How powerful are political parties these days? Who are the most powerful players? How is influence shared among factions and sub-factions across the European continent and how will this play out in the next decade? The pace of political changes has significantly accelerated in recent years, creating confusion and unpredictability among stakeholders and citizens. For this reason, VoteWatch Europe is launching a new service with the aim of monitoring the rise and fall in the power of political parties in EU countries, by using objective and continuous measurements. The report below highlights the current state of play.
– German CDU/CSU remains the most powerful party in the EU despite its recent losses. Macron’s party occupies the second place, followed by the British Conservatives. Conversely, the influence of top Italian and Spanish parties is lowered by the fragmentation and instability of their political landscape;
– Hungary is the country where power is most concentrated, followed by Malta. However, apart from Hungary and Malta, concentrations of power are becoming rarer across Europe due to political fragmentation. Our research also shows that governing right-wing parties have been more effective in consolidating their power over the past decade;
– EPP remains the strongest political family across the EU as it leads on all the dimensions of power: strength, leadership and longevity. However, its lead is shrinking, as it lost substantial ground in Western Europe and has become more reliant on its Central and Eastern European strongholds;
– This was not a positive decade for S&D, which lost significant ground in Western Europe, even though it remains the second most powerful European family, also due to the performance of its Southern European members;
– Conversely, Renew Europe is catching up to the two traditional political families, mainly due to new members, such as Macron’s party. However, some of its traditional members, such as German FDP and UK’s LibDems have been struggling to recover after their participation in government;
– ECR is the most powerful among the fringe political families, mostly due to its concentrated power in Poland and the UK. However, Brexit is set to deal a blow to the power of this political family, making it more dependent on its Polish stronghold;
– The power of the Greens, leftists and right-wing nationalists has increased substantially over the decade. However, despite some recent improvements, their participation in government remains limited.
Quite symbolically, the new Commission managed to get the approval of MEPs in time to lead the EU into the 2020s decade. Furthermore, the upcoming UK elections next week might provide the country with final push to officially leave the EU at the very beginning of the next year, which adds further weight to the importance of this transition.
The 2010s decade saw increasing political fragmentation and polarisation. While this trend was observed across the world, this was particularly powerful at the EU level, adding to the already high level of complexity of the Union. Already weakened by the economic crisis, the traditional political families that have dominated European politics since the end of WWII kept losing ground to the benefit of right wing nationalist parties (which have been rising steadily throughout the decade) and, to a lesser extent, alternative centrist and left-wing forces.
In order to help you navigate through the increasing complexity of EU politics, we developed a monitoring system based on objective and quantifiable criteria that allows us to provide timely snapshots of the balance of power among political factions across the continent. In this case, our main focus is the power of national parties, as those are the most powerful entities at the regional (with a few exceptions), national and even European level. National parties have the strongest influence over MEPs, since they are the ones drafting the list of candidates for EU elections – they are also the ones that can help MEPs get political jobs at the regional, national and European level. However, at a time of accelerating political change, even the most powerful national parties can be quickly dethroned, in particular when they get increasingly isolated. This is why we also looked at the power of the European political families, whose influence depends on their size (how many members they have) and weight (how powerful their members are).
Below we show the most powerful political parties and European networks at the end of the 2010s decade. Future updates of this assessment will allow us to track the upcoming trends. Importantly, while the composition of EU legislative institutions – except for the Council – changes once every 5 years – the future national and regional political developments are set to affect the strategy and policy agenda of the main players at the EU level.
Since 2009, VoteWatch Europe has been keeping track of the political and policy trends in both the European Parliament and the EU Council. For data-sets, tailored research and training, feel free to contact us at [email protected]
How should the results be read?
Similarly to our other assessments (such as our popular assessment of the influence of MEPs), this is not a measurement of good or bad. Power is a neutral term in this context, indicating the level of influence that a party masters in order to get things done at this point in time. The study does not indicate whether this faction uses that power in line with the interests of a certain segment of the public (constituents) or a stakeholder group. For example, a party may be highly influential, but have different views than those promoted by a particular citizens group (in which case it cannot be their champion). Or, the other way around, a party may be the champion of the interests of a particular citizens group, but lacks the influence to get things done.
We measured the power of the parties across three dimensions: strength (the crude electoral and legislative strength of the party), leadership (positions of power at regional, national and European level) and longevity (how long the party has been in power). These dimensions capture the power of national parties from different angles, which ensures a comprehensive picture of current dynamics.
Since the three different dimensions have been evenly weighted, some of the findings might be counter-intuitive at first. This is due to the fact that, unlike algorithms, our cognitive systems have more limited focus, so it’s difficult to take several dimensions into account at the same time. For example, a party that is strong in national or regional assemblies (scoring high on the strength dimension) but is kept out of government by a cordon sanitaire (scoring low on leadership and longevity dimensions) would be underestimated if only leadership or longevity would be taken into consideration. On the other hand, by not taking into consideration the time national parties have been in power, we would underestimate those that had time to develop networks of influence and consolidate their position in the past decade. Time spent in power is important as political parties tend to appoint friendly, although formally independent, officials in important positions (such as Central Banks, Courts, etc).
If you are interested in further information on our methodology, check out the dedicated section at the end of the report.
The 10 most powerful parties in the EU
The power scores of each national party are weighed against the size of the country (measured as % of EU population). This explains why our Top 10 mainly features parties from the biggest Member States. Unsurprisingly, German CDU/CSU occupies the top spot as the party leading the government of the biggest EU country. The influence of this party is also boosted by a prolonged period in government (almost 15 years – among the longest periods seen in Europe). This party also scores among the highest with regards to overall leadership positions – for example, our previous report found that the party ranks the highest in terms of leadership positions in the European Parliament. However, worsening polling and electoral performance is likely to decrease the power of CDU/CSU in the near future (as well as the one of its coalition partner SPD, which occupies the sixth place). However, due to its central position in the political spectrum (and the isolation of fringe parties to the left and the right), it is likely that CDU/CSU (and, to a lesser extent, SPD) will continue to be part of most coalitions at the national and regional levels for the foreseeable future.
The second most powerful party is Macron’s La République En Marche. Although it is a relatively new party, it was able to secure a large share of political power in France, mainly because of the country’s political/electoral system. The French semi-presidential system rarely leads to cohabitation (it only happened three times during the Fifth Republic – when Presidential and legislative elections were held in different years), which means that the winner of Presidential elections is quite likely to win a legislative majority as well. This is also currently the case with Macron’s LREM enjoying a comfortable control of the National Assembly, the Presidency and, by extension, the executive. While the recent EU reshuffle provided the party with stronger influence at the EU level, its low longevity in power implies that there is still room for improvement with regards to its consolidation (for instance the current government cannot count on a friendly majority among the local authorities and the Senate, where the opposition is making full use of the Senate’s limited powers to foil Macron’s plans).
The third place is occupied by the British Conservative Party, which benefits from a long uninterrupted period in government (almost 10 years), but also from strong electoral performance in national elections, mainly due to the British electoral system, which is shielding the bigger established players from the increasing political volatility. While the party has lost almost all of its influence at the EU level (abysmal performance in EP elections, no Commissioner and increasing isolation due to Brexit), the domestic position of the party remains rather strong: it is still leading the polls (despite all the turbulence over the last 10 years) and, according to current projections, is set to gain a majority (or at the very least, a plurality) of seats in the upcoming elections.
While country’s size is important, political fragmentation is reducing the power of the top parties from countries such as Italy and Spain. However, this is not the case for Poland, as Polish Law and Justice outranks parties from Italy and Spain, despite the smaller size of the country. Law and Justice, the outspoken conservative right-wing party, has enjoyed substantial electoral performance in 2019, entering its second mandate in government and counting on a renewed (although slightly weakened) absolute majority in the Sejm. The party also managed to get its own Commissioner, which slightly strengthened its influence at the EU level (however, as highlighted in one of our latest reports, the party needs more allies in the European Parliament). PiS seems to be currently on track to clear the next hurdle – the reelection of Duda as Polish President next year. However, if this is not case, the sudden cohabitation at home would deal a blow to the power of the conservative party.
PSOE is the most influential party in Spain as its leader Pedro Sanchez is currently leading the national government. However, its lower longevity (it came to power only in 2018 after 7 years of PP rule) and the fragmentation of Spanish politics are limiting the consolidation of power by PSOE, which cannot count on a majority of its own to form a government and pass the budget. Also, autonomous regions hold substantial power in Spain, when compared to the regions in other EU countries (notably, the biggest Spanish regions – Andalusia, Catalonia and Madrid – are not governed by PSOE). Additionally, the recent early elections deprived PSOE of a majority in the Senate to the benefit of the opposition. However, the positive performance of the party in European elections helped strengthening its influence at the EU level (Sanchez also got the chance to replace the previous PP Commissioner with one of PSOE’s top leaders).
Among the biggest countries, Italy is the one where political instability and fragmentation is most pronounced. This explain why there are no Italian parties in our Top 5 (despite Italy being the fourth largest EU Member State), while there are 3 Italian parties in our Top 10. This is no surprise, since the highly unstable coalition arrangements and volatile preferences of the Italian electorate have prevented any recent consolidation of power. For instance, the 5 Star Movement holds a strong legislative weight at the national level, even though low longevity in power, worsening polling performance and low presence at European and regional level undermines its influence. The Italian Democratic Party has a stronger longevity and wider connections at the European level, but its decreasing electoral and legislative strength are decreasing its influence at the national level. Finally, Salvini’s Lega enjoys strong polling performance and increasing power at the regional level, but still lacks influence at the EU level and is currently in opposition in Rome.
Power is most concentrated in Hungary and Malta
Our algorithm can also be used to measure the concentration of power across different countries. For this purpose, we calculated the relative power scores for each party, more precisely their share of the total national power score. This is quite useful to assess to what extent parties were successful in consolidating their power, but also which national systems facilitate this phenomenon. For instance, the most powerful party in Belgium, Mouvement Réformateur, only got 21% of the total Belgian power score, which shows, to nobody’s surprise, that the Belgian political system is one of the most fragmented in Europe. Conversely, Hungarian Fidesz obtained 78% of the total Hungarian power score, which shows a strong concentration of power in the country.
Our Top 10 of most powerful parties in their countries shows that, right after Hungarian Fidesz, a strong concentration of power is also observed in the Maltese political system (however, the recent developments further confirm the theory of accelerating political change – even the most powerful parties can quickly get into hot waters). Other cases of concentration of power are due to absolute majorities being held by individual parties in the dedicated legislatures (such as Polish PiS and Greek New Democracy) and longevity in power (such as Cypriot DISY, Bulgarian GERB, Irish Fine Gael and German CDU/CSU).
Remarkably, most of the parties with concentrated political power are right-wing, belonging to either EPP or ECR – the only exception being the Maltese Labour Party. This is quite interesting considering that the EPP family as a whole lost power over the past few years. Nevertheless, some of the EPP members managed to retain and consolidate their power. These two findings are not necessarily at odds, as the recent electoral decline of EPP parties in France and Italy was the main reason for the recent losses of the EPP as a whole, while concealing the fact that some EPP members from smaller Member States have actually been performing well.
So are right-wing parties better at consolidating power? This seems to be the current trend, even though political history indicates that Social Democratic parties also used to be quite effective when it came to consolidating and retaining power (and were often able to govern on their own). Still, the current figures on power concentration seem to be fairly low, as only a few parties managed to get more than 50% of the total national score. This can be seen as a result of the rising political fragmentation across the EU. Our future updates will enable us to assess whether the current trend of power fragmentation is set to continue.
EPP still the most powerful political family, but steadily losing ground
The EPP remains the most powerful political network at EU level, as it scores the highest on all three VoteWatch dimensions: strength, leadership and longevity. The caveat for the EPP is that while it leads with a landslide when it comes to national parties’ longevity in power (and all the perks that come with it; more on that at the end of the report), it barely fares better than its competitors (S&D and Renew Europe) when it comes to national parties’ electoral strength and leadership. This suggests that while the EPP is still reaping the spoils of its previous dominant positions, the other two key players are not far behind and might even dethrone the king in the future. This can also be seen by the fact that many national parties that propped up the EPP to its dominant position over the past decade are now in opposition in their home countries. Think about the 2009 EP elections 10 years ago, when the EPP received more than 35% of the votes, was governing most of the biggest EU members with Merkel (Germany), Sarkozy (France), Berlusconi (Italy), Tusk (Poland) and was readying for a comeback in Spain (with Rajoy in 2011). Now its dominance has diminished to its German bastion and smaller countries in Central and Eastern Europe (while it can enjoy the recent gains in Romania, it is struggling to take back the biggest CEE country – Poland).
Despite the losses of the EPP, its main rival S&D failed to catch up, as its strongest members have been struggling to retain power. For instance, while some key S&D members, such as Germany’s SPD and Italy’s PD, have been in power for most of the decade, these parties have lost significant electoral ground. Even more striking was the fate of the French Socialists which, after being in power until 2017, are now fighting for political survival. Furthermore, S&D recently lost one of its Central-Eastern European strongholds, namely Romania’s PSD, which was forced out of government by a no-confidence vote. While a comeback of S&D parties – from the opposition to the governing ranks – was observed in Southern (Spain, Portugal) and Northern Europe (Finland, Sweden, Denmark), these parties had to form broad coalitions with leftist and/or centrist parties in order to get a majority of MPs to support their governments (a far cry from the previous strong majorities that Social Democratic parties used to enjoy).
As widely reported, the biggest winner of the 2019 European elections was Renew Europe. Although it still places third with regards to its national parties’ legislative power, leadership, and longevity, it has gained substantial ground in a relatively short period of time. This is largely due to Macron’s En Marche that, as previously mentioned, has a strong hold on French political power. The positive performance of the French compensates for the difficult years of the second and third most powerful RE national parties, which are both former junior coalition parties that suffered disproportionately (popularity-wise) from their time spent in government: the UK’s Liberal Democrats and Germany’s FDP. Both parties slumped in polls after their stint in government and are only now beginning to recover. Renew’s longevity scores relies mostly on national parties from smaller countries such as Dutch VVD (in power since 2010, even though it seems its governing coalitions get bigger each time), Belgian MR and OpenVLD (in power since the 1990s, but always part of big coalitions) and Czech ANO 2011 (in power since 2014 and still leading comfortably in the polls).
The smaller size of the two traditional political families is also linked to a highly interesting trend of stronger concentration of power in specific regions. This is not too surprising since the deep economic, cultural and social differences across Europe imply that different political families enjoy stronger popularity in those countries where their messages are more in tune with the socio-political mood of the electorate. As mentioned earlier, the EPP is increasingly reliant on Central-Eastern Europe. This is also visible in the European Parliament, as the share of EPP seats from this region has reached a record high after the latest EU elections (41% of the EPP group seats are from the region – in 2009 it was only 31%). Currently, EPP national parties lead the governments in Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Croatia and Latvia. Conversely, S&D parties have a strong hold in Southern Europe, as Maltese Partit Laburista and Portuguese Partido Socialista are the strongest parties in their respective countries. To a lesser extent, S&D also performs well in Spain, whereas PD is currently the second largest party in the Italian polls, after right-wing Lega. Finally, the power of Renew Europe is strongly concentrated in Western European countries. Besides France, REG parties have Prime Ministers in all Benelux countries: the Netherlands (Mark Rutte), Luxembourg (Xavier Bettel) and Belgium (Sophie Wilmès). The centrist group is also relatively strong in Ireland, as its member Fianna Fail is the second largest party.
Fringe political families are on the rise, but still short of leadership positions
From among the fringe political networks, ECR is clearly the most powerful, as it leads the other fringe families on all dimensions (strength, leadership and longevity). However, this is easily explained by ECR’s concentrated power in its Polish and British strongholds: about 78% of its power score is from the British Conservatives and Polish Law and Justice. Paradoxically, a possible positive performance of the British Conservatives in the elections next week will accelerate the process of UK’s withdrawal from the EU, therefore dealing a blow to the influence of the ECR group and making it even more reliant on Polish PiS. Nevertheless, ECR’s presence in other big countries is still small, but rising, as shown by the improving polling numbers of Brothers of Italy (10% in current polls) and Vox (over 15% in the recent Spanish elections). The additional presence of new members such as Swedish Democrats and Dutch Forum for Democracy will help the Conservatives and Reformists to remain relevant once their British members leave.
Unlike ECR, the other fringe European families are weakly represented in leadership positions across the EU, most of their power coming from their improving electoral performance (electoral and legislative strength accounts for more than 70% of their overall scores, as their leadership and longevity scores are rather low). However, we have seen these political forces making substantial inroads with regards to governmental participation over the past few years.
For instance, Green participation in national governments is increasing in particular in North-Western Europe: they are currently part of the Swedish, Finnish and Luxembourgish governments, while they provide confidence and supply to the Danish one. The Greens also have concrete chances of joining the next Belgian and Austrian governments. The main challenge for the Greens is to improve their power in the biggest EU countries, where their level of power is still low – with the exception of Germany, where they are the biggest opposition party. In other big Member States, the French and British electoral systems prevented the local Greens from gaining influence, whereas this political family is weak in the main Southern (Italy and Spain) and CE (Poland and Romania) countries, which reflects their overall struggle in these two regions.
The electoral strength of ID members increased the most over the last few years, as right-wing nationalist parties have been rising to prominence throughout the decade. ID members are now leading the polls in some Member States, such as Italy (Lega), Finland (True Finns) and recently Belgium (Vlaams Belang). However, their participation in government remains limited due to the refusal of most parties to work with them, therefore reducing their coalition building potential. While in some cases, such as in Austria and Italy, the strong performance of FPOe and Lega ultimately led to their participation in government, their stint in the executive was ultimately quite short due to conflicts with their coalition partners. Additionally, right-wing nationalists are yet to make significant progress in Central and Eastern Europe, where the ECR and EPP political families remain quite strong.
Finally, left-wing GUE/NGL got the lowest score among the major political families, even though it would have probably gotten a better score a few years ago, when its members benefited from an electoral boost due to the anti-austerity backlash in Southern Europe. The power of the leftist family is strongly concentrated in Southern countries with high level of unemployment and public debt, notably Greece, where Tsipras managed to govern for a full term, and Spain, where Podemos now has concrete chances of joining the national government. However, the group lost significant ground in Italy, where the 5 Star Movement managed to get the support of the most deprived areas (GUE/NGL is the closest group to the 5 Star Movement in terms of voting behaviour – according to our data from the previous term). Nevertheless, the current political fragmentation provides smaller GUE/NGL members with a chance to influence the governments across Europe, such as in Portugal, but also in the Nordic countries (Sweden, Finland, Denmark), Czechia and Slovenia (until recently).
VoteWatch tracks all developments at the EU level and provides objective analyses after each EP plenary or major political developments. Contact us at [email protected] for tailored research, datasets or training on MEPs’ likely positions and majority building in specific areas.
How was the algorithm built?
Our algorithm provides two main scores. The absolute power score takes the different sizes of the countries into account. For instance, a big party from Germany is clearly more influential than a big party from Luxembourg, since the former gets to make decisions affecting a bigger society and economy. Parties from big countries also have bigger visibility and financial resources, which provides them with stronger influence in other Member States as well (just think of the party-linked foundations from Germany, which have offices across the world). The relative power score is the share of power held by a party within its own country, the maximum being 100% – absolute power. However, this score is set to remain virtual, as in many cases this cannot be achieved under current constitutional arrangements. For instance, the maximum score cannot be achieved in countries with monarchy systems, since these institutions cannot be taken over by political parties. In any case, the maximum score would also require an individual party to hold all the seats of legislative institutions at the national and regional level, which is not the case for any EU country.
A national party that scores high on the strength dimension is a party well-represented in the European, national, and (if applicable) regional legislatures, and will likely improve its share of seats in upcoming elections. Parties that score well on this dimension are likely to set the agenda and lead debates, even if they are not in government. We operationalized the strength dimension as the weighted sum of share of seats in the European Parliament, performance in opinion polls, and share of seats in national parliaments and regional assemblies (in the case of countries with regional or devolved state structures). The weight of each factor was a function of national political systems’ idiosyncrasies. While unicameral national parliaments were straightforward to assess, bicameral national parliaments were treated on a case-by-case basis so as to understand which Parliamentary Chamber is more powerful (and score accordingly). Generally, a Lower-House Parliamentarian has more legislative power than an Upper-House MP. However, there are cases in which their powers are equal (for example, Italy) or, conversely, their powers are strongly unequal (most notably in Slovenia, which has an incomplete bicameral system). The same method was applied in weighting the national parties’ shares of seats in regional assemblies, as regional assemblies in federal states (such as Germany or Austria) are more powerful than those in devolved states (such as Italy or the UK).
The leadership dimension looks at the national parties’ share of political executive offices (President, Prime Ministers, Ministers, Regional Presidents and Commissioners). The importance of these positions was weighted according to their countries’ types of political systems. For example, the President of Cyprus has more power than Presidents in parliamentary systems, since Cyprus has a Presidential system. Similarly, Prime-Ministers in parliamentary systems have more power than their counterparts in semi-presidential systems (such as France or Romania). While national parties received points for their share of Ministerial posts, they received less points if they are part of a minority government. These points were redistributed to those parties that are propping up the government. This ensures that their power is comprehensively assessed. Lastly, we also awarded the national parties that have a member in Ursula von der Leyen’s College of Commissioners.
Finally, we also assessed the longevity of national parties. The rationale behind this is that the more parties are in power, the likelier they are to appoint “similarly-minded” officials on coveted positions (financial institutions, publicly owned media, judicial bodies, etc.). Moreover, this dimension differentiates between parties that just got into government and those that have been in government for the past ten years (think of German CDU/CSU: without this dimension, this party would have more similar scores as parties that only got into power a few months ago). While national parties’ longevity in government was measured by the number of days spent in government in the past decade, the dimension was weighted by the parties’ electoral scores in that period. This weighting method ensures we do not overestimate small parties that are traditionally part of governments (such as Swedish People’s Party of Finland or Democratic Party of Pensioners of Slovenia, to name a few).
We also made other adjustments to deal with some commonly occurring issues, such the case of non-affiliated politicians in leadership positions and the impact of Brexit. However, for the sake of brevity, we will not get into the full details of our methodological adjustments, but we can provide them upon request. For any questions, feel free to contact us at [email protected]