The Paradox of Choice

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Ken Godfrey's picture

The economic crisis has fundamentally changed the world we live in. It has also changed the world politicians inhabit. In the interconnected world of the 21st century all states have been affected to some degree. Yet, the crisis is most pronounced where it began. In the advanced capitalist economies of the West the fallacy of the Great Moderation has been shattered and confidence in the future has slowly disappeared like arctic ice.

The consequences of the economic crisis are extremely context dependent. The level of economic stress and the workings of the electoral system vary from state to state. Nevertheless, two outcomes stand out. Firstly, a number of political parties have emerged and altered the structure of electoral competition. Secondly, and less recognised by political commentators, the crisis has created new limits on political choice. These two outcomes point to a paradox that will be severely tested should the crisis continue.

Emerging parties


In times of economic hardship, especially periods of high unemployment, economic issues are more salient.1 Indeed, they often dominate politics. All across Europe, incumbents – predominantly established parties - have been punished for poor economic performance since the onset of the crisis, regardless of their political ideology.2 As a result, a variety of political movements have gained in strength. Parties on the left have, as yet, not been particularly strong electorally – the one exception being Syriza in Greece - despite movements such as Occupy and ‘los indignados’. The greatest increase in vote share has come from parties delivering different shades of nationalist rhetoric.

In Greece, Golden Dawn received a significant portion of seats in 2012 elections, entering the Greek parliament for the first time. The UK Independence Party recently surged to the fore in local elections, coming third in projected nationwide votes. The True Finns are currently the largest opposition party in the Finnish parliament. In Hungary, the government of Victor Orban has presided over a significant rise in nationalism since it won a supermajority in 2010 elections. The crisis accentuated trends that had bubbled under the surface of European politics prior to 2008. The Front National in France has steadily increased its share of the vote since the 1980s. The Austrian far right has been a national force since the 1999 legislative elections. In Holland, Geert Wilder’s Freedom Party was established in 2006 but only really took off after the 2010 elections.

In the more institutionalised party scene of Western Europe, the main affect has therefore been a reduced vote share for established parties, coupled with an increased vote share for emerging parties, particularly on the right.3 In the US, the Tea Party has challenged the status quo since 2009, but partly due to the plural voting system, its emergence has not resulted in a shake-up of the two-party system. In Eastern Europe, several new parties have emerged since the onset of the crisis, fundamentally changing electoral competition.4

The increased success of emerging parties represents a means of attacking the ‘political class’, opening up alternatives to institutionalised elites. Policies that are unpalatable among established parties and therefore not absorbed into party rhetoric, have become viable electoral options for voters. Some emerging parties have moved from protest parties to become major political players. Strategic voters are therefore presented with increasingly nuanced positions on crucial issues come election time. Political commentators have recognised this trend and the effect it will have on established parties, either reducing their vote share or forcing them to move further towards the political extremes, especially to the right.

Limits to choice


A second consequence of the economic crisis has been a reduction in the policy space for politicians. This is especially true for established parties who have been unable to challenge the system that established them in the first place. The phenomenon is visible throughout Europe but is strongest in the Eurozone periphery.

Francois Hollande came to power in France promising a change to austerity politics. Mariano Rajoy won the 2011 Spanish elections on the basis of a reformist agenda that included promises to lower taxes. Both leaders have done exactly the opposite. Upon assuming power, leaders throughout the Eurozone have realised the constraints the current economic system places on government finances. States no longer have control of the currency in which their debt is issued, making them especially reliant on bond markets for borrowing. As a result only one economic strategy, namely austerity, is actually being followed when push comes to shove. Reality bites when creditors bark.

The terms applied to financial assistance in Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Cyprus have, ipso facto, constrained national politics. Conditionality attached to bailouts from foreign creditors reduces state sovereignty. Yet, the phenomenon is not limited to countries that have received financial assistance. The fear of sovereign default has pushed other states (such as Italy and Slovenia) towards harsh austerity measures. The narrative of southern profligacy in the core of the Eurozone has resulted in little support for financial assistance from Northern electorates. This hinders the room for manoeuvre for politicians in states such as Germany when discussing financial assistance; it also, therefore, restricts the choices available to politicians receiving that assistance. In some way, the electoral politics of the core have come to dominate the economies of the periphery.

It is not just the choices of politicians that are constrained; sometimes, it is democracy itself. In Greece, a ‘caretaker’ government that did not receive a democratic mandate from voters ruled the country for 6 months. Similarly, Mario Monti headed a government that made significant reforms to the Italian economy despite never facing an electoral process. In both cases, ‘output legitimacy’ in the eyes of creditors took precedence over ‘input legitimacy’. When economic practicality temporarily trumps democratic choice, the options to voters are fundamentally compromised. In the periphery of the Eurozone, the crisis has reduced the policy options available to politicians and in two cases temporarily suspended democratic choice.



The two points present an interesting paradox. The emergence of new parties gives the average voter access to a greater variety of ideological stances and policy choices. The political spectrum has stretched, because established parties are loath to absorb all elements of different, often controversial views. Conversely, the choices of those that gain power have been significantly reduced, particularly in the Eurozone. There are more options on the table in elections, but in reality, dinner has already been served.

The ultimate test for national politics will come when a party that campaigns on a radical platform, questioning the system, gains power over that system. As yet this has not occurred, although Syriza came close to winning Greek elections in 2012 and fundamentally altering Greece’s position vis-à-vis the EU and international creditors. Greece is the country that has been hardest hit by the crisis, with increasing unemployment, reduced state spending and appalling human suffering. The success of Syriza in the worst affected country points to the potential for greater electoral gains for radical parties in other countries should the crisis continue. If it does, the political consequences will be immense.



  1. Singer, Matthew M. 2011. Who Says ‘It’s the Economy’? Cross-National and Cross-Individual Variation in the Salience of Economic Performance, Comparative Political Studies 44, 3: 284-312
  2. SBartels, Larry M. 2011. Ideology and Retrospection in Electoral Responses to the Great Recession, Paper prepared for conference on ‘Popular Reactions to the economic Crisis’, Nuffield College, June 25-26, 2011
  3. SKriesi, Hanspeter, Edgar Grande, Martin Dolezal, Marc Helbling, Dominic Höglinger, Swen Hutter and Bruno Wueest 2012. Political conflict in Western Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  4. SNeff Powell, Eleanor and Joshua A. Tucker 2012. Revisiting Electoral Volatility in Post-Communist Countries: New Data, New Results and New Approaches, British Journal of Political Science, 2013, pp 1-25