Roughly until the 2008 international financial and economic crisis and the sovereign debt crisis and austerity policies that followed, scholars studying the Southern European democracies (Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain) either focused on democratic consolidation or on the quality of democracy (see, for example, Morlino 1998; Gunter, Diamandouros and Phule 1995). However, the Southern European democracies have been experiencing profound changes since the emergence of the global economic and financial crises. As Matthijs (2014) noted, «there is already ample evidence that the strength of liberal democracy in Southern Europe has diminished since 2010, as seen in a weakening of civil and political rights, the rule of law and the functioning of government». Clearly, there are significant changes in the functioning of contemporary democracies, especially those that have endured painful austerity policies.
The aim of this project is to examine these changes by analysing the case of Portugal, one of the countries affected most severely by the crisis, from both a longitudinal and a comparative perspective. Although it is still too early to definitely assess the impact of the economic crisis on the evolution of contemporary democracies, it is clear there are different responses to these external challenges and distinct trajectories of adaptation. Portugal can be considered a good example of one of the most important difficulties many contemporary democracies must face: the people’s loss of faith in the ability of democratic institutions — particularly legislatures, parties and the political elite — to solve problems and realise collective goals.
We believe that by revisiting the concept of ‘democratic consolidation’ and by exploring aspects of a possible process of ‘democratic deconsolidation’ we can shed light on some of the changes recently experienced in European countries since the 2008 crisis. The use of this concept here is not related to the consensus on the ‘rules of the game’, but rather on the weakening of political legitimacy, the instability of partisan alignments and the erosion of the links (congruence of preferences, trust in politicians, etc.) between the electorate and its representatives.
Two changes in particular are worth noting. The first is the rise and success of new anti-systemic or populist parties that has altered the format and dynamics of the party systems. The second is related to what recent studies have shown to be a decline in democratic values and beliefs (Teixeira, Tsatanis and Belchior 2014). It is also clear that traditional mechanisms of institutional intermediation — political parties, trade unions, etc. — are experiencing a significant crisis in the way they encourage participation and political representation.
By examining the emergence of ‘democratic deconsolidation’ processes in Portugal in particular and Southern Europe (and elsewhere) in general, we aim to be bring a new conceptual and empirical approach to the study of the quality of democracies and the effects of severe economic crisis and of harsh and protracted austerity policies on the functioning of democratic political systems.
The project Crisis, Political Representation and Democratic Renewal: The Portuguese case in the Southern European context has four main objectives. First, to depict how patterns of political representation have changed over time by analysing how the links between the electorate and its representatives have evolved since the 2008 crisis and the austerity policies that followed in Portugal and other Southern European countries. Second, to analyse the processes of partisan dealignment (or realignment) on several dimensions, but mainly its effect in the electoral arena. Third, to understand the impact of the crisis and austerity policies on the electorate’s democratic (diffuse and specific) support. Fourth, to scrutinise the comparative role of political parties, unions and new social movements in channelling participation and protest.
The empirical investigation will benefit from a relatively long line of mass and elite surveys that have been conducted since 2008 (2008, 2009-2010, 2012-2013), which will be complemented with a new round to be conducted while the project is live from 2016-2018, and which will enable us to track the medium- to long-term impact of the crisis on political representation and democratic support.
Many identical or comparable batteries of questions already have been, or will be, fielded at both the elite and the mass level in other Southern European countries, a fact that will enable us to examine the Portuguese case in a comparative perspective. Finally, by conducting a mass level panel survey in Portugal (2016-2018), this study adopts an innovative research design that is particularly suited to examining the causes of dealignment and to a better understanding of the sources and mechanisms of attitudinal change at the individual level.
Gunther, Richard, Diamandouros, Nikiforos, Puhle, Hans-Jürgen (editors) (1995), The Politics of Democratic Consolidation: Southern Europe in Comparative Perspective, Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press.
Matthijs, Matthias (2014) «Mediterranean Blues: The Crisis in Southern Europe», Journal of Democracy, 25:1, 101–15.
Morlino, Leonardo (1998), Democracy Between Consolidation and Crisis. Partis, Groups, and Citizens in Southern Europe, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Teixeira, C. P., Tsatsanis, E. & Belchior, A. (2014) «Support for Democracy in Times of Crisis: Diffuse and Specific Regime Support in Portugal and Greece», South European Society and Politics, vol. 19, no. 4, pp. 501-518.