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When people think of new political parties, they tend to think of successful examples such as Podemos in Spain or the 5-Star Movement in Italy. We often forget that the majority of new parties fail to win a single seat. In the Netherlands even nine out of ten since 1948. Political Scientist Joost van Spanje is researching the role that news media and social media play: how decisive are they to the success of new parties in mature democracies?

Joost van Spanje
Joost van Spanje

Together with his team at the University of Amsterdam, Joost is currently finalising his project focusing on legal action against anti-immigration parties in 21 European countries. In addition, he is assembling a team in London to examine the role that the media has played in the rise of new political parties in 19 countries since 1945. We discussed with him the latter project in the run-up to the 2021 elections to the Dutch House of Representatives.

Examine the entire iceberg

'Every story about new parties should begin with the line: "the vast majority of new parties fail". When Dutch people think of new political parties in the Netherlands, they often think of successful examples, although since 1948, 90% of new parties failed in their attempts to win seats in the Dutch House of Representatives. The successful new parties are the tip of the iceberg. Why are some new parties successful while others are not? To answer this question, you have to examine the entire iceberg, a task that up until now has been extremely difficult. However, we now have access to enormous data sets that we can analyse, which allows us to thoroughly examine successful and unsuccessful new parties and compare them within different countries and through the years.'

The role of the media

'The media seem to play a substantial role. New parties find it more difficult to garner media attention than existing parties, yet at the same time, this attention is far more important to new parties than established ones. To boost their visibility and mobilise their voter base, media attention is essential, but the vast majority of new parties' attempts to make the news fail.'

Will a new party be portrayed as a "breath of fresh air" or condemned as "inexperienced and radical"?

'With my team in London I will be examining 19 countries to see which new parties appear in the media, how they are portrayed and what effect this has on voters. For this purpose, we will conduct experiments focusing on how journalists make their decisions, the role of social media posts and how voters respond. In addition, we have access to huge numbers of news articles that we can search through and filter in all kinds of ways. How often are new parties mentioned, how often is news about them shared on social media, and in the event they do manage to get attention, how are they portrayed? Will they be welcomed as a breath of fresh air or condemned as inexperienced and radical? We already know that the way parties are framed can have an effect on voters.'

The dilemma of seeking media attention

'The need to seek media attention creates a dilemma for every party. On the one hand, a party can make the news by creating conflict or making radical or unconventional statements, although on the other, it needs to be taken seriously by voters. For new parties, this dilemma is even more complicated as they have to do far more in order to make the news, while at the same time, they only get one chance to make a first impression. New parties are far less likely to make the news and are toast if they send the wrong signals.'

No such thing as bad PR?

'So, do new parties have any advantages at all? Often, when political commentators discuss new parties, they say "there's no such thing as bad PR," i.e. that any attention is positive. However, our previous studies cast doubt on this assertion. For example, the disputes and infighting within the Dutch elderly party 50Plus in 2014 led many of their voters to view the party as ineffective and cast their vote for another party or abstain. A second example was in the same year, when the populist party PVV was frequently being associated with extreme right politics: this put many of their voters off even though they still had concerns about immigration. In short, new parties can also suffer from reputational damage and voters will only cast their ballot for a new party if they consider that party to be legitimate and effective.'

Dynamics between new and established parties

'It's also interesting to see how the established parties respond to new parties, as this also influences voters. Generally, established parties respond to new parties in four ways. Firstly, they can do nothing, and simply ignore the new party. The second possible reaction is to differentiate themselves from the new party and the third is to move in their direction. The fourth type is a non-substantive response, the most significant of which is a cordon sanitaire. This is when an established party systematically refuses to cooperate with the new party in any way, permanently blocking that party from operating. In combination with co-opting the new party’s core policy issues, this costs the new party votes, as I describe in my 2018 book.'

Are new parties good for democracy?

'People often complain about too much fragmentation in the Dutch political landscape. However, we should realize that the regular creation of new parties can also be positive. It brings new faces, new organisational structures and new insights. Some concerns that large sections of society have held for some time, such as concern about environmental pollution, can be channelled into new parties. This is good for democracy, as it creates greater competition and often forces existing parties to be more open. A disadvantage of a very high turnover of new parties is that no meaningful bond with voters can be made. As a result, voters don't have a clear idea of what the new party stands for and who and what they can rely on. Furthermore, too much coming and going of parties can negatively affect stability of policymaking. For example, in Poland in the 1990s, there was a continual creation of new parties that resulted in a significant degree of instability and every election saw the loss of a great deal of experience.'

On 23 September, Joost van Spanje will present new results from his study into legal action against anti-immigration parties in Europe. For more information, keep an eye on the UvA calendar.

Dr. mr. J.H.P. (Joost) van Spanje

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

CW : Political Communication & Journalism