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Home Opinion Challenger parties and the decline of the European left
Politics • Democracy • Europe

Challenger parties and the decline of the European left

Sara Hobolt & Catherine de Vries - 02 December 2015

Issue entrepreneurship and issue flexibility are enabling new challenger parties to outmanoeuvre the historically dominant mainstream

European democracies are undergoing a transformation. The major parties of the left and the right that have dominated politics of decades are losing ground. Some even argue that the “age of party democracy” has passed (eg Mair 2013, Dalton and Wattenberg 2000). There are many indications that established political parties are in decline, including falling electoral support and turnout, the rise of voter volatility and declining party membership and party identification. The nature of political competition is also changing: the socioeconomic cleavages that used to dominate party competition and party ties are becoming less relevant, and new salient issues have emerged, such as immigration and European integration.

These developments present a particular challenge to the parties of the centre-left. On the one hand, they need to appeal to the centre ground and the growing middle class, presenting themselves as fiscally responsible and economically liberal, while still being socially progressive. On the other hand, they do not want to abandon their core constituencies, who often fear globalisation, Europeanisation and immigration. The steady decline in the electoral support for centre-left parties is illustrated in Figure 1, which plots the percentage vote share of the main social democratic parties in Austria, Denmark, France, Germany and the UK since 1979. On average, centre-left support has declined in these countries from 41 per cent in the early 1980s to 28 per cent today. In parallel to the decline of established political parties and an overall erosion of the “old politics” of left and right, we are witnessing another trend, namely the rise of challenger parties.  

Figure 1: Decline of the mainstream left in western European countries
Note: The percentage vote share of the main centre-left party

To understand the plight of mainstream social democratic parties, it is important to examine the rise of another type of party, namely challenger parties. Challenger parties highlight issues such as European integration and immigration that have often been downplayed by the mainstream, and foster new linkages with voters that feel left behind by established parties. While the linkages between established parties and citizens are weakening as people are much less rooted in traditional civil society organisations such as unions, churches and the local community, challenger parties across western Europe give a clear voice to the discontent with the political establishment.

What distinguishes challenger parties from other ‘mainstream’ parties is that their primary goal is not to govern (office‑seeking). Instead, they reshape the political landscape through their broad electoral appeal and ability to put new issues on the agenda. Notable examples of successful challenger parties include Front National in France, the Freedom party in the Netherlands and Austria, Podemos in Spain, and the Five Star Movement in Italy. Such parties have transformed the nature of party competition and have restructured the political agenda, in most cases without ever setting foot in government.

In the recent Danish elections, for example, the Danish People’s party become the largest party in the centre-right block with 21 per cent of the votes. Yet, despite offers to form a centre-right coalition government, they decided to stay in opposition, where they can gain influence on specific key policies (such as immigration), yet avoid the responsibility and accountability that comes with government.

Figure 2 illustrates the rise of electoral support for challenger parties in five western European countries, and shows a rapid increase in their support. Average support has increased from nine per cent to 23 per cent in just over three decades. While this is of a similar magnitude to the decline in the support for the centre-left parties over the same period, that is not to say that all voters of challenger parties are defectors from the mainstream left. However, it is noteworthy that while the most successful challenger parties are nominally located on the right of the political spectrum – eg the Front National in France, the Freedom party in Austria, the UK Independence party – they do attract significant support from dissatisfied social democratic voters. In Figure 2, the rise of challenger parties is mostly driven by populist rightwing parties, but not exclusively so. They also capture the rise of challenger parties on the left, such as the Red-Green Alliance in Denmark and Die Linke in Germany.

Figure 2: The rise of challenger parties in western European countries
Note: The percentage vote share of challenger parties

Clearly, the rise of challenger parties is influenced by broader societal developments (see eg Kriesi et al 2008), but it is also driven by the degree to which political parties themselves are able to generate and maintain political demand. This rests on the assumption that politics is a competitive struggle among political parties about which political issues come to dominate the political agenda (Schattschneider 1960). Parties are not vessels carrying societal divisions, but actively structure and determine the content of societal conflict. As a result, the substantive character of political competition will vary from election to election as new issues or positions are identified and mobilised by one party or another (Carmines and Stimson 1989; Riker 1982).

Political parties politicise a previously non-salient event, policy issue, or societal conflict and attempt to increase public attention over this controversy. This logic is also at the heart of what Riker (1996: 9-10) coins as “heresthetics”, which refers to a political strategy by which parties structure political competition in such a way that they gain leverage from competing on a pre‑existing dimension on which advantages are already held or by introducing an issue dimension that allows them to reshuffle the current structure of party competition to their advantage. The mainstream centre right and centre left have competed successfully on the economic cleavage and have dominated postwar European party systems.

Yet, in recent decades there has been a rise in the salience of ‘new politics’, including issues such as immigration and European integration, but also issues like law and order and defence (Kriesi et al., 2008: 59-60). Challenger parties play a key role in mobilising grievances on those issues that often cut across the traditional economic left-right dimensions. In this view, new parties emerge not only because a societal demand for them exists, but perhaps more importantly because these parties are able to actively shape and craft their own demand.

But who are these challenger parties? The literature suggests that challenger parties are those that do not occupy a winning position in the political system and thus have incentives to act as challengers to the mainstream. In the US context characterised by a majority government and competition among two parties, challenger parties are defined as parties in opposition. In the western European context of coalition government and a multitude of parties, challenger parties are less easily defined.

Muller and Strøm (1999)’s seminal work on party competition in the European context outline that party leaders value three goals: office, policy and vote. Yet, there are potential trade-offs among these. For example, established parties of the left responded to the decline of cleavage‑based voting by shaking off some of their ideological origins and become more catch-all, such as the third-way social democrats in Britain, Germany or the Netherlands, in order to enhance their electoral appeal (Kirchheimer 1966, Kitschelt 1997). They thus have favoured votes and office over policy.

As the left‑right ideological distance between social democrats and conservatives or Christian democrats began to shrink as a result (Kitschelt 1997, Van Kersbergen 1997), it provided a strategic opportunity for challenger parties to gain a foothold in the system and put new issues on the agenda as the salience of the left‑right divide was somewhat diminished (Adams, De Vries and Leitner 2012).

Challenger parties have responded to these developments by not being primarily office-seeking as this would forge them into difficult concessions with mainstream competitors (a lesson painfully learned by challengers such as the Freedom party in Austria or the List Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands in the mid-1990s and early 2000s).

Given that the existence and success of challenger parties is linked to the mobilisation of issue dimensions other than the left-right government participation carries considerable risk. It requires difficult policy comprises, forces parties to moderate their positions and stake out positions on a large set of issues. This is difficult for every party, but especially for those that have distinctive issue pallets.

Rather than seeking office, challenger parties aim to reshape the political landscape through their broad electoral appeal and ability to put new issues on the agenda. Even if challenger parties do seek office, they are often not willing to compromise on their core issue positions. This is illustrated by recent events in Greece. Syriza did not seek to enter a coalition with a centre-left party which was more willing to accept austerity demands coming from Brussels, but rather entered into a coalition with a radical right party with whom they differ on many respects but not on how to negotiate with EU creditors. Indeed, there are many examples of successful challenger parties, such as the Front National in France, the Freedom Party in the Netherlands, and the Danish People’s party in Denmark, that have transformed the nature of party competition without being in government.

To attract voters challenger parties pursue both programmatic strategies, relating to the importance they attach to issues and the positions they take on these issues, and charismatic strategies that stress the personality of the leader, an overall sense of opposition to the ruling establishment and a reliance on emotional appeals (see also (Kitschelt 2000; Van der Brug and Mughan 2007).

Programmatically, challenger parties mobilise issues previously ignored by the mainstream, something we coin issue entrepreneurship, and adopt a variety of positions that cannot easily be summarised in left-right terms, a strategy we refer to as issue flexibility (Hobolt and De Vries 2015). This does not only allow them to carve out a distinct ideological appeal that is recognisable to voters (Meguid 2008), but also to strategically drive a wedge within platforms of established parties that partly ignored issues like immigration or European integration in order not to spark off intra-party dissent (De Vries and Hobolt 2012; Van De Wardt, De Vries and Hobolt 2014). Issue entrepreneurship and issue flexibility are the prerogative of challenger parties rather than established parties as the former are not constrained by historical legacies linked to long-standing social divisions and therefore have much more room for programmatic malleability.

Charismatically, challenger parties are explicitly anti-establishment, emphasise the personality of the leader and use emotional appeals in their rhetoric. This charismatic strategy allows challenger parties to carefully craft a basis of support amongst those voters that felt left behind by mainstream politics, for example lower-class voters in Britain to which the centrist positions of the Labour party do not appeal, or traditionally Christian Democratic and Conservative voters in the Netherlands who worry about internationalist stances of their parties.

What is crucial for the strategy of challenger parties and their success is the combination of programmatic and charismatic strategies. This combination allows challenger parties to make even distant and technocratic issues, like European integration, into a vote winner and allows them to merge a diverse set of issue positions into a coherent narrative about the failings of the establishment.

This conceptualisation of challenger parties as those who are not primarily office-seekers, but vote- and policy-seekers that use distinct programmatic and charismatic strategies to reshape the political landscape through their broad electoral appeal and ability to put new issues on the agenda, allows us to highlight commonalities between challengers on the left and the right that have so far been treated in isolation. Leftwing parties like Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece, although different in ideological outlook, in fact have many commonalities with rightwing parties like the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands or the UK Independence party when it comes to their programmatic and charismatic strategies.These parties also present a distinct challenge to the mainstream left as they often appeal to voters who are dissatisfied with the political class and who feel that the mainstream centre-left does not represent their interest. One group of voters attracted to challenger parties, and their opposition to ‘politics as usual’ are those voters who feel like the losers of globalisation: the less educated, lower skilled or the unemployed – among them many who would have traditionally been seen to be part of the mainstream left’s natural constituency. Many of these voters support the parties based on their issue positions that differ from the mainstream, most notably Eurosceptic and anti-immigration stances, but also in support of a new and different kind of politics.

Because challenger parties are mostly not part of government (coalitions) yet can draw on substantial electoral support, they are able to extract policy concessions from established parties to which they constitute a significant electoral threat – yet, without the ‘cost of governance’ associated with actual government responsibility. As a result, challenger parties are able to influence government policy without being part of government itself, which in turn allows them to regain and capitalise on their anti‑establishment appeal.

Sara Hobolt is Sutherland chair in European Institutions at the European Institute, London School of Economics and Political Science

Catherine de Vries is a professor of European Politics at the University of Oxford



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