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Swiss Political Science Review 18(4): 518–522 doi:10.1111/spsr.



The Political Consequences of the Financial and

Economic Crisis in Europe: Electoral Punishment and
Popular Protest

Universität Zürich

From the literature on social movements, we have learnt that political mobilization depends on
the combination of three sets of factors: grievances, organization, and opportunity. Grievances
constitute the starting point: an exogenous shock like the Great Recession creates a tremendous
amount of popular discontent. People with grievances seek to express them, and they do so by
raising their voice or by exiting. They raise their voice to the extent that they are organized and
have an opportunity to do so – in the electoral arena as well as in the direc-democratic or in the
protest arena.
In democratic societies, citizens have the right to vote and they have the opportunity to
express their grievances as voters. As Piven and Cloward (1977: 15) have already noted a long
time ago, ‘ordinarily, defiance is first expressed in the voting booth simply because, whether
defiant or not, people have been socialized within a political culture that defines voting as the
mechanism through which political change can and should properly occur’. Accordingly, one of
the first signs of popular discontent are sharp shifts in the voting patterns.

Economic voting
The vast literature on economic voting provides us with more precise ideas about how the
crisis may have played out in electoral terms. This literature is based on the assumption of
instrumentally rational voters, who will reward the incumbents with their vote, when the
economy is good, and punish them when the economy is bad. Much of this literature con-
ceives of economic voting as any change in the support for the chief executive, but some
also focuses on changes in support for the government coalition as a whole. According to
this literature, it is not the personal financial situation, which is decisive for the economic
vote, but the perception of the national economy (Duch and Stevenson 2008, Lewis-Beck and
Stegmaier 2007). Empirical studies on economic voting make it clear that economic voting is
both pervasive and variable, depending on the context. According to Duch and Stevenson’s
(2008: 65) overall estimates, economic voting is at least as important as issue voting or ideo-
logical voting (indicated by left-right placement, or post-materialism). Their results are
obtained by analyzing a large number of ‘normal’ elections. Based on Singer (2011), who
showed, among other things, that the economy is more likely to dominate other issue con-
cerns under conditions of economic recession, we would expect a much greater average

© 2012 Swiss Political Science Association

Political Consequences of the Crisis 519

impact of economic voting in elections which take place after an economic disaster like the
one we are focusing on here.
Context conditions such as the clarity of political responsibility (Powell and Whitten 1993) or
the constraints imposed on the government’s manoeuvering space (Hellwig and Samuels 2007)
modify economic voting: the voters’ assessment of the government’s economic performance has
been shown to only play a role, if the institutional context allows the voters to clearly attribute
the responsibility for the economic performance to the government. Moreover, voters have been
shown to hold governments less accountable for an economic disaster, if they understand that
the government could not do much about it.
Based on a detailed analysis of the first parliamentary elections in 30 European countries
(the 27 EU member countries, plus Iceland, Norway and Switzerland) after the collapse of
Lehman brothers (September 15, 2008), we can conclude that the expectations of the eco-
nomic voting approach are largely confirmed (Kriesi 2011): in these elections, incumbent par-
ties were severely punished for the negative economic consequences of the crisis, and their
punishment was most severe, when the voters could clearly attribute responsibility, as is the
case in West European majoritarian democracies. The aspect of the crisis that triggered the
punishment apparently varied between West European and Central and East European coun-
tries, with unemployment rates being more critical in Western Europe, and growth rates more
critical in Central and Eastern Europe. In addition, with the exception of Poland and Slova-
kia, the budgetary balance seems to have played a crucial role in the extent to which parties
of the chief executive in particular have been punished by the voters: the greater the budget-
ary deficit in the year preceding the elections, the greater the punishment of the government
across Europe.
The economic voting literature has largely failed to account for the kind of parties that vot-
ers turn to when punishing the governing parties. But nothing precludes a closer analysis of
the type of parties that benefit from the punshment of the government. Depending on the party
system at hand, disaffected voters may have several options: in the first place, they may turn
to established opposition parties who habitually blame the government for the country’s eco-
nomic misfortune. In other words, they may turn to the centre-left, if the government was on
the centre-right, or vice versa. Contrary to the analysis reported by Lindvall (2012), I could
not find a systematic pattern of swings to the left or to the right. Whoever governed was pun-
ished – whether the government was on the centre-left or on the centre-right. Secondly, voters
may nurture resentment against all the mainstream parties, i.e. against the established political
elites, or the ‘political class’ in general, and, accordingly, they may turn to new populist chal-
lengers in the party system, provided such challengers are available. In Western Europe, the
most important recent challengers of the mainstream parties have been parties of the new pop-
ulist right. The rise of these challengers is not directly linked to the crisis, but, in my analysis,
they turn out to be the only type of party that systematically benefited from the crisis in the
first post-crisis elections. In the less institutionalized and much more volatile party systems of
Central and Eastern Europe, new parties enter into the electoral competition at almost every
new election. In these countries, populist mobilization is a sort of generalized strategy of the
opposition, and it is these new parties that largely benefited from the crisis in the first post-cri-
sis elections.
Finally, disaffected voters may also turn against political parties altogether. Thus, a more radi-
cal ‘exit’ hypothesis expects discontented voters to turn against all existing parties by supporting
independents or ‘anti-parties’ (i.e. parties opposing all the established parties and/or making fun
of them), or by abstaining. As a matter of fact, such anti-parties have made their appearance in
the post-crisis elections in several countries, especially at the local level. Examples include the

© 2012 Swiss Political Science Association Swiss Political Science Review (2012) Vol. 18(4): 518–522
520 Hanspeter Kriesi

‘Best party’ of the comic Jon Gnarr in Iceland, Beppe Grillo’s party in Italy, or the folkloristic
candidate in the Portuguese presidential elections in January 2011, Manjuel Coelho, who cam-
paigned in a hearse and who made a remarkable 4.5 percent of the overall vote, and no less than
39 percent in his home island, Madeira.

The dynamics of conventional reactions in the electoral arena and contention

outside of the electoral arena
The electoral arena observes its own rhythm, and electoral punishment of the governments in the
countries hit by the financial crisis and its economic consequences may be impossible in the
short run – at least not at the national level, which is the one where the important economic pol-
icy decisions are made. Alternatively, electoral punishment of the national government may be
meted out in elections at other levels – local, regional or European, which may be on the politi-
cal agenda in the short run. As case studies indicate, these ‘secondary elections’ have served as
referendums on national politics and their outcome put pressure on the national government to
accommodate the voters. A typical example is provided by the Irish local elections in June 2009
which were turned into a referendum on the performance of the national government. In these
elections, Fianna Fail suffered its worst ever local election performance (down by 7.8 percent to
25.4 percent), a result which foreshadowed the party’s collapse in the first post-crisis national
elections in spring 2011.
Even if there are no opportunities for direct electoral punishment, the electoral cycle is embed-
ded in the ongoing process of political mobilization that interacts with the electoral process in
complex ways. Thus, a set of four brief country studies (including four of the countries most
heavily hit by the crisis – two West European countries (Iceland and Ireland), and two Central
and East European countries (Hungary and Latvia)) confirm that conventional electoral politics
closely interacts with popular contention outside of the electoral channel (see Kriesi 2011).
First of all, there are other institutionalized channels for mobilizing protest against government
decisions. Thus, direct-democratic institutions are available for the articulation of protest in an
increasing number of countries. Where available, such institutions are regularly used to voice
opposition against the government. In three of the countries most heavily hit by the crisis, refer-
endums were organized which imposed constraints on the government’s policies (in Iceland and
Hungary) or on the political process (requiring early elections in Latvia). Other institutional
channels for protest include appeals to allies in the institutional structure (such as the President,
who provided support for the opponents of the government in both Iceland and Latvia), or to the
constitutional court (which intervened in issues related to the crisis in Iceland).
In the absence of immediately available options in the institutionalized arenas, or in addition
to such options, discontented groups of citizens are likely to resort to the protest arena, and try
to force political concessions from political elites by directly appealing to the general public.
This is Schattschneider’s (1960) idea of the ‘expansion of conflict’. Public protest is designed to
unleash a public debate, to draw the attention of the public to the grievances of the actors in
question, to create controversy where there was none, and to obtain the support of the public for
the actors’ concerns. Discontented citizens are all the more ready to resort to protest, since pro-
test mobilization has become increasingly conventional, at least in Western Europe, although not
yet to the same extent in Central and Eastern Europe. West European countries have become
‘movement societies’, in the apt term coined by Meyer and Tarrow (1998). As this term sug-
gests, political protest has become an integral part of these countries’ political way of life: pro-
test behavior is no longer used as a last resort only, but employed with greater frequency, by
more diverse constituencies, to represent a wider range of claims than ever before. If grievances

© 2012 Swiss Political Science Association Swiss Political Science Review (2012) Vol. 18(4): 518–522
Political Consequences of the Crisis 521

are pressing and a response to more or less conventional protest is not forthcoming, however,
challengers, even in democracies, may be tempted to step up their protest, to radicalize, and to
create a political crisis through massive use of disruption.
In all four countries I have studied, protest mobilization was triggered by the government’s
adoption of austerity measures. These measures provide the link between the budgetary deficits
on the one hand, and protest mobilization and electoral punishment, on the other. In all four
countries, austerity measures were imposed by the deal they were forced to make with the IMF
(jointly with EU/IMF in the case of Ireland). In Ireland and Hungary, the governments had
already taken such measures before turning to international loans. In each instance, whether the
measures were imposed by the international institutions, or unilaterally by the national govern-
ment, their announcement immediately provoked protests in the streets. The importance of aus-
terity measures for triggering such protests is also confirmed by the cases of Greece and
Portugal, which had to resort to rescue packages imposed by the Troika, too. There is, however,
an important difference between the two West European and the two Central and East European
cases: while the financial and economic crisis constituted the trigger of popular protest in the
West European countries, this protest was already in full swing when the crisis intervened in the
two Central and East European countries – due to corruption scandals and the malfunctioning of
the party systems. In the latter two countries, the economic crisis served to amplify an already
ongoing political crisis, whereas in the two West European countries, it created such a crisis
from scratch.
Protest mobilization, in turn, has had important repercussions for the electoral channel in all
four countries. Under the pressure of the protest mobilizations, the cabinet was reshuffled: in Ice-
land and in Ireland, the withdrawal of the support by the minority partners under external pres-
sure triggered early elections. In Hungary, the withdrawal of the minority partner led to a weak
minority government. In Latvia, the reshuffling was more complicated, but eventually also led to
the withdrawal of the former Prime Minister’s party and to a minority government. Together, the
experience of the governments in these four countries indicate, that, faced with the popular reac-
tions to an economic crisis of extraordinary proportions, government coalitions become highly
unstable and suffer from the lack of loyalty of the minority partners.
The impact of the protest mobilization on the governments’ policies, however, turned out to
be severely limited by the constraints imposed on the governments by the international pressure.
As the governments in the countries most hardly hit by the crisis discovered one after the other
(the Hungarians later than the others), their manoeuvering space did not permit them to make
substantial concessions to their citizens’ vocal protest. Only in tiny Iceland were the citizens able
to force the government to resist outside pressure to some extent. With the support of their coun-
try’s President, and thanks to an institutional mechanism (the referendum) allowing the popula-
tion to veto the government’s decisions, popular protest has been able to prevent the government
from giving in to the international pressure and to expiate the banks’ sins with taxpayers’
money. Thanks to its citizens’ protest, Iceland has been able to avoid the fate of Ireland and Lat-
via. In the case of Iceland, all types of channels have been involved in the showdown between
the government and the citizens: electoral choices, referendum votes, Constitutional assemblies,
and protest in the streets have mutually reinforced each other and led to an unexpected outcome.
Even in Iceland, however, the citizens’ impact was so limited that the voters massively took
the exit option in the secondary, local elections after the post-crisis national vote. In both Iceland
and Hungary, the exit-hypothesis found some support, too, as the governments voted into office
in the first post-crisis elections turned out to be unable to deal with the constraints imposed by
the international organizations and the ‘market’.

© 2012 Swiss Political Science Association Swiss Political Science Review (2012) Vol. 18(4): 518–522
522 Hanspeter Kriesi

Overall, the political fallout of the Great Recession has remained rather limited so far. But one
might argue that we have seen only the first post-crisis elections in most of the countries. The
truly critical elections for the exit-hypothesis might only be those following up on the first post-
crisis elections, when the voters have come to realize that the parties replacing the punished gov-
ernment were not able to do any better than their predecessors. Once the voters notice that the
new government which has replaced the punished parties is forced to take just the same mea-
sures as its predecessors whom they had voted out of office, they may resort to punishing the
mainstream parties as a whole in the next national elections – by turning to new populist chal-
lengers. We have just seen such a development in the case of Greece, where the left populist Sy-
riza made 16.8 percent of the vote in the parliamentary elections of May 2012, and no less than
26.9 percent in the June elections six weeks later, becoming the second largest party behind the
winning conservatives who obtained 18.9 and 29.7 percent respectively.
It is hard to predict what will happen next. Eventually, protest may subside not because the
discontented population starts to trust the government, but because it has lost faith in the effec-
tiveness of protest and/or because it is forced to acknowledge the constraints imposed on the
governments by the international political community. Given the constraints of the situation,
resigned acceptance of the inevitable may replace contention (as it did in the case of Ireland).
Alternatively, protest may escalate, radicalization may produce a political crisis of extraordinary
proportions (as it did in Greece), which may lead to electoral realignments and policy innova-
tions that profoundly change European economic and social policies.

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© 2012 Swiss Political Science Association Swiss Political Science Review (2012) Vol. 18(4): 518–522