Marine Le Pen leads the far-right National Front party, which shook the French political landscape by coming out on top in France’s voting for European Parliament elections, beating the mainstream conservatives and the governing Socialists. (AP Photo/Jacques Brinon)

Joshua Tucker: The following is a guest post by political scientists Maria Esperanza Casullo of National University of Rio Negro (Argentina) and Flavia Freidenberg of Salamanca University (Spain).


The European Union held elections for the European Parliament in May, and though the majority of the seats in the European Parliament still belong to moderate centrist parties, more extreme anti-EU parties gained ground. As illustrated by the New York Times, Eurosceptic parties gained seats in even the EU’s oldest members, such as France, Greece, the United Kingdom and Denmark. At least 140 seats will be held by Eurosceptic and nationalist parties, out of a total of 751. The extreme right gained seats (in France , Sweden, Denmark, Greece and the UK). But the left did, too, in Greece, Italy and Spain. Left and right have one thing in common: They both take advantage of the predominant feeling of disaffection with the European project itself.

What can be expected of a situation in which important sectors of the electorate are discontent with economic policies of the institutional parties? A comparison with the conditions that facilitated Latin America’s “turn to the left” may shed some light.

The financial crises of 2008 and 2009 were met with austerity measures by leading political parties that distributed the costs of recession across society. Today, institutional parties are still committed to the austerity agenda in Greece, Spain, the UK and France. The same happened in Latin America 15 years ago. Francisco Panizza reconstructs the process by which the combination of sky-high external debt, out-of-control inflation and low economic growth combined to create a grave economic and social crisis in the region. In the ’90s, a consensus was formed among international financial entities and Latin American political elites that the only way out of the lost decade was to implement adjustment packages consisting of monetary restrictions, privatizations, financial deregulation, liberalization of trade and a reduction in the size of the state. These reforms (which were named “cirugía mayor sin anestesia” or “major surgery without anesthesia”) did in fact manage to control inflation and spurred some economic growth. But, even though officeholders promised “pain now, welfare later,” for large social groups, this welfare never materialized. The worsening of the social landscape led to a gradual rise in protests and to the creation of anti-globalization social movements.

The one key feature that allows for a comparison between Latin America and Europe is that in both cases substantial adjustment policies were implemented with broad support from all of the established parties. In Argentina, Carlos Menem’s “Emergency” bills were passed by Congress thanks to an agreement between the Peronist party and the UCR, then the main opposition party; in Venezuela COPEI and AD became partners in the implementation of the neoliberal reforms (AD and COPEI had governed in a bipartisan manner since the Punto Fijo Pact of 1958). In Perú, Alberto Fujimori,was elected in part due to his campaigning as an anti-neoliberal crusader, yet he switched lanes dramatically and adopted neoliberalism when in power. The same thing happened in Bolivia, where a string of elected presidents became neoliberal converts once in power, including the former-leftist MNR.

The crisis of representation that engulfed the established parties, the unpopularity of adjustment policies and the adverse economic condiciones acted as facilitating factors for the emergence of outsider politicians and outsider parties.

If we compare the different transformation trajectories of the party systems of Latin American countries we can discern a pattern:


Comparison of political party stances on austerity reforms in Latin America and subsequent political developments. credit: Maria Esperanza Casullo

The pattern is clear: In the countries in which protracted and high-cost austerity reforms led to a high level of social protests and in which the established parties were not able to represent the demands for a change in economic policies, new political actors appeared outside the boundaries of the old party system to channel the new demands.

There is a big difference, however, between those cases in where new demands were carried by new political parties (what we call “outsider parties”) and those cases in which they were represented by personal leaderships (“outsider politicians”). In the first set of cases (like the Brazilian PT and the Uruguayan FA), we find stronger institutionalization and a higher degree of autonomy from the foundational leadership. In the case of “outsider politicians” (such as Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales or Rafael Correa), the political movement does not have enough autonomy to challenge the leader’s decision.

The deeper the economic and social crisis and the stronger the bipartisan commitment to the adjustment plans, the bigger the downfall of the centrist parties. In Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia the emptying of the middle of the party spectrum led to the rise of outsider politicians and the preexistent majority parties in fact ceased to exist. (Red zone in the chart.)

In the countries in which pre-existing minority parties were willing and able to make the anti-adjustment demands their own, the party systems were transformed but did not collapse. (Blue zone in the chart.) A key cause of this relative stability was the fact that both the Brazilian PT and the Uruguayan FA followed a “bottom-up” road to power and that they both were opposition parties for two decades before the end of neoliberal reforms. These gradual growth allowed for a greater adaptation to new demands and to the social and institutional environmental constraints. (Argentina is something of a hybrid case.)

In countries such as Chile, Colombia and Mexico either the crisis did not hit or was secondary to others pressing issues (i.e., guerrilla activity); in these cases, party structure remained unchanged, or, if it did change, it was actually with a turn to the right (Colombia and Mexico). (Green zone in the chart).

The process by which the exhaustion of the representative abilities of the centrist parties gave way to the profound restructuring of the party systems in Latin America should be used to contrast with the current European situation. In Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, the absence of established anti-neoliberals made way for new leaders who were able to establish an electoral monopoly under the belief that they were generating a new revolution (“Boliviarian” or “citizen’s”.)

The Latin American example shows that the centrist parties in Europe are following a dangerous strategy by embracing adjustment policies that are growingly unpopular and by attacking the new political parties and leaders in such a visceral, anti-pluralist way. Even though they might be extremist, their mere existence must highlight the fact that there society has created new demands that were latent but not yet politicized. If the centrist parties continue on their current course, there exists the possibility that demands will find political representation elsewhere.