Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

When Voters Chase Novelty

New parties are emerging faster than ever before, and as Bulgaria shows, this can threaten the stability of democracy.

By , a professor of political science at Wayne State University, and , an associate professor of European politics at the University of Birmingham.
Then-Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov gestures as he arrives for the special European Council summit in Brussels on Feb. 21, 2020.
Then-Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov gestures as he arrives for the special European Council summit in Brussels on Feb. 21, 2020. ARIS OIKONOMOU/AFP via Getty Images

This weekend, Bulgarians go to the polls for the third time this year. Each election has hinged on the performance of There Is Such a People, a party founded last year by rock star turned talk show host Slavi Trifonov. The rapid rise of Trifonov’s outsider party, with its vaguely anti-establishment positions, follows in the footsteps of other new parties that have shaped past Bulgarian elections, such as National Movement of Simeon II (NDSV), created in 2001 by the son of Bulgaria’s last monarch, and Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), formed in 2006 by the son’s erstwhile bodyguard. This weekend, Trifonov’s party may lose to an even newer coalition, Change Continues. But whether or not Change Continues plays a role in forming Bulgaria’s next government, its name characterizes a spirit that is becoming common in democracies across the world. New parties are a trend with unsettling implications for democracy’s survival.

Bulgaria is just an extreme example of birth-death cycles of political parties, a phenomenon evident in countries across the world, many of which were once bastions of stability. New parties are emerging faster than ever before, playing more important roles, and then quickly giving way to even newer alternatives. As we find in our book The New Party Challenge, new parties win an average of 20% of the vote across postcommunist Europe, and in many elections more than half the vote has gone to parties with less than a decade of experience. Our research shows that these new parties are likely to focus on the fight against establishment corruption, and depend on the social media presence of their celebrity founders rather than on the efforts of dues-paying members. Such parties have won elections not only in Bulgaria but also in Slovenia and Latvia, and as far afield as Israel, Mexico, Italy, and France. But they often succumb after just one or two electoral cycles. The faster cycles and global spread deserve attention, even from countries such as the United States that maintain a superficial stability.

Bulgaria’s new-party breakthrough began in 2001, when Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, heir to the throne before the 1946 abolition of the monarchy, returned from exile promising that, if elected, he would end corruption and restore prosperity within 800 days. Although his new NDSV party started organizing only three months before elections, it took half the seats in parliament. This electoral success, however, set up expectations that Saxe-Coburg-Gotha simply could not fulfill. The inevitable collapse of his support created room for other newcomers, including the new party GERB, founded in 2006 by Boyko Borissov, who parlayed his work as a high-ranking police official (and onetime bodyguard to Saxe-Coburg-Gotha himself) into rapid political success.

This weekend, Bulgarians go to the polls for the third time this year. Each election has hinged on the performance of There Is Such a People, a party founded last year by rock star turned talk show host Slavi Trifonov. The rapid rise of Trifonov’s outsider party, with its vaguely anti-establishment positions, follows in the footsteps of other new parties that have shaped past Bulgarian elections, such as National Movement of Simeon II (NDSV), created in 2001 by the son of Bulgaria’s last monarch, and Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), formed in 2006 by the son’s erstwhile bodyguard. This weekend, Trifonov’s party may lose to an even newer coalition, Change Continues. But whether or not Change Continues plays a role in forming Bulgaria’s next government, its name characterizes a spirit that is becoming common in democracies across the world. New parties are a trend with unsettling implications for democracy’s survival.

Bulgaria is just an extreme example of birth-death cycles of political parties, a phenomenon evident in countries across the world, many of which were once bastions of stability. New parties are emerging faster than ever before, playing more important roles, and then quickly giving way to even newer alternatives. As we find in our book The New Party Challenge, new parties win an average of 20% of the vote across postcommunist Europe, and in many elections more than half the vote has gone to parties with less than a decade of experience. Our research shows that these new parties are likely to focus on the fight against establishment corruption, and depend on the social media presence of their celebrity founders rather than on the efforts of dues-paying members. Such parties have won elections not only in Bulgaria but also in Slovenia and Latvia, and as far afield as Israel, Mexico, Italy, and France. But they often succumb after just one or two electoral cycles. The faster cycles and global spread deserve attention, even from countries such as the United States that maintain a superficial stability.

Bulgaria’s new-party breakthrough began in 2001, when Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, heir to the throne before the 1946 abolition of the monarchy, returned from exile promising that, if elected, he would end corruption and restore prosperity within 800 days. Although his new NDSV party started organizing only three months before elections, it took half the seats in parliament. This electoral success, however, set up expectations that Saxe-Coburg-Gotha simply could not fulfill. The inevitable collapse of his support created room for other newcomers, including the new party GERB, founded in 2006 by Boyko Borissov, who parlayed his work as a high-ranking police official (and onetime bodyguard to Saxe-Coburg-Gotha himself) into rapid political success.

Borissov, in turn, was challenged early this year by Trifonov, who capitalized on his widespread popularity and channeled his occasional sardonic commentary into his new political party. Trifonov attacked all established parties as corrupt and claimed that he alone could restore Bulgaria’s integrity and prosperity. His pitch appealed to frustrated voters from a variety of parties, and in the April election he managed to achieve a second-place finish by drawing in former Borissov adherents, disillusioned supporters of the long-established Bulgarian Socialist Party, and new voters and former non-voters.

When neither Borissov nor Trifonov could form a government, the question went back to the voters for new elections in July. Trifonov maintained his upward trajectory as he edged past Borissov, but again found no willing partners, leading to yet another election. Trifonov’s position is now threatened by Change Continues, founded less than two months before the revote this month. This new party echoed Trifonov’s call to clean up government while casting doubt on his anti-corruption credentials. In contrast to Trifonov’s heartland outrage, the Harvard-educated entrepreneurs who founded Change Continues tout their managerial expertise and success in exposing corruption while serving as ministers of the interim government.

New political parties in Western Europe have followed one of two paths: Either they captured a stable voter base and become part of the establishment, or they failed in that effort and establishment parties pulled their voters back. The Bulgarian model illustrates a different pattern, one that is increasingly common. Under this model, new parties fail to hold on to their voters, but established parties do not get them back. Instead, voters chase novelty and move on to even newer parties. In Bulgaria, as in other postcommunist democracies, two decades of polls show a consistent migration of voters from established parties to new ones. And then from new to newer.

One reason why voters search for newer alternatives is that new parties’ short-term strengths can become long-term weaknesses. Newer parties are nimbler. They make more effective use of the web and social media and grab attention with political celebrity candidates untarnished by the corruption of establishment elites. But the traits that give them speed also sap their endurance. Parties built on webpages and Facebook followers have less to fall back on than those investing in branches and members. Those parties built on clean reputations instead of policy track records usually cannot preserve their apparent purity once they get a taste of power. Even a celebrity like Slavi Trifonov winds up becoming just another politician.

Globally, not many of the new parties of the last two decades are still around. Among those that have managed to survive is Borissov’s party, which has managed to endure by building local branches and developing more stable center-right political positions, such as an opposition to communism and support for traditional cultural values. Despite all his willingness to adapt, however, Borissov has shown little interest in the one other key transformation necessary for long-term survival: He has not been willing to relinquish the party leadership. As he has become more tarnished by the day-to-day of politics, the party has paid the price.

Whereas newcomers have found it possible to reshape the fledgling party systems of young democracies such as Bulgaria, more established parties in regions such as Scandinavia have been adaptable enough to keep new party entry to a minimum. Yet even established systems may experience outbreaks of new parties when crises break the older parties’ hold on elections. Italy offers a textbook example of how long-term stability can quickly give way to equally durable cycles of change. Italy’s massive party corruption scandals during the early 1990s killed several of the main parties and resulted in a profusion of newcomers, the largest of which were Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the Democratic Party. Instead of returning to equilibrium, however, Italy’s party system stayed in flux, disrupted by even newer, celebrity-driven parties such as Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement and Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy.

Many of the same dynamics have even begun to appear behind the scenes in the United States. In America’s winner-take-all electoral system, the halfhearted gestures toward new party creation by Andrew Yang or Christine Todd Whitman are not likely to threaten the dominance of the Republican and Democratic parties, but the United States has plenty of Bulgaria-style celebrity-outsider candidates with quick-built organizations and generic anti-corruption messages. Instead of founding new parties, however, they create intra-party movements designed to capture the resources and reputation of an established party. Success in such efforts is unlikely, but when it does occur—as it did in the Republican Party in 2016—these leaders can wield immense power, at least for a while. The party names on U.S. ballots may remain the same, but the parties themselves may begin to operate along entirely new lines.

Political scientist Peter Mair highlighted the potential tension between parties that are responsive to what voters want and those that behave responsibly with regard to what a polity actually needs. New parties offer hope to voters facing closed and unresponsive political systems, either with the prospect of replacing established parties or forcing them to improve their performance. In practice, however, the poor vetting by rapidly constructed new parties often elevates unscrupulous profit seekers, and parties without memberships or guiding principles may regard a catastrophic loss of support while in office as freedom to fleece the system without facing accountability to voters in the next election.

New parties disrupt established parties’ cozy networks—and those entrenched networks maintain democratic norms. Research by Fernando Casal Bértoa and Zsolt Enyedi found a connection between long-term stability of party relationships and the survival of democracy. A study by Olivier Jacques found that parties that fear for their long-term survival are also less willing to commit to policies involving long-term investments. Established parties can more easily plan beyond the next election cycle, and the inter-generational loyalties among their members encourage more commitment to the future of the party, the country, and even the planet. New parties crowd those impulses out.

No one has found an easy solution for stopping new party outbreaks, not even the established parties that have the most to lose from new competitors. The most straightforward solution—better performance and less corruption on the part of established parties—requires greater sacrifice than most existing parties are willing to make, but alternatives do not seem to work. Restrictions on party registration can be circumvented, and high barriers to public funding merely raise the stakes of the newcomer’s first election. Hungary has seen the fewest new parties in the postcommunist region in the last ten years, but its cure—the heavy hand of Viktor Orban toward all opposition parties—is worse than the disease (and has its own loopholes). The burden then falls on others, specifically the civic sector, to create stable organizations and formulate policies with long time horizons that some new parties might adopt in their desperation to look serious. Responsibility ultimately falls on voters. Unless they pay closer attention to the plausibility of new party promises, they risk getting fooled again and again.

Although democracies worldwide face the potential dangers of new parties, the issue is at the moment most acute in Bulgaria. During the recent period of political uncertainty, a caretaker government has managed to keep the country afloat and take small positive steps to fight corruption. But it is in no place to pursue policy initiatives that deal effectively with practical problems such as COVID-19 and rising electricity prices. Even if the third election manages to produce a government, it will almost assuredly depend on at least one fragile new party (and perhaps more) that will have a hard time surviving until the next election when other new parties may rise up to fill the gap. Continual change is hard on democracy, and Bulgaria’s new party cycle seems to be stuck on fast forward.

Kevin Deegan-Krause is a professor of political science at Wayne State University. He is the co-author of The New Party Challenge: Changing Cycles of Party Birth and Death in Central Europe and Beyond.

Tim Haughton is an associate professor of European politics at the University of Birmingham. He is the co-author of The New Party Challenge: Changing Cycles of Party Birth and Death in Central Europe and Beyond.

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