Book Review: The Impact of the Economic Crisis on South European Democracies

Leonardo Morlino and Francesco Raniolo, The Impact of the Economic Crisis on South European Democracies (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). 142 pp., €49.99 (hardback), ISBN: 9783319523705.

The financial crisis that started in 2007-08 has left serious economic and political scars. The crisis has also marked one of those watershed moments for the social sciences when established beliefs are called into question and new knowledge is produced. Since the start of the crisis, economists, political scientists and sociologists have been in the front line to identify the origins of the crisis and assessing its consequences. The Impact of the Economic Crisis on South European Democracies makes a useful contribution to this line of inquiry. Specifically, Leonardo Morlino and Francesco Raniolo’s lucid analysis takes the reader through the travails of democracy in southern European countries from 2008 till present. The authors focus on Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain with the purpose of investigating the way in which – and the mechanisms through which – the financial and economic crisis has affected patterns of participation and competition in domestic political systems.

The focus on participation and competition allows the Authors to examine the consequences of the crisis for the quality of democracy in the countries under investigation. In particular, the Authors argue and illustrate that the crisis has had a major impact on both conventional and unconventional modes of participation as well as on competition. As for participation, the book sheds light on the decline in electoral turnout and other forms of institutionalized participation across the countries under investigation. Whereas in Portugal the crisis has mainly led to voters’ alienation or simply indifference and apathy, in Greece and Spain one major outcome has been the resort to non-conventional participation through protest movements or parties. Over time, non-conventional participation has become increasingly institutionalized, as the cases of Syriza (Greece), Podemos and Ciudadanos (Spain) attest. Furthermore, even in the absence of unconventional participation, new parties have emerged gathering the protest support – as was the case in Italy with the Five Star Movement.

Competition has also been altered since the start of the crisis. Specifically, a strong anti-establishment position has taken center stage –although moderate policy positions sometimes lay behind highly radicalized discourse as is the case with Ciudadanos and Podemos. Furthermore, the book reveals the signs of weaknesses in the intermediation of interests and the poor performance of concertation in the countries under investigation. Beyond these changes, the book draws attention to the long-lasting consequences to the party systems that stem from the formation of new parties. In particular, the Authors highlight the transformation of bipolar systems into tripolar ones. Such transformation is already quite visible in Italy and Greece but also in Spain following the December 2015 elections.

The analysis of the transformations in participation and competition is driven by a solid theoretical framework. This framework emphasizes the non-automaticity of the variable ‘crisis’ to explain the important political consequences triggered the economic malaise. Specifically, the main contention of the book is that the impact of the crisis could hardly be explained without taking into account the “background conditions” of the countries under investigation. That is, the Authors argue that, contrary to the classic Shumpeterian hypothesis in economics that crises bring about innovative destruction, an economic crisis can only magnify and accelerate latent trends already present within the political system. From this perspective, the Authors consider the impact of the economic crisis in terms of a “catalyzing effect”.

That is to say, the economic crisis magnified latent trends that were already present within the party systems and in the patterns of relationships between citizens and institutions in southern European democracies. In the countries under investigation, the crisis struck in a context where the de-structuring of the social roots of the main traditional parties had already started. The pre-existing crisis of traditional parties was then accelerated by the crisis, which, in turn, deepened the delegitimation of existing political actors paving the way for the emergence of new political ones. In short, the crisis aggravated the already known crisis of traditional parties.

The book provides extensive support for the “catalyzing effect” of the crisis in the three main empirical chapters, which are devoted to the impact of the crisis on parties, movements and intermediation of interests respectively. In doing so, the book provides a quite comprehensive picture of the major political consequences of the recent economic crisis by focusing not only on voting and elections but on the political consequences for citizens at large.

Manuela Moschella, Scuola Normale Superiore

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