Works in progress: Thinking about cleavages, part III

The last post ended with a comment on the need for understanding the nature of the conflicts and the role of political institutions, but in retrospect that is a bit premature since before I can talk about the tension between the anchoring of conflicts in socio-demographic structures and the manipulation of conflicts by political elites, I need to explore further the nature of the conflicts themselves.

In the first post in this series, I raised a series of questions about cleavage-like conflict.  The second post tried to lay out the substance of those conflicts, at least as they concern postcommunist Europe.  I discussed both the socio-demographic and the attitudinal elements but stopped short of linking them because it is that linkage that is central to much of the controversy about “cleavages” and requires more attention than I had time to give.  And I was not really done with the conflict question, as I had not yet dealt with the questions of dimensionality, bundling, asymmetry or … and this may have to wait for yet another day, salience.  Here are the potentially problematic issues I raised in the first post:

  • The degree to which positions on those issues overlap with one another, and the size of the resulting “bundle” of aligned issues
  • The relative distribution of supporters and parties on particular issues or bundles (the degree to which disagreement is symmetrical and continuous or binary and asymmetrical, forming “niches”)
  • The degree to which a particular issue or bundle of issues is salient for political debate

In one sense I already started to deal with the question of bundling in the previous post to the extent that, short of arguing that an particular issue is not relevant, the only way to reduce the number of dimensions of analysis is to bundle some issues with others.  Of course all “issues” are themselves bundles of specific questions that touch on multiple dimensions.  in some cases multiple dimensions of debate may merge (or some may submerge) to form a single dimension of competition, whereas, as Colomer and Puglese note, a seemingly-unidimensional political question can quickly become the subject of a multi-dimensional debate (2006) (The phenomenon is  easily observable in the case of the U.S. health care debate in which some Republicans chose to attack the Obama admiminstration’s proposals on financial grounds while others focused on its relationship to abortion and euthanasia).

What emerges as a result is the challenge of measuring dimensionality:  how many dimensions shape political competition, and what specific issues do those actually contain.  As Budge and Fairlie note, the upper end of the dimensionality scale has “as many dimensions as there are political actors and public preferences held by them – forming an underlying space of almost infinite dimensions therefore”(cited in Colomer and Puglese). The need for clarity, however, calls for the least misleading possible reduction to a relatively small number.  At the far end of this process of reduction, is the uni-dimensional conflict between two dominant positions which bundle together everything else (the number of dimensions more or less inversely related to the size of their bundles).

The most common framework for understanding unidimensionality, of course, is “left” and “right.”  According to Mair (2007: 208) this framework still ”

appears to offer both sense and shape to an otherwise complex political reality’ at three levels. First, in terms of voters, data from the European Social Surveys conducted in recent years show that more than 80 per cent of voters define themselves as left- or right-wingers. Second, regarding observers and researchers ‘expert surveys’ systematically identify the left-right conflict as one of the most relevant issues in the competition among political parties. Third, with party programmes and electoral platforms, content analysis systematically shows that ‘some form of left-right dimension dominates competition at the level of the parties’ (Mair 2007: 209–210).

But in this dimensional reduction there emerge two significant follow-up questions:  what do “left” and “right” actually mean in any particular case?  and how much does the left-right dimension capture political competition in any particular country.

As Budge et al note, the positions bundled by “left” and “right” are highly idiosyncratic, differing from country to country and even from one time period to the next in a single country:

“The specific policy position contents of ‘left’ and ‘right’ or of ‘progressive’, ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ global ideological positions are accidental.”  ‘There is after all no logical or inherent reason why support for peace (for instance) should be associated with government interventionism (also for instance).’ (Budge et al 2001, 13)

The difficulty of finding a unified sense of “left” and “right” is especially difficult in postcommunist Europe where Communist-successor parties pursue pro-market economic reforms (Tavits2009) and where debates over ethnic rights and corruption defy easy categorization into “left” and “right.”  Nor do all “lefts” and “rights” easily coincide.

Recent research by Bakker et al (The Dimensionality of Party Politics in Europe, uses the University of North Carolina expert surveys to assess the correlations between party positions on an economic “left”-“right” scale as well as the Green-Alternative-Libertarian (GAL) versus (Traditional-Authoritarian-Nationalist) scale in which the former receives the label “left” while the latter is considered “right.”   They find an average correlation coefficient between the two scales 0.65 and a correlation coefficient above 0.50 in eighteen of the twenty-four European cases they study (EU members except for Cyprus, Malta and Luxembourg) and above 0.75 in nine of the twenty-four, suggesting that a left-right dimension is fairly reliable in many cases.  On this measure postcommunist countries actually scored slightly higher than other EU members.  A separate analysis of unbundled issues for the same set of countries found multiple dimensions in every country, but most of the twenty-four cases, the strength of the second dimension was well below that of the first, and the ranking of dimensionality in the countries corresponded relatively well to their rankings in the analysis of the hypothesized main dimensions.

Other aspects of their work, however, suggest a degree of caution about a simple left-right framework, particularly in post-communist Europe.  First, whereas all non-postcommunist cases yielded a positive correlation coefficient between economic left and “GAL Left,” among the postcommunist cases there was considerable variation:  three countries showed a positive correlation (Slovenia, Latvia, Estonia) while seven others produced a negative correlation in which “economic left” coincided with “TAN Right” (Hungary, Romania, Poland, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, and Lithuania) and one case produced no correlation at all (Slovakia) (2010, 6).  Only in the first three cases, then, would it be possible to talk about a unidimensional left-right axis, while in the larger group of seven the unidimensionality is difficult to label (is a particular side to be called “left” after its economic aspects or right after its cultural aspects) and in final case the problem does not emerge because there is no dominant dimension.

The analysis also corresponds with the findings of Henjak (West European Politics 2010) and Whitefield and Rohrschneider (and before them, Lijphart, 1999), that while nearly all countries exhibit a fairly significant socio-economic dimension, there is considerable variation in the nature of the secondary and tertiary dimensions.  At the risk of going further afield, I will talk about those “other” dimensions in the next post (as promised, actually) before moving on to the question of salience and from there to the conflict-related interaction between voters, party organizations and party positions.


Works in progress: Thinking about cleavages, part II

The last post began what will probably be a fairly discussion of how we should think about “cleavages” in the early 21st century in what we currently call post-communist Europe (a conceptual framework that becomes less relevant every year).   I continue that discussion here with attention to one of the questions raised last time: The number and type of issues about which the main actors in the political system compete.

Today I simply begin with a list of “things that people say” and some cursory analysis. When scholars who work on Central and Eastern Europe look for the main dividing lines, whether at the level of socio-structural grouping or attitudinal/value difference, what do they tend to find?

Since there is no dominant framework, it is helpful look at commonly-used frameworks to find commonalities in assessments of “cleavage-type” divisions.  It is useful to start with broad multi-national assessments before delving into the specifics of individual cases.  Lijphart defines seven “issue dimensions of partisan conflict”(Patterns of Democracy, 1999, 79), many of which straddle the distinctions between socio-demographic and attitudinal categories

  • Socioeconomic
  • Religious
  • Cultural-ethnic
  • Urban-rural
  • Regime support
  • Foreign policy
  • Postmaterialist

A similar starting point focusing on Central and Eastern Europe appears in a 2010 literature survey by Berglund and Ekman who refer to the findings of the 2004 Handbook of Political Change in Eastern Europe and other sources when they define ten dividing lines in three broad categories related to periods of historical development (Handbook of European Societies, 100):


  • Core population versus ethno-linguistic minorities
  • Religious versus secular
  • Urban versus rural
  • Workers versus owners
  • Social democrats versus communists


  • National versus cosmopolitan
  • Protectionist versus free market
  • Generational
  • Socio-economically disadvantaged versus occupational and managing elites


  • Apparatus versus forums/fronts

Most of these refer to “demographic” clusters.  The first four recapitulate the framework established by Lipset and Rokkan, and two others in the “contemporary” list extend and nuance this list to include a more inclusive variant on “workers versus owners” and the question of generational differences.  Other entries on this list–those in italics–refer not to strictly demographic questions but to value or attitudinal questions about national identity and economic distribution which are related but not necessarily identical to the demographic categories.  Still others–those underlined–point more toward conflicts in the institutional realm related to party organization and party institutions.  In this list Lijphart’s more issue-based dimensions of foreign policy and postmaterialism are notably absent and the question of regime type appears only in partial form in the question of “apparatus versus forums.”

The nature of the list depends not only on the regional focus but the question at hand Kitschelt makes clear distinctions between the “fabric of sociodemographic traits and relations” on one hand and “preferences for political action” on the other, though he notes that both of these shape political choice (West European Politics, 2010, 661).  His assessment of the “fabric of traits” does not specify particular demographic groups, but rather identifies a list of eleven potentially important characteristics:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Family
  • Status
  • Occupation
  • Income
  • Education
  • Skill
  • Risk exposure
  • Ethnic (divides)
  • Cultural (divides)

Many of these are consistent with Lipset and Rokkan’s list as used by Berglund and Ekman, but Kitschelt’s framework here moves away from identifying specific groups toward identifying specific dynamics: religiosity becomes a kind of cultural preference, while economic questions of sector and class are disaggregated into a combination of status, occupation type, income, skill, and risk exposure.

Other scholars have engaged in a similar elaboration and transformation of attitudinal and value issues, not only separating these from assumed socio-demographic mooring but also seeking to split (and sometimes recombine) key elements.

Stoll’s work on Western Europe identifies “six theoretically  interesting  ideological conflicts” (West European Politics, 2010, 455)

  • Socioeconomic (free enterprise, welfare state)
  • Ethnic (multiculturalism, centralization)
  • Religious
  • Urban-rural
  • Foreign policy (EC/EU and special relationships with particular countries)
  • Post-materialist (environmental protection)

But even though the differences between Western and “Eastern” Europe have diminished, Stoll’s list overlaps imperfectly with the lists employed by those who research the region.  Of these, perhaps the most extensive is that of Whitefield and Rohrschneider, who identify eight primarily attitudinal conflicts in their expert survey (They also identify two variants of Lipset and Rokkan’s sociodemographic divisions–regional and urban-rural–but they do not use these in much of their subsequent analysis) (Comparative Political Studies, 2009, Appendix).

  • Economy: Redistribution Issues (for example, tax levels, welfare state spending)
  • Economy: State-run versus Market Economy
  • Democracy: Strengthening Democratic Institutions
  • Ethnic Rights (for example, minorities)
  • Nationalism and Internationalism (for example, views about the EU).
  • Religiosity (role of church)
  • Social Rights (for example, lifestyle)
  • Views of the Communist Past and Its Legacies

The question, as above, is whether the long list of value differences can be conveniently shortened.  The expert surveys conducted by Hooghe and Marks begin with a simple two dimensional approach which looks separately at party positions on economic issues (role in the economy, taxes, regulation, spending and welfare state) and views on democratic freedoms and rights where they differentiate Green/Alternative/Liberal (GAL) attitudes (expanded personal freedoms, for example, access to abortion, active euthanasia, same-sex marriage, or greater democratic participation) from Traditional/ Authoritarian/ Nationalist (TAN) belief that government “should be a firm moral authority on social and cultural issues” (  While these two dimensions capture much that is in the Whitefield and Rohrschneider typology–particularly their two economy questions and their religiosity and “social rights” questions–they discard important information by conflating the elements of GAL/TAN, which in postcommunist Europe tend to remain separate.  Postcommunist European authoritarianism has less to do with social regulation than it does in Western Europe and more to do with democratic institutions.  Postcommunist European concern about nationalism and ethnic rights is relatively independent of questions about social rights.  In this sense Kitschelt offers a slightly more suitable framework when he suggests a three-fold difference that adds a “group” dimension to the dimensions for economic and cultural (“grid”) regulation:

  • economic distribution
  • preferences over the internal governance of societies (“grid:” how many and what kind of binding rules of conduct should be codified by politics, including rules of political participation?)
  • preferences over the external boundaries of polity membership (“group:” insiders and outsiders).

Even this triple division is limiting, however, since it folds questions about democracy into the “grid” category.  Empirical work by Whitefield and Rohrschnieder find that democracy questions in Postcommunist Europe tend to correlate instead with national questions, but even here evidence suggests that the connection is contingent rather than necessary (Deegan-Krause 2007), and so it is best to hold democracy separate as a fourth relevant dimension.

Nor does any of this narrowing of dimensions address the role of the Communist era, which is not quite a demographic question–though it is closely related to the shift in individuals’ respective demographic positions between the Communist and postcommunist era–and not quite a purely attitudinal question.  In this it may resemble to some extent the question of religiosity, which has both ascriptive and value elements. A brief look at the region suggests that on one hand it deserves to be treated as a distinct category, since in various settings “Communism” may mean anti-market, or anti-religion, or anti-national (or pro-national), but on the other hand it is arguable that the core of the dimension lies in whatever “Communism” and “anti-Communism” ally with rather than the question of Communism itself.  This, however, is an empirical question that will simply need more study.

The question of Communism, in fact, calls attention to the underlying dynamics of the political conflict.  “What are they fighting about?” may be the first question we ask when we approach a new polity (or try to figure out a polity that has become opaque to us over time) but we also need to know how the struggle occurs.  We need to look at the depth of the conflict and the role of political institutions in shaping the struggle.


Works in progress: Thinking about cleavages, part I

In an effort to get some genuine writing done over the coming weeks, I am going to try to do some of that writing in a place and in a way that I enjoy, and so I plan to subject those who read this to a rather academic treatment of the question of “cleavage formation” and how it has taken place in Central and Eastern Europe.  If this is not your cup of tea, then just skim right on by and come back later for more interesting stuff about Slovakia, the Czech Republic or complaints about local news anchors and the other sorts of things that occasionally appear on this blog.  But for now, cleavages.

The reason we study cleavages is that we want to understand conflict and to think about what is really at stake in the conflicts that dominate our polities.  A question that can forms the basis of a cleavage is by definition something big, something that nearly all citizens care about enough to get out of bed and vote and that some care enough about to devote entire lives.  It is also something enduring, something that, barring upheaval will be more or less the same in five years as it is today or as it was five years ago–and maybe fifty.

The search for basic, enduring conflicts has generated a broad literature about what should look for and how we would know it when we found it.  In the process

Lipset and Rokkan created the literature with their … in 1967, but resisted a formal definition.  Franklin summarizes the conditions for a cleavage as “When social groups recognize their political differences and vote for different parties because those parties are dedicated to defending the interests of particular groups”(Franklin, WEP, 2010)

Bartolini and Mair focused on each of these key elements in this definition in defining cleavage in terms of “a combination (overlap) of social-structural, ideological/normative, and behavioral/organizational divisions”(Kriesi, WEP, 2010).  This tripartite operationalization has dominated subsequent cleavage research for the past two decades, though in the last decade it has seen a degree of challenge from those who seek to take away some elements and (or) add others.

Enyedi, in particular argues that the definition is overly restrictive in its insistence on the social-structural elements.  He notes that Bartolini and Mair themselves acknowledge that the socio-demographic element of a cleavage may erode, and suggests that it may be possible to have a cleavage-like conflict between entrenched “sides” without all of the elements of Bartolini and Mair’s definition.

the definitional requirement of socio-structural origins and well-defined socio-structural bases has narrowed down radically, and in my mind unnecessarily, the applicability of the concept. Acknowledging thatinstitutions and values, instead of social categories,may in some instances also dominate the identity of deep-seated, enduring, and comprehensive (that is, cleavage-like) political conflicts, the concept becomes suitable for analyzing a wider range of phenomena without losing its distinctiveness from ordinary and ephemeral political debates.  (Enyedi 2008, 288)

Values alone may suffice as the basis for division, and may become established simply with the habituation allowed by time.

At the opposite end of the scale from sociocultural structures to political institutions, there is also considerable debate about the potential independent role of political parties, particularly in shaping the degree to which particular cleavages shape the overall political conflict in a country.  They acknowledge from the outset that,

Conflicts and controversies can arise out of a great variety of relationships in the social structure, but only a few of these tend to polarize the politics of any given system. There is a hierarchy of cleavage bases in each system and these orders of political primacy not only vary among polities, but also tend to undergo changes over time.  (1967; [1985 edition, 118])

Within this environment they tend to focus on the role of underlying sociological variables, but they also explicitly acknowledge the role of political institutions, particularly political parties and the possibility elite-led shifts:

Cleavages do not translate themselves into party oppositions as a matter of course: there are considerations of organizational and electoral strategy; there is the weighing of pay-offs of alliances against losses through split-offs; and there is the successive narrowing of the ‘mobilization market’ through the time sequences of organizational efforts. (1967; [1985 edition, 141])

Without necessarily ignoring the underlying sociological underpinnings, scholars of cleavages have begun to focus attention on the process by which particular conflicts come to the fore, and notions of “salience” and “framing” has taken on importance in the literature that rivals that of “position” and “structure.”  Recent significant work by Whitefield and Rohrschneider suggests that while party positions in Eastern and Central Europe tend to reflect a fairly consistent bundling of issues (pro-market and pro-democracy against the opposite), the overall political conflict in a particular society may not lie on this line but on more salient questions of religion and (especially) ethnicity (2009).  Other works by Green-Pedersen (alone, 2011, and with Mortensen, 2007) focus on the role of agenda-setting and issue competition (defined not as competition on a particular issue but in the Carmines’ (1991) sense of competition about which issue is to be the main focus of political competition).

Any discussion of cleavage in the 2nd decade of the 21st century must thus deal with a number of questions, some quite traditional and some rather newer:

  • The number and type of issues about which the main actors in the political system compete
  • The degree to which positions on those issues overlap with one another, and the size of the resulting “bundle” of aligned issues
  • The relative distribution of supporters and parties on particular issues or bundles (the degree to which disagreement is symmetrical and continuous or binary and asymmetrical, forming “niches”)
  • The depth to which individual and institutional positions on those issues are anchored in societal structures and/or value orientations
  • The endurance of those positions over time
  • The degree to which a particular issue or bundle of issues is salient for political debate
  • The role of political leaders in shaping the both the positions of political parties and the salience of a particular issue dimension

As these categories imply, it is important to look always at the “supply” side of the political equation which looks at what political elites and their parties offer as options as well as at the “demand” side which looks at the ways confluences of human desires in particular areas shape the political realm.  It is in that context that my next posts on this subject will treat the questions discussed above.


New life for party systems (and blogs): Annuals and Perennials in Slovak Public Opinion

The beginning of a semester often means the end of active posting, and such was the case during the winter and spring of 2011–though indeed I took the absence of activity to rather absurd lengths–but the semester is now over and so I can again begin to post from time to time.  Although much happened in Slovakia and the Czech Republic in the last 4 months: coalition crises and fear of government collapse in both countries, not that much has happened in terms of public opinion (which—since others are much better positioned to handle the day-to-day political dynamic—is the main focus of my posts).

New season, same garden

Almost one year after the election, the polls suggest that elections would return a parliament relatively similar to the one Slovakia has now.  There are some shifts in relative proportions, and though these are not overwhelming, they deserve attention.  I will begin with the newly “locked-out” cases, then address the newly “locked-in” and finally take a brief look at the long-standing parties in the system (my colleague Tim-Haughton and I have taken to calling these “perennials” to describe their ability to withstand difficulties, as opposed to annuals that die each year and whose “type” survives only by reseeding).

The graphs are in the dashboard:

As often happens in Slovakia, electoral periods lock in an equilibrium for a period of time, particularly with reference to the 5% electoral threshold.  Parties that fall below the 5% threshold in elections tend to stay below (no party has returned to parliament without a coalition once it has fallen short of the threshold, and KSS is the only example of a party that has entered parliament after previously campaigning and falling short.  Indeed with the exception of KSS, SZS in the early 1990’s and HZD for 4 months in the summer of 2004, I can find no party that has even broken received 5% in opinion polls after previously having fallen short).  The same phenomenon works in the opposite direction—parties, once elected, tend to stay above the 5% threshold for a time—though the floor is far less stable than the ceiling.

Perennials in decline.

Two parties fell below the threshold in 2010 and show no sighs of being able to return at any time in the near future:

HZDS has maintained its steady decline after the election.  In some polls it now is no longer even listed.  This is remarkable feat for a party that once won a near majority of parliamentary seats—sustained, gradual decline over 7 election periods.  It is a testament both to the ability of its party leader to hold the party together and to what happens when there is only a party leader to hold a party together.

SMK is a fascinating case.  The party that dominated the Hungarian electorate for 10 years (and 10 years previously as an electoral coalition) has fallen to extremely low levels, suggesting an overall shift to Most-Hid.  Of course it doesn’t hurt that Most-Hid is run by the leader who led SMK during its dominant period and so in many ways this is merely a reshuffling of the same cards.

Annuals in bloom, but for how long?

The long-term exclusion of sagging older parties is far more likely than the long-term success of at least some new ones.  The asymmetry appears to affect SaS more than Most-Hid.

Most-Hid has the advantage of a relatively captive audience.  Hungarians in Slovakia have not typically voted for non-Hungarian parties, and so the decline of SMK and the rise of Most-Hid are nearly isometric.  Recovery by SMK might simply reverse the fortunes of these two parties or it might—if not too much blood has been shed or if enough time has passed since the bloodshed—lead to an electoral coalition of the sort that Hungarian parties in Slovakia used profitably for several election cycles in the 1990’s.  It would appear that Slovakia’s Hungarian population may be just a bit too big for only one party but too small for two fairly (but not perfectly) matched competitive parties).  The attached, rather ad hoc table helps to define the dilemma.

In countries where the population of a particularly captive (political scientists would use the world “encapsulated”) group is the leaders in the system have relatively little freedom to split without endangering the representation of the entire population:  if the encapsulated population is, for example, 7%, then even a gain of 30% of the population by an upstart party will push both old and new parties below a 5% parliamentary threshold.  If, on the other hand, the encapsulated population is more than twice the threshold, then even a nearly equal split will at worst reduce the representation of the group in half but will not eliminate it entirely.  If the encapsulated population is relatively large, say 17%, then even a 70%-30% split will allow both parties over the 5% threshold and there is little cost to the split.  Slovakia is right in the middle of these cases.  It’s 11% Hungarian population made a split within the SMK thinkable—it would likely not result in the elimination of both parties from parliament—but not safe, since anything less than a near perfect split would (and did) knock one party from parliament.  What happens with SMK and Most-Hid will likely depend on two factors: 1) the degree to which Most-Hid can capture the remaining share of the Hungarian vote (if it captures all of it, there is no incentive to change), and 2) the degree to which Hungarian leaders seek partisan advantage (one party triumphing over another even at the expense of a smaller Hungarian delegation) or ethnic advantage (one party accepting the other as a partner to maximize overall votes at the expense of party dominance).

SaS has seen a slight post-election decline after a rapid pre-election rise.  We have seen this pattern before in many similar parties—ZRS, SOP, ANO and Smer—but we have also seen two different endings.  In the case of SOP and to a lesser extent ZRS and ANO, party support followed an almost pure parabola (y=100-(x-10)^2), but in one other party—Smer—we saw the beginnings of decline followed by a subsequent rise.  Of course Smer ended up out of government after its first election and became a reservoir for disaffected voters and those who left HZDS.  SaS, by contrast, is saddled with governing responsibilities, few resources for party-building activities, and three deputies (until recently four) who were never part of the party to begin with and who have one foot out the door.  SaS has so far at least stayed out of the kind of internal trouble that will likely kill Veci Verejne in the Czech Republic (more on this in the next post) but its preference trajectory is not all that different from VV.  The matter is serious: as the graph shows, only one major new party has survived infancy and SaS does not possess the same favorable characteristics or the same preference trajectory.

The Small Perennials

There are only four parties in Slovakia that have managed a consistent level of preference and parliamentary representation, and even these are not exactly the sort of “stable, long term” party that is often extolled in the political science literature.  Two of these parties are relatively small but otherwise quite different: the Slovak National Party and the Christian Democratic movement:

About KDH there is little to say.  The party continues to demonstrate a noteworthy stability.  It ebbs and flows, largely in response to the attractiveness of adjacent parties such as SDKU and the success of its own political initiatives, but it stays between 8% and 10% in almost every poll.  While there is no clear proof of the proposition, KDH lends weight to inverse relationship between party stability and party leadership:  whereas other leader-centered parties have fluctuated wildly in the past (based in part on the decisions and reputation of the leader), KDH has changed its leader 3 times in regular cycles while remaining relatively consistent in terms of its policies, its electorate and, perhaps as a result, the size of that electorate.

About SNS there is more room for speculation.  SNS has, at least in some polls, halted the sharp decline in support that began in the 2008s, but the party’s support remains extremely close to the 5% threshold despite the continuation of sharp action by Hungary’s government (of the sort that conventional wisdom has linked to increases in SNS support). It is unlikely that former SNS president Anna Belousovova’s proposed new party will draw away too many of the faithful but SNS does not need to lose much to eliminate its parliamnentary representation.  The losses to Smer and the LS-NS in 2010 brought it within 2000 votes of the threshold.  A few additional losses to Belousovova could eliminate it entirely from parliament (as happened in 2002).

The Large Perennials

The two larger parties—Smer and SDKU—have engaged in sustained battle for the last 9 years, each vying for leadership, though the nature of “leadership” is different: Smer’s outsized lead over all parties, foe and friend alike, has allowed it to dominate its side of the political spectrum since 2004 or so, whereas SDKU must operate as a first among equals among its potential partners.  Ironically, the election of 2010 left Smer with a larger parliamentary delegation but pushed it out of government while allowing an electorally weaker SDKU lead the next government.

SDKU benefited from its “victory” with an increase in the share of its preferences to the highest sustained levels in the party’s history.  That this high-level should hover around 16% is an indication of the party’s lack of overall strength, but at least gives it a 2:1 lead over its next nearest coalition partner.  It is hard for me to judge why SDKU should be relatively successful while it leads a government that has been notable for its internal weaknesses and difficulty in achieving relatively clear-cut goals (such as the election of a general prosecutor), but it while it has had its share of minor scandal, it has at least stayed clear of deep level corruption (or at least the publicization thereof) and has addressed many of the more difficult allegations head on.

Smer has also risen in the last 10 months and by a relatively significant amount.  After receiving nearly 35% percent in the 2010 elections, it has increased its preferences until they nearly approach the party’s previous highs in early 2007 and early 2009.  The growth is impressive and Smer has done everything it could to remain actively part of the news cycle, with almost daily press releases, allegations and proposals and a party leader who is more accessible to (and less outraged by) the press.  But there are several reasons to view’s Smer’s resurgence with a bit of skepticism.

The first of these is that the party consistently does worse than its polling.  For several years this exhibited itself as a surprise in the elections.  Since 2006 it has been more a case of voters shifting their opinion (or their decision to vote at all) during the election campaign, so that Smer has not necessarily done worse than its election week polling but it has done considerably worse than its polling in 3-6 months before the election.  Of course in each case this could be the result of circumstantial changes (perception of a worsening economy likely had some effect on Smer support in 2010) but the pattern is fairly consistent and suggests a softness in the support for Smer that may remain: the party tends to attract the disgruntled but does not necessarily keep them on election day.

Even if Smer does keep all of its preferences, there is a second reason for caution about the share of Smer supporters.  As in the two previous elections, the big question for Smer is not its own success but that of its partners.  The collapse of HZDS and near collapse of SNS left Smer without any options for a governing coalition in 2010 even though it won by far the largest share of the vote.  The situation has, if anything, gotten worse.

In March of 2009, the ruling coalition of Smer-SNS-HZDS had 61.9% of the vote and could expect to win 110 of the 150 seats in parliament.  Of those, Smer alone had 45.2% of the vote and 73 seats, while its partners together had 16.7% of the vote and could expect 27 seats.  Exactly two years later, after a decline in 2010 and recovery through 2011, Smer again has 44% and which would give it 73 seats in parliament.  But its former coalition partners can now expect only 9.2% of the vote and only 10 seats.  And those 10 seats hang by a less-than-1% margin.  The graph below offers a clear picture of how the “national” and “extreme left” portion—the parties at the bottom—of the political spectrum have weakened over time.  Smer has likely absorbed much of the decline, but the segment has diminished even when Smer is added into the totals.  Its absorption of the nationally oriented segment of the electorate has come at some cost, apparently (or if not, then it has lost other voters for other reasons).  Smer is thus bigger but not so big that it can govern without others.  Smer still needs partners if it hopes to gain a parliamentary majority, but it has not yet figured out how to keep old friends (or at least keep them alive) or cultivate new ones.


One final note that will prove to be of great importance to this blog: I owe a debt for the collection and analysis of public opinion data over the last six months to Jozef Janovský, student of political science and international relations in the Faculty of Social Studies at Masaryk University in Brno.  Over the coming months I hope to work woth Jozef and several other colleagues to broaden the kinds of resources that are available in this blog.  I’m thankful to Jozef for reaching out and offering his extremely capable assistance and I look forward to our collaboration.