this is the first study that sheds light on the (so far neglected) electoral supply-side as a decisive factor explaining the electoral success and failure of West European radical left parties. Second, the theoretical framework underlines the important role of multi-dimensional competition. While theories on mainstream and niche party success have mostly been presented as two isolated approaches, theory on party competition gives little reason to assume that they cannot be applied simultaneously by one and the same party. These dynamics in multi-dimensional political spaces are crucial to understand the success strategies of West European radical left (and other) parties.
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