Can Europe Make It?

The electoral system and support for populist parties in Europe

Radical left supporters might be more open to participating in strategic voting, compared to radical right voters.

Edward Chan James Downes
19 November 2018

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Voters of Unidos Podemos after the results of the national elections in Madrid, Spain, June 26, 2016. Jimenez Rodrigo/Press Association. All rights reserved.

While the electoral success of the radical right has been under a continuous spotlight, the rise of the radical left has always been much less researched. But as we have argued in a recent article for Democratic Audit, electoral growth among the radical left parties was only second to that of the radical right parties in recent years.

The economic crisis and euroscepticism have been the driving forces behind their surge. It is high time that the relationship between the impact of the electoral system on the electoral fortunes of the radical left was considered. Looking at the relationship between the ‘type’ of electoral system and support for radical right and left parties, I want to examine the implications that this poses for radical right and left alike in contemporary European politics.

Conventional wisdom

Conventional wisdom tends to suggest that large parties would be more likely to flourish in majoritarian systems while a proportional representation (PR) system favours small parties. Under the latter system, there would be a lower disproportionality between the number of votes and actual seats. As most radical parties are comparatively smaller compared to mainstream ones, it naturally follows that the votes received by them would be easier to translate into actual seats under a PR-based system.

The story would be different in majoritarian-style systems. While realising their votes would not be likely to make a difference in the election, the supporters of the radical parties might settle for the mainstream parties which are closest to their positions. This is commonly known as ‘strategic voting.’

Conventionally speaking, PR-based electoral systems have tended to be regarded as the breeding ground for radical parties, particularly those on the radical right, whilst majoritarian systems are often seen as acting as a bulwark or ‘check’ against radical right parties. It follows that the ‘type’ of electoral system (more specifically PR-based systems) can act as a powerful contributing factor in the rise of the radical right.

Is the conventional wisdom tenable?

There has been a wealth of literature concerning the linkage between electoral systems and the radical right. However, contrary to the conventional wisdom, the electoral system has not been clearly established as a variable explaining the ‘rise’ of the radical right.

The aforementioned conventional wisdom is never a foregone conclusion in political science. Drawing on data from elections in western Europe during the period, 1979-2002, it is found that the share of votes won by radical right parties has borne no relation to the electoral system. One of the most plausible explanations would be that strategic voting is not common among radical right supporters. As mentioned above, voters are more likely to engage in strategic voting under a majoritarian setting to make their votes really count. However, radical right supporters would be less likely to participate in it, as they may find no possible alternative that would satisfy them. The other mainstream parties might be too remote from the position of their originally preferred party. Despite not making any substantive difference in the electoral outcome, the ballot might be significant insofar as it is expressive in nature and aimed at registering the voters’ dissatisfaction.

In response to such findings, proponents of the conventional wisdom argue that the radical right benefits from PR in terms of their share of seats. It is the mechanical effect of the electoral formula that makes the difference. Despite having roughly the same share of the vote, radical right parties have won two times more seats under PR compared to those won in majoritarian-based elections.

What about the radical left?

While factors like having a radical left predecessor, high employment and protest sentiment help radical left parties flourish, it is concluded that they can also thrive in a wide range of electoral systems, except the majoritarian ones with a level of disproportionality, such as in the United Kingdom.

Recent research has suggested that the high electoral threshold (i.e. the minimum of vote shares to be obtained in order to take a seat) dampens support for the radical left significantly.

As pointed out above, the rise of the radical left in recent years has been a rather under-researched theme, let alone the relationship between the electoral system and their electoral performance. Scholars often utilise the same conceptual framework as the radical right parties to the study of the radical left, thinking that the underlying variables are not specific to any type of parties. They tend to think that the impact of an electoral system on the radical left would more or less mirror the radical right. Yet, we are inclined to propose that this might not be the case.

Different Impacts of electoral system

The voting behaviour of radical left and right supporters might be different. In the context of economic crisis and eurosceptism, the radical parties’ supporters might cast their ballots as expressive votes to vent their anger and voice their frustration towards the mainstream parties. Yet, voters with a different political ideology might behave differently when it comes to expressive voting. It is entirely possible that radical left and right supporters have different tendencies in relation to how they cast their votes expressively, instead of exerting their influence over the outcome.

Moreover, radical left and right supporters might have different preferences on strategic voting. It is suggested that radical left supporters compared to radical right voters might be more open to participating in strategic voting.

In elections with high disproportionality which naturally prejudice the chance of small parties, radical right voters might be less likely to defect and vote for other alternatives compared to radical left voters. This is because for radical right supporters other mainstream parties (e.g. centre right) might be too far away from their ideal party position in relation to issues like eurosceptism.

However, the difference between radical left and other mainstream/centre parties might not be as wide as one might assume. For example, radical left parties like Podemos and Syriza embrace a ‘soft’ eurosceptism which only denounces the neoliberal outlook of EU while not rejecting the integration model as a whole. Radical left voters may be more open to participate in strategic voting compared to radical right supporters.

The connection between recent electoral fortunes and the electoral system (selected countries)

To further examine the connection between the electoral system and the recent electoral fortunes of radical left parties, the table below draws from the data of recent elections:

Radical left parties (countries)

Electoral system (Denoted by the Change of disproportionality, measured by the Gallagher Index)

Change in the share of votes (%) (Most Recent Last two national parliamentary elections)

Change in the number of seats won

(Most Recent Last two national parliamentary elections)

Syriza (Greece)




Podemos (Spain)




Die Linke (Germany)




PvdD (The Netherlands)




Sinn Féin (Ireland)




Note: Higher scores on the Gallagher Index indicate a higher level of electoral system disproportionality.

From the table above, it can be found that radical left parties can both flop and thrive in elections with high and low levels of disproportionality. Arguably, Syriza still enjoyed electoral success in the 2015 September election as they still managed to remain as an incumbent government with a minimal drop in the share of votes and number of seats won. Podemos suffered from a slight drop in the share of votes but lost no seats. Die Linke enjoyed a bare increase in the share of votes and the number of seats won albeit under a disproportional electoral system. PvdD enjoyed a modest increase in the number of seats won under a slightly more proportional system.


While radical right parties have taken centre stage in recent years, the rise of the radical left has been under-researched. To fully understand the recent electoral volatility in a number of European countries, radical left parties ought to be given adequate attention, especially in regard to the connection between the electoral system and electoral support.

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