The rise and fall of regionalist and nationalist parties in Western Europe

Voter’s attitudes to constitutional relationships are not the only determinant for success or failure for ‘regionalist and nationalist parties’ such as the SNP and Plaid Cymru, says Anwen Elias.

Territory - and the question of who has political control over it - continues to be an important, and often highly contentious, issue in multinational states. And yet the electoral fortunes of the regionalist and nationalist parties (RNPs) that challenge the state's political authority varies substantially from place to place.

In Western Europe, some RNPs have seen spectacular electoral growth in recent years. The Scottish National Party (SNP) is a case in point; the Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (New Flemish Alliance, N-VA) has been even more impressive and consolidated its position as Belgium's largest party in the country's 2014 general election. Parties such as the Partido Nacionalista Vasco (Basque Nationalist Party, PNV) and Esquerra Republicana Catalunya (Republican Left of Catalonia, ERC) have also recuperated electoral support lost in previous years. In contrast others, such as Plaid Cymru (PC) in Wales, have seen their electoral support stagnate, whilst many are in electoral decline (Südtiroler Volkspartei (South Tyrolean People's Party), Bloque Nacionalista Galego (Galician Nationalist Block, BNG). In these latter cases, as well as in Catalonia, winning votes has become substantially more difficult as a result of the emergence of new, more radical RNPs.  

Why are the electoral fortunes of RNPs so different in different places?

One explanation requires understanding the basis on which these parties try to win votes. Although the main purpose of RNPs is to challenge the territorial organisation of power within a state, this is rarely an issue that wins lots of votes in elections. Voters are usually far more concerned about things like the economy, employment or immigration, and they will vote for those parties that are perceived to be most credible on these priority issues.

This means that there is a strong electoral incentive for RNPs to talk about a whole range of issues at election time, rather than focus on their territorial demands. All of the RNPs mentioned above have long known this, and have tried to appeal to voters on the basis of a broad ranging set of policy proposals beyond their core territorial business.

The difference between them is that some RNPs have been more credible on this broader range of issues than others. There are at least three important determinants of electoral credibility that are important.

Firstly, electoral credibility depends a lot on a party's reputation for policy handling and delivery, and on the basis of which voters can judge who can be trusted to "do the job". Being in government provides opportunities to develop a track-record in this area, and build up a reputation for effective government performance. This is what the SNP has done very effectively in Scotland since 2007. In recent years the NVA an the PNV have also reaped the electoral benefits of being seen as parties that can be trusted to tackle the effects of the economic crisis on Flemish and Basque society respectively. But things don't always go well for RNPs in government: the BNG was punished by voters as a result of an ineffective period in regional government in the mid 2000s and has struggled to re-build its electoral credibility ever since. So being in, and performing well in, government can both bolster and hinder an RNP's electoral appeal.

Secondly, in regional elections voters often prefer political parties that are seen to put the region first. In principle, RNPs have a strong advantage in this respect, since defending distinctive territorial interests is what drove these parties to contest elections in the first place. But this territorial credibility also has to be nurtured and protected if it is to be an electoral asset. For example, the Catalan Convergència i Unió (Convergence and Union, CiU) was an electorally dominant party in Catalan politics during the 1980s and early 1990s because of its efficacy in presenting all regional government policy decisions as being 'in the interests of Catalonia'. However, this credibility was undermined from 2000 onwards as a result of an alliance with the state-wide Partido Popular (PP) in the Catalan Parliament. CiU lost electoral support because it collaborated with a party that explicitly opposed any further increases in Catalan autonomy, and was seen to be complicit in the PP's very different policy priorities in central government.

Thirdly, the extent to which RNPs manage to convince voters that they are credible as parties of government and as defenders of the regional/national interest, depends to a very large extent on how credible their competitors are on these same issues. The SNP's electoral rise has come as voters have abandoned Scottish Labour for having been ineffective in regional government and little more than a branch office of the UK party. Contrast this to Plaid Cymru, who has struggled to challenge the electoral hegemony of a Welsh Labour party that has proved much more adept at flaunting its 'Welshness' and articulating a narrative of effective government performance.

The implication of all this is that the varying electoral performances of RNPs is often less about territorial re-structuring and constitutional change, and more about how (and how successfully) these parties talk about other issues at election time. Of course, RNPs who get this right are then in a strong position to demand new territorial concessions or push forward with plans to radically change the territory's relationship with the state. Many RNPs, however, still struggle to play the complex game of electoral politics in multinational states.  

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Anwen Elias's picture
Guest post by Anwen Elias
Aberystwyth University
18th November 2015

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