Can the Crisis Shift the Balance to the Left? by Tatiana Rudneva with Reply by Mark Sandle

PDF Versions: Article, Review by Mark Sandle.

Can the Crisis Shift the Balance to the Left?

Tatiana Rudneva[1]

1 Introduction

The recent 2007–2010 crisis started in the United States, but soon triggered a dangerous domino effect and continued its journey across the globe like a worldwide epidemic, targeting each and all. The first financial crisis of that magnitude since the dissolution of the Soviet Union has renewed the debate between the right and the left about the irreplaceability of the capitalist system.

What makes this crisis so unique is that due to not so distant and rather disapointing historical attempts of building socialism, now common people have to find themselves torn between the instability embedded in the capitalist economics and revealed by the recent crisis on the one hand, and the frustrating example of the Soviet Union’s untimely demise on the other.

To determine whether the revealed drawbacks of the current economic system are enough to tip the scale and whether the support for socialist ideas among voters is growing, this study will present the results of 2008–2010 parliamentarian elections in pluralist democracies and analyse the voters’ choices.

The paper consists of four sections and is structured as follows: in Section 2, we outline the principles of data selection for the research and explain the choice of data sources. In Section 3 we provide a table which comprises and illustrates the quantitative results of the research based on the data selected according to the principles outlined in Section 2. In Section 4, we evaluate the results, outline a few observations and try to interpret them. Section 5 concludes.

2 Data Selection

Most research results are sensitive to the data on which the research is based. As the idea of this article is to examine the election results in order to determine whether the financial crisis has prompted people to take a more left-oriented stand, to base the research on falsified election results (unfortunately, in some countries elections are rigged despite the massive spurt of world-wide democratisation described in Kalandadze and Orenstein (2009) would be to compromise the whole research. It is impossible to draw any inferences about public evaluations of the government actions and the political situation in general from election results if citizens were deprived of an opportunity to use their ballots to express their satisfaction, or, alternatively, dissatisfaction with those in power and those who strive for it.

2.1  Country Choice

Prima facie, the primary criteria for selecting election results for the study should be the fairness of elections. However, the simple fact that there was no ballot rigging during the process of casting the ballots and counting the votes, even if it is indeed a fact confirmed by the reports of election observers, is not enough to ensure that election results do represent the people’s will. For truly democratic elections, there is a pre-condition to be met: the elections should be held within the framework of democracy. The perfect environment for free and fair elections (closely connected with such notions as political rights and civil liberties, competitiveness, openness of participation, accountability, legitimacy etc.) should be created much earlier than the elections themselves begin. Schedler (2002) describes ‘the chain of democratic choice’ consisting of several conditions for democratic elections which cover every stage from the original structure to the final consequences of voter choice and form a metaphorical chain (p.39–40).

Moreover, there is a high degree of interdependence between the fairness of elections and the level of democratisation. In most democracy indices, the fairness of elections is listed amongst the indicators used to measure the level of democratisation and a country’s scores in this category clearly affect its overall rating (Bogaards, 2007). Nevertheless, despite being interrelated, the two levels (i.e., the democratisation level and the election fairness level) are not equivalent to each other (Stepan and Robertson, 2003). Bollen (1995) argues that the fairness of elections is one of the subjective indicators as opposed to the objective ones like voter turnout statistics (which, Bollen admits, can still be falsified – p.819). More than that, Bogaards (2007) argues that the whole relationship between democracy and elections failed his empirical test based on data from 165 African multiparty elections in 26 countries. We personally do not question the relationship between democracy and elections at all; as for Bogaards’ findings, they mostly prove the subjectivity and falsifiability of the data — problems, mentioned by Bollen (1995).

We have to admit that the fact that elections are held in democratic states does not entirely exclude the possibility of corruption and violations during the electoral process; besides, there are ambiguous cases of competitive authoritarian systems, hegemonic-party systems or hybrid regimes of some kind claiming they have embarked on a democratic path (Diamond, 2002). Fortunately, the regime is not something that is assigned to a state by authors of democracy indices once and forever; as both traditional democracies and countries in transition sometimes advance on their democratic path (which is endless), and sometimes go back, all these fluctuations should be, and, indeed, are being captured by the multiple time period democracy indices. Because of the existence of such fluctuations, for our research we decided to use the data provided by indices that do display even the most recent variation in the level of democratisation.

Unfortunately, the critical assessment of different democracy indices by Munck and Verkuilen (2002) has clearly shown that there is no perfect dataset on the level of democratisation. In democracy indices, statistical data collection (essentially quantitative) has to be combined with data assessment (which has a more qualitative nature), and to bring these two together without comprehensive methodological guidelines is rather difficult. In Munck and Verkuilen (2003) the same authors also admit that ‘any index… has a certain degree of measurement error’ (p.19). Despite the attempt of Munck and Verkuilen (2002) to identify areas in which attempts to improve the quality of democracy datasets should be focused, there is still no universal recipe of how to design the perfect democracy index; and the very existence of alternative democracy indices is another eloquent testimony to it.

Nevertheless, the majority of research groups which produce the data for widely used data sources take into account the incoming critique of their work and do try to improve the quality of data. Besides, thanks to works explaining how to assess the quality of data (see, for example, Rohlfing 2008) and the actual assessment of existing data sets the researchers are able to estimate the degree of reliability of certain data sources, which makes the data choice more rational. For our research, we were not able to find this ‘perfect’ dataset, so we decided to follow the steps of Stepan and Robertson (2003), who, arguing that ‘the process of ranking countries …is unavoidably subjective’ decided to make use of two separate data sets: the Polity project and Freedom Houses’s Freedom in the World: the Annual Survey of Political Rights and Civil Liberties (p.31). However, there is another rather comprehensive data set (which did not exist at that time) that will also be used in this research in addition to the previous two: the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index.

Freedom House’s ‘Freedom in the World: annual survey of political rights and civil liberties’ and its country ratings cover 194 countries and 14 disputed territories. Each country and territory is rated on a seven-point scale for political rights and civil liberties (where countries scoring one are the most free and those scoring seven are the least free). According to the average of both ratings, countries and territories are then assigned a status of Free (1.0 to 2.5), Partly Free (3.0 to 5.0) and Not Free (5.5 to 7.0) (Freedom in the World Methodology Summary).

There is a 13-point scale with 13 differently coloured rectangles. The first four rectangles are gradually coloured red and represent the scores tied up with the NOT FREE status (where the one with the brightest red represents the countries with the highest score of 7.0, which are, consequently, assumed to be the least free, whereas the one with the lightest red represents the countries which scored the least points in the category ‘NOT FREE’ and which are the most free of the ’not free’ countries (we hope the reader will forgive our use of this oxymoronic antylogy)); the following five rectangles are coloured orange and concur with the PARTLY FREE status (where the rectangle with the brightest orange represents the least free country in the category of PARTLY FREE and the one with the most faded orange the most free); the last four rectangles represent the ‘FREE’ status and are coloured yellow, where, again, the most yellow is the least free in the category of ‘FREE’ and the least yellow is the most free).

Another democracy index used for for our research is the Polity IV Project (Political Regime Characteristics and Transitions, 1800–2009). It provides annually updated data resources for purposes of comparative and quantitative analysis. The Project currently includes 163 countries (all independent countries with total population greater than 500,000). The Polity Score uses 21-point rating scale to assess the regime authority spectrum (from -10 to +10) as well as the regime type (those states that score from -10 to -6 are categorised as autocracies, from -5 to +5 anocracies, and only those that score from +6 to +10 are classified as democracies and thus are important for our research).

The third democracy index used in the article is the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Index of Democracy 2008. It covers 165 independent states and two territories; 27 micro-states are excluded from the survey. The index is based on five categories: 1)electoral process and pluralism; 2)civil liberties; 3)the functioning of government; 4)political participation; 5)political culture. Each category has a rating on a 0 to 10 scale; after the country is assessed according to all five categories, the simple average of five ratings is calculated to get the overall score. According to the overall score, countries are placed within one of four types of regimes: full democracies (scores of 8 to 10), flawed democracies (6 to 7.9), hybrid regimes (4 to 5.9) and authoritative regimes (0 to 3.9).

These three democracy indices together cover all internationally recognised sovereign states-members of the UN. However, not all of the world’s countries were included in our research, since not all of them had passed the democracy test. Each country according to its place on each of the three graphs received from us one of the three signs:

•           – (if the score was represented by a red rectangle)

•           ± (orange rectangle)

•           + (if represented by a yellow rectangle)

So that each country was assigned three signs (one per each graph). For example, country a: + + + or country b: – – -. Country a definitely passes the democracy test and thus is suitable for our research, whereas country b is definitely excluded. In controversial situations (for instance, in situations like that: ± ± +) we decided in the country’s favour.

Even with some of the countries excluded from the research due to their democracy test failure, the process of selection is not yet over. As it was mentioned before, even in states that have not only fully embraced the process of democratisation, but also quite succeeded in it, the possibility of fraud during the elections cannot be completely ruled out. Since the aim of the article is to determine whether the financial downturn could cause a leftist shift in public opinions by analysing the changes in voter preferences, the freedom and fairness of elections included in the study are of the utmost importance. To ensure that the results of disputed elections will not affect the results of the study, those elections that were held in countries that did pass the democracy test, but failed to meet the requirements of genuine democratic contest[2], have still been excluded from the research.

2.2  Party choice

To make it possible to determine whether during the global financial crisis more voters than usually tended to support left-wing rather than right-wing parties, for each country we have to choose one or two political parties which adhere to a more leftist ideology than the other parties of that particular country. For reasons explained below, most of the parties selected for the study are centre-left and not radical far-left parties.

A left-right ideological spectrum is a classical one and has been used by various political scientists since the French Revolution (originally, it was used to refer to the sitting arrangements in parliament). However, the meaning of this classification has not remained the same; as a matter of fact, it is still changing. The economic element is continuously loosing its weight; it is now accompanied or even substituted with materialist and post-materialist value orientations such as attitudes towards abortions and same-sex marriages (Knutsen, 1995; Kitschelt and Hellemans, 1990). Obviously, a single-axis left-right model is not enough to capture all kinds of political and ideological variations of party affiliation. However, for our research we are mostly interested in the position of parties on the traditional left-right spectrum with a linear axis with two opposite poles of far-left and far-right.

Nevertheless, not all of those parties that are on the left side were equally fit for getting through the process of selection. As representation (as well as interest articulation) is one of the most important functions of a political party we have particularly chosen to select only from 2–4 major parties of each state which had a fair chance of winning enough seats to be able to represent their members and supporters in the parliament. Although according to some scientists protest voting for a small radical party (for instance, extreme left-wing or right-wing voting) to demonstrate a voter’s dissatisfaction with whatever a voter is dissatisfied with still falls under the category of rational voting (Van der Brug and Tillie, 2000; Van der Brug and Fennema, 2003), protest voters do not really expect the party they vote for to represent their interests or influence government policy. Hence most of the parties presented in the table below are well-organised mainstream parties with electoral capacity.

It is worth noting that no political party was excluded from the study because of its far-left position; however, since left parties seeking to be represented in the parliament are usually adherents of reformist socialism (rather than revolutionary socialism) who believe that the transition to a socialist system can be achieved within the parliamentarian frameworks (Manfred, 1997), most of the leftist parliamentarian parties are indeed centre-left social democratic parties, not far-left communist parties.

Although the predominance of centre-left political parties in the selected group is easily explained by the above-mentioned factors, it nevertheless leaves room for potential bias as in comparison to far-left parties, more radical in their rhetoric, centre-left parties do not always articulately propose an economic system alternative to capitalism, which introduces a possibility that in some cases potential voters may have failed to recognise such parties as an alternative to clearly right-wing ones.

However, for two-party systems where ideological variation is also dichotomous and the only real alternative to one party is the other one, this does not pose any implications. Although in a two-party system the ideological distance between both parties is rarely great (Sartori, 1976), in terms of the traditional left-right cleavage the parties are easily identifiable as left-wing and right-wing.[3]

For multiparty systems with a wide selection of parties to pick from and much wider ideological variance, the situation is more difficult. According to the principle of ideological voting, voting choices are often affected by one’s ideological orientations: voters having certain ideological preferences are more inclined to vote for parties whose position on the left-right scale coincides with the voters’ ideological self-placement on the same scale. If a voter is not a stable supporter of a certain party and his views do not exactly coincide with any party, in the traditional proximity model of spatial voting such a voter would be inclined to vote for a party which is in the closest proximity on the ideological scale (Downs, 1957).

With a large proportion of voters in democratic states being moderate, if the financial crisis indeed generates a shift in voters’ left-right orientations and induces them to take a more leftist stance than before, the voters are more likely to vote for a moderate left party which would then be closer to them than an extreme left one. In this case, moderate left-wing parties will still be expected to demonstrate better electoral performances than before and the total result of all the selected parties will depict a leftist shift in the overall left-right balance. For another thing, if the party system is depolarised, as it is often the case in democratic states, the difference between party positions is not substantial and the voters are tempted to resort to other criteria, such as a party’s competence to govern, which is higher for well-established parties and lower for small radical ones (Aardal and van Wijnen, 2005).

An emulating model of voting behaviour, the directional model (see Rabinowitz and Macdonald, 1989), however, gives absolutely different predictions on this account, suggesting that voters are likely to favour a party more radical in its ideological views than themselves. The debate about which model is the right one is almost as old as the models themselves; moreover, there is evidence that neither the directional nor the proximity model in their pure form seem to give the right predictions, whilst a mixed proximity-directional model may explain the election results better than either (Merrill 1993, Merrill 1995).

As it is not clear which model gives the right predictions about voting behaviour, our objective at this point is to ensure that if the financial crisis does indeed induce people to vote for left-wing parties, the total results of the selected parties will capture this phenomenon independent of the radicality of the parties. As the selected group includes parties differently positioned in respect to the neutral central point[4], with one characteristic in common – they are all on the left side, all scenarios (voters choose 1. radical left parties, 2. centre-left parties, 3. both, 4. neither) will affect the total results.

2.3  Selection results

As the reader will remember, we began with almost 200 states and even more political parties. Here in the table is the result of a selection process during which the following countries and its parties had to face elimination:

1.         countries in which there were no parliamentary elections during 2008–2010

2.         countries which failed the democracy test

3.         countries in which the results of elections were disputed

4.         countries in which left-wing parties entered into a pre-electoral coalition with right-wing parties

5.         countries in which there are no left-wing major parties

6.         countries in which all the major parties are left-wing parties

7.         parties with poor electoral capacity

3  Table description

3.1  Statistical Data

The results of the selection process described in Section 2 are presented in Table 1. It captures 2008–2010 election results in 38 states (see Column 2) and the electoral performance of 45 political parties (Column 3) that have been selected for the study based on the criteria explained in the previous section, which allows us to analyse each party’s electoral performance during the period of the financial downturn.[5]

Table 1: Parliamentary Elections 2008-2010

Table 1 consists of 7 columns; the first column shows whether the election results of a political party were better than during the previous elections (upwards arrow) or whether it lost in public support (downwards arrow); the 2nd column in alphabetical order enlists the states the elections were held in; the 3rd column is the date of the elections; the 4th column is the name of the political party; the 5th column shows the seat change, the 6th column the swing (the difference between the percentage share of the vote a political party received in comparison with the previous election results); the 7th column (P is mnemonic for ‘Power’) demonstrates whether before the elections the party analysed had been in power (Yes) or no (No).

A star symbol (*) means that the information in the cell is not exact, as the party in question participated in the elections (either the elections in Column 2 or the previous ones) as a part of a coalition and the only information available is the information about the performance of the coalition.

The first column already shows us interesting results. If each party’s performance is treated as a separate case, then, according to Column 1, out of 45 cases, 22 are marked with a downward arrow and 23 with an upward arrow. What this means is that during the financial crisis 23 left parties did better than in the previous elections, whereas 22 did worse. It actually answers the question whether the financial crisis has shifted the balance to the left: as a one-party margin is too slim to count, the balance point on the political spectrum remained almost exactly at the same place, without any considerable shifts in either direction.

If we treat as separate cases not parties and its performances, but states and shifts in their political spectrums, the situation is quite similar. In 20 countries in comparison to the previous elections the left gained in voter support, whereas in 18 countries they attracted less voters than before. With the margin again being this narrow, neither the left nor the right have really succeeded in tipping the balance in their favour.

The ‘P’ column allows us to calculate that out of 20 left-wing political parties that had been in power prior to the elections (Y), 12 parties lost in support (↓ Y) and 8 gained (↑ Y); out of 25 left-wing political parties that had not been in power (N), 10 parties lost in support (↓ N) and 15 parties gained (↑ N):

↓ Y – 12

↑ Y – 8

↓ N – 10

↑ N – 15

4  Explaining the results

4.1    Behaviour models

The need for ‘P’ column in the table which shows whether the party in question had been in power prior to the elections comes from the proposition that voters are likely not to reelect the incumbent if they perceive the national economy as worse (Alvarez and Nagler, 1997). In such a case, we would expect that the parties in power lost in support (↓ Y), whereas the parties not in power gained in support (↑ N)[6]. If this is true, according to Table 1, the number of cases where

Figure 1: Model 1

•           ↓ Y should be high

•           ↓ N should be low

•           ↑ Y should be low

•           ↑ N should be high

However, in this model (Model 1), for the worsening economic conditions voters blame not the existing economic system, but the parties in power. If we suppose it is mostly the capitalist system they blame for the global financial crisis and its effects rather than their current authorities, then the expected model (Model 2) is quite different:

Figure 2: Model 2

•           ↓ Y low

•           ↓ N low

•           ↑ Y high

•           ↑ N high

Nevertheless, the most probable model would have been a mixture between these two. Let us suppose that the voters are dissatisfied both with the economic crisis itself as well as with their governments’ actions to prevent it/get ready for it/fight it/etc. In this situation, the voters will still vote down the party in power, especially if it is a right-wing party, and support an alternative party, especially a left-wing one. In this model (Model 3), ↓ Y and ↑ N are still high as in Model 1, ↑ N (voting for a left-wing party that had not been in power) is higher than ↓ Y (voting less for a left-wing party that had been in power) as in Model 2. Model 1 and Model 2 give absolutely different predictions for ↑ Y, because, according to Model 1, the number of such cases should be low as the party had been in power and failed to live up to the voters’ expectations; Model 2, however, expects a high number of such cases. With two opposing predictions counterbalancing each other, we would expect a result not too high, but not too low. Both Model 1 and Model 2 predict ↓ N to be low. As a result, Model 3 goes as follows:

Figure 3: Model 3

↓ N < ↑ Y < ↓ Y < ↑ N

What we have in reality is different:

Figure 4: Reality Model

↑ Y (8) < ↓ N (10) < ↓ Y (12) < ↑ N (15)

The difference between Model 3 and the actual situation is the interchanged positions between ↑ Y and ↓ N. To find out why Model 3 failed to correctly predict the order in Reality Model, one should go back to the assumptions Model 3 was based on.

Assumption 1 Economic downturns affect the vote in such a way that the party in power is supported less (Kramer (1971))

Assumption 2 Economic downturns affect the vote in such a way that left-wing parties are more supported than right-wing parties

4.2    What happened to the parties in power

According to Assumption 1, the number of cases where the parties in power are supported less should be considerably higher than the number of parties in power that are supported more than in the previous elections:

Figure 5: Assumption 1 Inequality

↓ Y > ↑ Y

As ↓ Y = 12 and ↑ Y = 8, the number of cases where ↓ Y in indeed considerably higher than the number of cases where ↑ Y.

Assumption 2, however, tells that left-wing parties are more supported than right-wing parties, which made us suggest that the right-wing parties were more affected by Assumption 1 and left-wing parties less so. As a result, Model 3 expected the difference between ↓ Y and ↑ Y to be less substantial. The Reality Model demonstrated that it was Assumption 1 that gave correct predictions about the voter behaviour towards parties in power; both Assumption 2 and a combination between Assumption 1 and Assumption 2 proved to be wrong.

Although the idea that with respect to economic issues voters could treat different parties in a different way (for instance, blame left-wing parties for rising levels of unemployment more as they had been supposed to fight with it; or blame right-wing parties more for following the interests of the upper class) seems to be plausible, the data from US elections analysed by Bloom and Price (1975) does not indicate any appreciable differences between the effect of income on the vote during Republican or Democratic administrations, which suggests that voters tend to blame different parties equally, proving Assumption 1 right.

4.3    What happened to the parties not in power

There are a few ways by which the crisis could shift the balance to the left, for instance:

•           ↓ Y low

•           ↓ N low

•           ↑ Y high

•           ↑ N high

Model 2 assumed all of them to take place, but for a shift to appear, not necessarily all of the four should be present.

As low ↓ Y and high ↑ Y have already been ruled out, the possibilities left for a shift to happen are low ↓ N and high ↑ N. Although it is Assumption 2 that is designed to predict the shift and the only two ways it could have effect are the above-mentioned low ↓ N and high ↑ N, it is highly possible that it is still Assumption 1 that accounts for a relatively high ↑ N in Reality Model.

In a simple two-party proportional representation system, if a party in power (Party A) loses votes (↓ Y), then Party B gains them (↑ N). However, in a multi-party system the number of parties contesting is not restricted to two, so if Party A loses votes, the votes lost by Party A are distributed between other parties; in this case, as the votes are not distributed evenly, party B can gain more of former Party A’s votes than party C, whereas party D may not profit from Party A’s fiasco at all. Although in Table 1 there are only left-wing parties, and there is nothing to suggest that it is the left-wing parties which pick up the lost votes, as the parties in Table 1 are enlisted among 2–4 major parties of each state, there they are highly likely to gain some of such votes.

The only phenomenon unexplained by either Assumption 1 (as it makes no predictions about it) or Assumption 2 (as it makes a wrong prediction) is a relatively high ↓ N. So far, the focus was on the voters responding to the worsening economic conditions by voting more for certain parties (either for parties not in power as in Assumption 1 or for left-wing parties as in Assumption 2) and voting less for others (for parties in power in Assumption 1 or right-wing parties in Assumption 2).

However, it is not the only possible voter response; another possible way of expressing dissatisfaction by the means of elections is abstention (Aldrich, 1993); subsequently, there is a link between an economic downturn and a decline in voter turnout (Tillman 2008, Rafcliff 1992). Moreover, Radcliff’s analysis (Pacek and Rafcliff, 1995) of the relationship between voter turnout and the vote for left-wing parties shows that a decline in voter turnout is accompanied by a decline in the share of votes for left parties, which, in its turn, explains a surprisingly high ↓ N.

4.4  Y and N together

So far, the article dealt with 4 possibilities for a shift to happen, with indicators being either low or high. Another possibility of changing the existing balance is still uncovered:

Figure 6: Inequality 2

(↑ N – ↓ N) > (↓ Y – ↑ Y)

If the difference between the number of parties not in power which gained in support (↑ N) and those which lost in support (↓ N) is higher than the difference between the number of parties in power which lost in support (↓ Y) and those that gained in support (↑ Y), than the number of left-wing parties gaining in support is still higher than those that lost in support. As we already know from Table 1, the financial crisis has not significally shifted the balance to the left, but as the left-wing parties still had a slight edge over right-wing parties, ↑ N – ↓ is by the most slender margin possible higher than ↓ Y – ↑ Y:

Figure 7: Inequality 3

15 – 10 > 12 – 8

Although the actual number of people who voted for left-wing parties is not analysed against those who voted for right-wing parties, all the evidence suggests that the balance between the right and the left remains relatively unshattered.

4.5  Why has Assumption 2 failed?

Multiple economic voting studies vindicate the impact economic conditions, especially negative ones, have on the vote choice (see Lewis-Beck and Stegmaier (2007) for a review of such studies). However, the correlation between worsening economic conditions and the vote choice directly affects only the party in power, as the voters tend to blame it for unpleasant changes in their personal economic situation (Assumption 1).

When we suggested that the global financial crisis could have shifted the balance to the left, we assumed that people would prefer left-wing parties over right-wing parties. As in the situation of economic crisis people tend to blame the current authorities, the underlying reason for preferring the left over the right in a situation of a globally spreading economic crisis would have been a desire (either rational or subconscious) to express dissatisfaction not only with the party currently in power, but with the current economic system as well (Assumption 2).

The analysis presented in the previous section shows that the effect of Assumption 1 indeed takes place, whilst Assumption 2 had no noticeable effect on the results of elections and thus was proven wrong.

In Marxist Theory, there are two interrelated flaws in the capitalist system that could have been emphasised by the global economic downturn and potentially make voters more attracted to socialist ideas causing Assumption 2 to take place:

First Economic Irrationality (Laski and Bruce, 1991)

Second Social Injustice

As the working class is mostly interested in its own conditions, the realizition of Social Injustice is more likely to affect their political views[7]. If they feel dissatisfied with their personal economic conditions, they can express their dissatisfaction by:

1) voting

2) not voting

In a system of proportional representation, the seats are distributed among parties according to their share of the total vote (which is assumed to be 100 per cent). Although no-voters have a certain effect on the election results, it is those who did cast a valid ballot that decide how well each party is represented in the parliament and whether it is represented at all.

Those voters who decide to express their dissatisfaction with economic conditions by voting can do it in two ways:

1) not voting for the party in power (Assumption 1)

2) voting for a left-wing party (Assumption 2)

Even if voters do lay the blame for the economic crisis on the economic system, that they often cannot resist also (or solely) blaming the current authorities (for instance, for not being prepared) is an established fact (Kramer (1971); Lewis-Beck et al. (2008); Bloom and Price (1975)). There is also evidence that left-wing and right-wing parties in power are blamed equally (Bloom and Price (1975)), which means that if a left-wing party had been so unfortunate as to face a crisis during its time in power, it lost in support. More precisely the two option go more like:

1) not voting for the party in power (even if is a left party)

2) voting for a left-wing party which is not in power

As we remember, these are the options for voting voters to express their dissatisfaction. At the moment, they do not contradict each other; in fact, a voter chooses to express dissatisfaction not in Way 1 or in Way 2, but either be content with just Way 1 or go further to Way 2; so it is either Way 1 or Way1+Way2. The aim of the voter is to express dissatisfaction; for that, Way 1 is enough; however, a voter may as well proceed further. But what is it that makes the voters confine themselves to Way 1?

As it was already mentioned above, the primary incentive for a voter to switch to a left-wing party would be Social Injustice. However, the principles of minimum wages, social subsidies etc. are characteristic of all democratic societies. Moreover, the plans for tackling the crisis of left-wing parties and right-wing parties were relatively the same and for voters they all meant ‘tightening the belt’. Both propositions of spending less through spending cuts or raising more money through high taxes (both capitalist ways of fighting a capitalist crisis) hit common peoples’ purses. As left-wing parties do not really propose an alternative, there is no additional incentive for people to proceed to Way 2.[8] Basically, the determinants of vote choice in the times of crisis do not differ from usual (Socio-economic Variables, Party Identification etc.).

5 Implications and Conclusion

The present study has put to test the hypothesis that the global financial crisis could affect voter preferences, causing a leftists shift in election outcomes and changing the existing balance in the world’s political spectrum. To do so, we selected 45 left-wing political parties in 38 democratic states and analysed the changes of their performances.

As the number of left-wing political parties which improved their performances during 2008–2010 turns out to be only marginally higher than the number of left-wing parties which attracted less voters than before, the balance between left-wing and right-wing parties remains the same, without any considerable shifts. Whilst in a situation of economic crisis no growth in support for left-wing political parties has been spotted, we assume that there is no connection between the financial downturn and election performances of left-wing parties.

Although an economic decline does have an effect on the vote choice (voters turn away from the party in power as they consider it responsible for the deterioration), it does not provide any benefit for left-wing parties. Moreover, it is possible that there is a symmetric correlation between voter turnout (which declines during economic crises) and left-wing parties’ performances. Nevertheless, it still does not have an impact on the overall right-left balance.

It is still possible, however, that the current crisis will have an effect on the long-term trends of voting behaviour, which cannot be spotted just now, but may become observable in future studies when analysed in retrospect. Whilst over the last decades political and contextual factors have been gaining more weight as determinants of voting behaviour and now play a role no less important than more stable socio-economic attributes (Dalton et al. 1984, Franklin et al. 1992), the predictive value of previous studies on a long-term impact of the Great Depression on the voting behaviour is severely limited. Although so far, we have not been able to find any evidence supporting the hypothesis that the financial downturn may prove in any way beneficial for left-wing parties, the matter needs further investigation as new data becomes available.


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[1]Independent Scholar: I would like to thank the audience at Examining the Relevance of Marx and Marxism to Contemporary Global Society conference (Newcastle upon Tyne, January 2011) for valuable feedback and an anonymous reviewer for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

[2] according to the reports of election observation teams such as OSCE/ODIHR

[3] Voters’ perception here is important that the position of the party as described in its manifesto (see van der Eijk et al. 2005, Lachat 2008)

[4] As in every state the political spectrum is unique, the centre point on the political continuum of each particular state does not necessarily represent the general ideological centre. Put differently, if all of the parties in a state are right-wing, the parties to the left of the central point would still be right parties and not traditional left ones. For that reason, the states where there are no traditional left-wing parties or vice versa have been excluded. Thus, the average neutral point in the selected group represent the traditional centre. In case of a coalition, the most important criterion was that all coalition members be on the left and not the average position of the members. In other words, to ensure that the voters identified the coalition as left-wing, if one of the members was a right-wing party, the coalition was excluded despite the possibility that the average position of the coalition could still had been to the left.

[5] An anonymous reviewer points out a potential significance of the chronological dimensions of the current crisis, highlighting the existence of crisis waves. In principle, I agree with the reviewer that taking chronology into account could have been more informative; unfortunately, there were several issues with this approach that handicapped it to such an extent that eventually it had to be abandoned. The first one concerns the measurement of the economic variable. Although there is almost no disagreement amongst the scientific community about whether economic fluctuations indeed affect the vote choice, it is not clear which parameter is the most influential when it comes to the voting decision and how it should be measured. Possible parameters include

• the ‘objective’ state of national economy (which in reality greatly depends on the measurement parameters – should they include GDP/inflation/unemployment/interest rates/something else? )

• the ‘subjective’, perceived state of national economy

• the state of the voter’s personal economic affairs (which again can be objective like changes in personal income with respect to inflation rates or job loss, or subjective, as perceived by the voters)

Obviously, the application of different parameters could lead to very different results. Despite extensive electoral studies, it has not yet been established which parameter is the most appropriate one.

The second problem is also methodological and concerns estimation periods: it is not determined for how long certain economic declines can have an effect on the vote choice. There is evidence that recent negative events have more value, for example, if the economy has been in decline right for a year before the elections started, the voters are more likely to perceive the economic performance of the government as bad than if a one-year long decline had happened three years before the elections. But what if a one-year long decline had come to its end six months before the elections and at the actual time of elections there was an upward trend, would the public take account of that decline when assessing the party’s performance?  Not knowing the right estimation period makes it understandably difficult to analyse information with respect to crisis waves.

In this situation, the scientific value of a severe worldwide financial crisis is exactly its universality when it comes to these particular issues: the economic situation is worse than before the crisis irrespective of which parameter or which estimation period to choose.

[6] Obviously, in a multiparty system where one party had been in power and all the others had not, not all of the parties which had not been in power could have gained in support. However, the working hypothesis tested in this article presupposes that the economic crisis has shifted the balance to the left, which means that instead of a right-wing party which had been in power voters would support a left-wing party which had not been in power, but has a relatively fair chance of winning the elections, i.e. the party in Column 3.

[7] Actually, as a capitalist system is crisis-ridden, an occurrence of economic crisis could raise consciousness of economic irrationality of capitalism. A possible reason why it does not is that economic cycles are quite long. As no generation faces a sever global crisis like the Great Depression twice, people tend to perceive it as an accident rather than a regularity

[8] We do not consider voting for radical parties for following reasons: i) cases where true revolutionists choose to present their interests in parliament are weird and rare; ii)the positions of radical parties are best captured on biaxical political spectrum; voters who are ready for a certain level of ‘leftness’ may not be ready for an equally high level of authoritarianism and ideological rigidity.

Review by Mark Sandle[1]

This article examines the political, and more specifically, the electoral implications of the credit crunch/global economic crisis of 2007-10. The focus of the article is on the exploration of whether or not the global economic crisis has led to a manifest improvement in the electoral fortunes of left-wing and left-leaning political movements in parliamentary systems across the globe. All in all, the electoral results in 38 nation-states, and across 45 political parties of a particular left-wing hue, were analysed. The concluding results tested the hypothesis that deteriorating economic conditions during a so-called “crisis of capitalism” might cause a surge in support for leftist parties, as voters used the ballot-box to “punish” right-wing parties, or reward those who seemed to offer an alternative (of some description) to the present arrangements. The evidence attested here appears to suggest that there is no connection between the economic downturn and the electoral performance of left-wing parties.

There are some very strong points to this article. The section on methodology and data selection seems sound. The criteria to be used to select the countries for inclusion in the “democratic group” seems perfectly appropriate, with due regard taken for variables, exceptions and the melding of countries across 3 different lists helps to iron out any idiosyncrasies from reliance on a particular view of what constitutes a “democratic” state.

I think the approach and ideas of the article need to be elaborated a bit more fully in the following directions:

1. Historical contextualization

There needs to be a greater awareness of both the unique elements of the current crisis, and also similar patterns to previous crises of capitalism. The hypothesis itself could have been informed by an examination of developments pre-and post WW2, most notably the Great Depression of the 1930s and also the crashes of the late 1980s. Do we see a similar boost for leftist parties, or for the popularity of leftist-type policies (ie New Deal etc.) in the 1930s?

Secondly, the post-Cold War landscape needs to be taken into account. One of the key elements which marks this current crisis out as different is the absence of the USSR or a communist bloc in existence. This is significant as the existence of “really existing socialism” was often used as a stick to beat the socialist/left-wing parties by their political opponents. This was a new scenario, electorally speaking. Also the extensive globalisation and increasing interconnectedness could also be explored to examine the way in which crisis spread around the globe.

2. The Nature of the Economic Crisis

I think some analysis (brief) is required of the nature of the economic crisis. It was manifest in different ways in different places. It was more severe in some places less so in others. A more nuanced impact (which also relates to the timing issue: for example the budget crises in Greece, Spain, Ireland etc.) might help to contextualise the electoral analysis.

3. The Electoral Dimension

I think the question of voter preference or voter identification with leftist parties perhaps needs to be nuanced slightly by an examination of the “leftwingness” of their manifestos/public claims. Did these parties all respond by advancing clearly left-wing policies/alternatives? Was there rhetoric directed at the problems of capitalism per se? The question of how far it was clear that the left-wing parties were articulating a left-wing alternative to neo-liberalism needs to be considered a little too. In particular, the analysis might examine the questions of: critique and alternatives. Was there a clearly articulated left-wing critique of the causes of the crisis? Were there left-wing solutions being advanced?

4. Methodology/Assumptions

I think the analysis section needs to be done with reference to some actual case studies from some of the countries which illustrate the assumptions being proven or disproven. This would help to illustrate some of the wider points being made here. It might allow for a more finely grained evaluation of the underlying hypotheses. This might improve the explanatory strength of the hypothesis by grounding it in the actual events of an election (or two). This need not be the “proof”, but instead outlines how the economic crisis, as a factor in voting intentions, actually impacts upon an election in a parliamentary democracy.

5. Chronology and Longitudinal Studies

The analysis needs to have some broader awareness of the chronological dimensions of the financial crisis itself. Often there are waves of the crisis which hit, and to take a sounding at this point, is not necessarily an accurate guide to the impact upon voting preferences in the long-term. This I think makes a wider point about the lack of synchronicity between a global economic crisis hitting, its impact at different times and in different ways, and the electoral cycle. A more finely-grained analysis might be required by drilling down into particular countries, at specific times, or setting up a series of longitudinal studies in different states as part of an ongoing research project.

Overall, the article raises some interesting issues around left-wing politics, the economic situation, voter identification and electoral outcomes. More work needs to be done in tracking these developments longitudinally, comparatively and historically (but not necessarily all in the same article!). A further issue to explore might also be the media reporting of the economic crisis, and the mechanisms used by capitalist states to preserve the status quo.

[1] Professor of Modern History at The King’s University College, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada and Visiting Professor of Modern History at De Montfort University.