A widely held view of European Parliament elections is that they are ‘second order’ contests, with voters often casting their ballot on the basis of national rather than European issues. Drawing on a new study, Francesco Zucchini and Stefano Camatarri assess the impact of one domestic factor which has largely been overlooked in previous research: the makeup of a country’s governing coalition. They find that in countries where there are moderately Eurosceptic parties in a coalition government at the national level, citizens are more likely to back strongly Eurosceptic opposition parties in European elections.

It is now well established that support for Eurosceptic parties at European Parliament (EP) elections is not a mere function of voters’ discontent with the performance of their own governments. Indeed, although domestic factors can hardly be excluded from an account of voter choice in EP elections, they likely come hand in hand with other factors, not least the actual feelings and attitudes that voters have about the European Union.

We now also know that the way parties compete on the supply side can make a difference in relation to the extent to which anti/pro EU considerations actually affect voters’ reasoning and choices. Previous studies have shown that the more political parties polarise their discourses on the EU, the more EU issues (as opposed to domestic issues) are likely to resonate with voters in EP elections. Other studies have demonstrated that the more traditional parties converge on moderate positions on European issues, the more voters are likely to switch toward non-mainstream – and seemingly Eurosceptic – options.

Credit: CC-BY-4.0: © European Union 2019 – Source: EP

Yet, these are not the only ways through which political contexts can shape individual voting behaviour. In a recent study, we investigated the role played in EP elections by a country-specific factor which is different from the ones usually discussed in public debates: the composition of government coalitions. Building on previous research, our expectation was that inertia in policymaking brings about extremist voting. The rationale here is that voters are likely to sanction the watering down of their actual preferences in power-sharing governments and may therefore be more likely to back a party that has a more extreme stance than their own. To elaborate, while in the case of opposition parties we assume that voters evaluate only parties’ electoral platforms, as in the classic proximity voting framework, when it comes to government actors we expect them to take on board also whether parties implemented any substantive policy change in the direction they desire. If the government’s outcomes over a matter of interest simply consist in the preservation of the initial status quo, then not very extremist voters could opt for more extreme opposition parties promising major changes in that respect, even if these parties’ electoral platforms may not be the closest ones to their preferences.

Applying this framework to EP elections, and particularly to party positions and attitudes toward EU integration, offers a unique case study. As the burning issue of Brexit has shown over the last few years, a country’s status quo with respect to the overall EU project can hardly be changed unless its government decides to formally leave the EU. Moreover, if a country has a coalition government, then it will most probably include at least one influential pro-EU party that can potentially veto such a decision. This leads to an expectation that in countries where there is a larger presence of moderately Eurosceptic parties in a coalition government, voters are more likely to opt for highly Eurosceptic opposition parties in EP elections.

Our empirical analysis, which was based on the most recent version of the European Election Voter Study (2014), the 2014 Chapel Hill expert survey, and the Parliaments and Governments database, conformed strongly to this expectation. Our results indicated that the higher the level of Euroscepticism present in a country’s coalition government, the higher the probability of citizens from that country voting for a strongly Eurosceptic opposition party. Using specific interaction terms included in a separate series of models, we also uncovered two additional findings. First, an increase of Euroscepticism in voters’ attitudes is more easily translated into strong Eurosceptic voting when governments include moderately Eurosceptic parties. Second, if the most Eurosceptic party in the government increases its level of Euroscepticism, voters are more likely to vote for a strongly Eurosceptic opposition party when they have negative attitudes toward EU integration.

Hopefully, the dissemination of new comparative databases will enable us to understand whether such mechanisms were also at play in the 2019 European Parliament elections. Aside from its replication over time, the applicability of this model to the realm of national elections is also important. There is more at stake in national elections so voters might tend to be more pragmatic in these contests, prioritising the potential influence of a party over the policies it promotes. This may lead to differences in the way our model performs across national and European elections. Future research may be able to give convincing answers in this regard.

For more information, see the authors’ accompanying paper in European Union Politics

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Note: This article gives the views of the authors, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.


About the authors

Francesco Zucchini – University of Milan
Francesco Zucchini is a Professor of Positive Political Theory and Italian Politics in the Department of Social and Political Sciences at the Università Statale di Milano. His research interests include electoral behaviour, law making, representation and courts. He has published in European Union Politics, Political Science Research and Methods, West European Politics, European Journal of Political Research, European Political Science Review, Public Choice, Southern European Society and Politics and Constitutional Political Economy. He recently published a book on the Italian political system La Repubblica dei veti (2013, Milano Egea).

Stefano Camatarri – Waseda University
Stefano Camatarri is a Postdoctoral Fellow of the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS), based at Waseda University. Previously, he was Invited Lecturer at the Catholic University of Louvain and Research Assistant at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. He received his PhD in Political Studies from the University of Milan, with a thesis on the so-called protest voting hypothesis. His research interests mainly concern the comparative study of mass and elite behaviour. He has published in European Union Politics, Political Studies Review and Contemporary Italian Politics. Some of his contributions have also appeared (or are forthcoming) in books edited by Palgrave-MacMillan, Routledge and Oxford University Press.

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