- The Decline and Fall of Three Hegemonic Parties in Europe
The purpose of this paper is to explore why Christian Democratic parties lost their hegemonic influence in three countries in rapid succession—Italy (1994), the Netherlands (1994), and Belgium (1999). Where Christian Democrats once attracted the lion's share of the electorate and played a role in virtually every governing coalition, by the end of the 20th Century they suddenly found themselves in opposition, facing the prospect of a long period in the political wilderness (if not oblivion).
The explanation draws on two factors. One is the decline in religious devotion and ideological competition, coupled with the rise of new values and political movements. This explanation is well-known in the literature and has much to offer in terms of accounting for variation in the electoral performance of Christian Democratic parties over time.1 The second factor is the broad network of linkages between Christian Democratic elites and other parts of civil society. This factor is less widely acknowledged in the literature—at least outside the narrow group of experts on partitocrazia (particracy) and consociational democracy.2 Christian Democrats lost power, at least in part, because the electorate grew to distrust the way Christian Democrats conduct business—via informal networks rather than in a more transparent manner.
The two factors are overlapping and complementary. The decline in religious devotion created space for greater questioning of the authority and infallibility of the Church.3 Meanwhile, the change in popular values placed [End Page S-71] greater emphasis on transparency in public policymaking. The public began to demand stricter boundaries between the public and the private—at least in terms of processes if not politicians, who rapidly lost anything resembling a private life.4
However, the two factors are not redundant. Church doctrine can evolve and electorates can grow nostalgic for the cultural aspects of confessional belief. In other words, the effects of declining devotion and value change can recede, at least in part, as Christian Democratic parties modernize their message to the electorate. The engagement, entanglement, and implication of Christian Democratic politicians in wider and more diffuse networks are a different matter. This inter-penetration of politics and civil society cannot modernize further without evolving into an arm's-length relationship. Hence, where Christian Democratic parties have been able to sever (or at least diminish) their links with the rest of civil society, they have been able to recover more rapidly, even if only temporarily. Where Christian Democrats have not escaped the stigma associated with the manipulation of informal networks of power, they have had much greater difficulty recapturing what they lost.
The argument in this paper has five parts. The first looks at the establishment of Christian Democratic hegemony in all three countries as a result of popular devotion, ideological competition, and comprehensive mobilization. It also introduces the importance of links between political elites and the rest of civil society in the wider context of Christian Democracy. The second sketches the long, slow decline in confessional devotion and ideological contestation and its effects on support for Christian Democrats in the Netherlands, Italy, and Belgium. This is the argument about value change and electoral dealignment. The third section returns to the links between Christian Democratic politicians and elites in other parts of civil society, this time in a more negative light. Here is where the article picks up on the agenda of political reform—called "depillarization" in Belgium and the Netherlands. In Italy, the pattern is somewhat different, as the Christian Democrats taught other political groups how to manipulate their own informal networks first through the opening to the left and then more broadly in the pentapartito. The fourth section looks at the collapse of Christian Democratic hegemony as it unfolded in sequence across the three countries. The fifth looks at how Christian Democrats in each of the three countries used their time in opposition and the strategies they deployed to return to power and concludes with the paradox that the broad social networks that made Christian Democracy so powerful initially have become one of the party's greatest sources of weakness.