The Polarization of Politics and its Impact on Voter Turnout

For many, the polarisation of politics over the past few years has been a real concern. In election after election all over the west, traditional centre ground parties are haemorrhaging support to more radical parties on the left and the right (mainly the latter). Elections across the continent are increasingly divisive and there seems to be very little consensus. So what impact is this having on the voters? Does a broadening of debate and the emergence of sizable parties all along the political spectrum lead to greater engagement of the electorate? Or does the divisiveness and increasingly extreme rhetoric put voters off? 

The Austrian Presidential election of 2016 was perhaps the most polarised in recent memory. After the first round of voting was completed the two remaining candidates for the presidency were the Austrian Green Alexander Van der Bellen (running as an independent) and Norbert Hoffer, leader of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria. Gone were the days of the traditional centre-left versus centre-right battle many of us in Europe had become so used to throughout the first decade of the twenty-first century. When Van der Bellen and Hoffer went head to head in the second round the results were so close that the election had to be rerun later that year with Van der Bellen the eventual winner.

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The impact of such a polarising election on voter turnout was quite profound. The previous presidential election of 2010 had garnered a historically low turnout of around 54% in a race which had produced a landslide victory for the independent social democrat Heinz Fischer. In contrast, the much more divisive contest between Van der Bellen and Hoffer managed to generate the largest voter turnout of the century at 74.2%. It seems in this case the voters saw the clear distinction between the two candidates as more of a motivation to cast their ballot. Van der Bellen and Hoffer are so far apart on the political spectrum it would be difficult not to prefer one over the other.

2017 is a year of key elections across the European Union and the first one up was the Netherlands. Despite a long association with liberal values and tolerance, the polls in the run up to the contest showed Geert Wilders far-right Party for Freedom (PVV) were amassing huge support amongst voters and threatening to become the largest party.  In the end, Wilders fell short of this and the sitting Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the centre-right Peoples Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) managed to win re-election.

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The contest however did bring big gains for both the left and the right at the expense of the traditional centre ground parties. Despite remaining the biggest party, Rutte’s VVD did lose 8 of their 41 seats while Wilders’ PVV gained 5 seats to establish themselves as the second biggest party in parliament. Meanwhile on the left, The Dutch Labour Party was virtually wiped out as they went from being the second biggest party to the seventh. This was partially due to the rise of the more radical left wing part Groenlinks (GreenLeft) who made huge gains to establish themselves as the biggest party on the left.

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As with the Austrian election a few months earlier, the polarisation of Dutch politics seems to have driven more people to vote. The 2017 Dutch general election produced the highest turnout for 30 years with 81.9% of registered voters casting their ballot; this was up from 74.6% at the previous general election in 2012. In Europe at least, there does seem to be a considerable correlation between more divisive politics and a more actively democratic electorate, but at what cost?

As Marine Le Pen’s far-right Front National lead the polls in the run up to the French election, you can be sure of another divisive campaign. Whether this has the same impact on voter turnout as we’ve seen in Austria and the Netherlands remains unclear. France has a historically very high voter turnout which usually hits around 80% so the impact would likely be less significant. It’s also possible that the divisiveness of the contest could turn voters away as it did in the US election of 2016 but that seems less likely in a contest where there is such a wide range of parties to vote for.

Traditional wisdom suggests greater voter turnout at elections usually indicates a healthier democracy and less apathy amongst the electorate. That logic may well be undermined by the last few years. For many people the discourse and rhetoric around politics has become toxic. Increasingly people are so far apart on issues that they are unable to discuss or debate with those who think differently without descending into personal attacks. Perhaps a politically engaged electorate isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.