Party Politics - Trinity College Dublin



Party Politics - Trinity College Dublin
Party Politics
Cartel Parties in Western Europe?
Klaus Detterbeck
Party Politics 2005; 11; 173
DOI: 10.1177/1354068805049738
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V O L 1 1 . N o . 2 pp. 173–191
Copyright © 2005 SAGE Publications
Thousand Oaks
New Delhi
Klaus Detterbeck
In this article I discuss the empirical validity of the cartel thesis, and
review three analytical dimensions of the concept: organizational
change, functional change and change of party competition in Denmark,
Germany, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. I use the empirical
findings to elaborate the cartel party model, with three main results.
First, in Denmark and Germany party cartels have developed in
different ways; second, while the cartel thesis points to important
developments, some assumptions are far-fetched and we therefore have
to look for the core defining elements of cartel parties; third, the
favourable and unfavourable conditions facilitating or hindering the
development of party cartels have to be clarified.
KEY WORDS cartel parties party change party democracy party organization
political competition
Among various attempts to pinpoint the changes in West European parties,
the cartel party model has been one of the most provocative, with a series
of comments on its theoretical plausibility (Kitschelt, 2000; Koole, 1996;
von Beyme, 1996) as well as its empirical validity for individual countries
(e.g. Wiesendahl, 1999; Young, 1998). In their 1995 article, Katz and Mair
construct an evolution of party types from the late nineteenth century
onwards to show how parties have changed from being part of society (mass
parties) to being part of the state apparatus. The provocation the cartel
party model entails lies in its claim that the established parties in Western
Europe have adapted to declining levels of participation and involvement
in party activities not just by turning to resources provided by the state, but
by doing so in a collusive manner. The interpenetration of party and state,
so the argument goes, has been achieved through cooperation between the
major parties. The former opponents now run a party cartel which excludes
new and smaller parties. Thus, the cartel party model depicts a fundamental
change of party democracy in Western Europe.
1354-0688[DOI: 10.1177/1354068805049738]
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PA RT Y P O L I T I C S 1 1 ( 2 )
I first clarify how Katz and Mair (1995) conceptualize party change. In
the second part of the article, I examine the formation or non-formation of
party cartels and discuss changes among the major parties in four European
countries. In the final part, I try to show how these empirical findings can
contribute to an elaboration of the cartel party model.
The Cartel Party Model
Katz and Mair (1995) distinguish between three dimensions in describing
party change since the 1960s and in conceptualizing the cartel party type.
Although speaking about a ‘cartel’ naturally involves looking at the systemic
level of party competition, the idea clearly is that the individual party
organizations are affected by the degree of inter-party cooperation. Thus,
cartel parties possess certain organizational characteristics, a specific
relationship with society and the state, as well as a novel understanding of
party competition.
The organizational dimension is concerned with the balance of power
inside the parties (see also Katz and Mair, 2002). The ‘mechanics’ of internal
decision-making are determined by the structural and material resources of
the various ‘faces’ within the organization. Cartel parties are characterized
by the ascendancy of the ‘party in public office’: public office-holders
dominate party executive organs and internal decision-making procedures;
party activists have only marginal influence; and election campaigns are
organized by professional experts. The second organizational feature of
Table 1. The three analytical dimensions of cartel parties
Analytical dimension
Main characteristics
Empirical indicators
Organizational structures
Ascendancy of the ‘party
in public office’
Vertical stratarchy
Political role
Estrangement from society
Symbiotic relations with
the state
Party competition
Cartelization of privileges
Exclusion of newcomers
Composition of national
party executives
Candidate selection
Election campaigning
Internal policy decisionmaking
Involvement of party
Involvement of interest
Importance of state
Access to state privileges
Style of party competition
‘Protective walls’ against
new parties
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D E T T E R B E C K : C A RT E L PA RT I E S I N W E S T E R N E U R O P E ?
cartel parties is in the vertical stratarchy of different party levels. Whereas
the national (parliamentarian) party elite tries to free itself from the demands
of regional and local party leaders as far as political and strategic questions
on the national level are concerned, the lower strata insist on autonomy in
their own domains, for example the selection of candidates or local politics
(Katz and Mair, 1995: 21).
The political role of parties concerns their position between society and
the state. The cartel party model postulates that Western European parties
have increasingly lost both their capacity and their eagerness to fulfil their
representative functions in society, whereas they have become more strongly
involved in executing governmental functions. Professional party leaders are
more concerned with policy-making in the parliamentary arena than with
interpreting party manifestos or discussing politics at party congresses.
Their near exclusive dominance of parliaments and governments has
enabled parties to open up a new source for financing and staffing their
organizations, a source which has rendered them relatively independent of
party members and donors. Cartel parties are therefore characterized by
weak involvement of party members and historically related interest groups
(classe gardée) in party activities on the one hand, and by an emphasis on
governmental functions and state resources on the other.
Turning to the level of party competition, the mutually shared need for
securing the flow of state resources has changed the relationship of the
political opponents towards each other. In a process of social learning,
the party actors have realized that there are common interests among the
‘political class’ which form the basis for collective action (Borchert, 2003;
von Beyme, 1996). The process of cartel formation has two facets: cartelization aims at reducing the consequences of electoral competition, basically
through granting the opposition parties a certain share of state subventions
or patronage appointments. Exclusion aims at securing the position of the
established parties against newly mobilized challengers. However, a cartel
does not have to be closed completely. The co-optation of new parties that
are willing to play according to the established rules can strengthen the
viability of a party cartel.
Katz and Mair (1995) argue that the formation of a party cartel poses a
fundamental problem for Western European party democracies because it
denies voters the possibility of choosing a real political alternative and gives
ammunition to the rhetoric of neo-populist parties on the political right. In
the long run, cartelization will widen the gulf between voters and politicians
and make it increasingly difficult to legitimize political decisions.
Although the causal relationships between these three dimensions have
not been clearly spelled out, the logic of the argument is that an increase in
vulnerability (fewer party members, more volatile voters) causes party
change. Vulnerability brought about a declining capacity of parties to fulfil
their representative functions which subsequently led them: (a) to concentrate
on their governmental functions; and (b) to collude with their established
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PA RT Y P O L I T I C S 1 1 ( 2 )
opponents in order to secure the required resources for organizational
The freedom of manoeuvre which party leaders needed to do both led to
internal party reforms. As a result of these changes, the links between the
professionalized party organizations and the citizenry further eroded, which
in turn intensified the trend towards the sphere of the state and to interparty collusion (see Young, 1998).
The Cases Selected
Although there has been a general tendency towards cartelization, the cartel
thesis assumes that the intensity of this process has spread unevenly among
European democracies. It is argued that the extent of party vulnerability,
the intensity of problem perception and the capacity of parties to react are
all mediated by the different institutional contexts and political traditions
in which parties act. In testing the accuracy of the Katz and Mair framework, we employ the method of indirect difference (Skocpol and Somers,
1980). Our case selection should include ‘positive’ cases, where the cartel
tendency is thought to be strong since the preconditions for cartel formation
are given, as well as ‘negative’ cases, where there is little cartelization since
the preconditions are missing. If the cartel thesis has empirical validity, then
evidence of cartelization for the ‘positive’ cases should exceed that for the
‘negative’ cases. We expect the dependent variable, the cartel party type, to
be more strongly developed in ‘positive’ cases in all three analytical dimensions. According to Katz and Mair, Germany and Denmark represent
‘positive’ cases, whereas the United Kingdom, ‘where a tradition of adversary politics combines with relatively limited state support for party
organizations’ (1995: 17), has been selected as a ‘negative’ case. Switzerland, not included in the Katz and Mair project (1992, 1994), with its
tradition of inter-party cooperation (‘magic formula’), at first sight seems
like a typical cartel case. Yet, institutional features such as direct democracy
and corporatism may weaken a party’s capacity to act in its own selfinterest. The Swiss case may thus answer additional questions on the
importance of institutional features. In comparing these four countries with
their alleged differences in cartel intensity, we can evaluate how much the
cartel thesis can add to our understanding of party change in Western
Within each country, two major parties have been chosen which, owing
to their political strength, are most likely to develop cartel traits. They represent the predominant left–right divide in the party spectrum: the German
(SPD) and Swiss (SPS) social democrats have to deal with Christian democratic parties (CDU and CVP), the British (Labour) and Danish (SD)
moderate left with Conservative parties.
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D E T T E R B E C K : C A RT E L PA RT I E S I N W E S T E R N E U R O P E ?
Formation or Non-Formation of Party Cartels
Germany has been described as one of the pioneers of ‘the public roads to
political money’ (Nassmacher, 1989: 237). Parliamentary parties have been
receiving subsidies for employing research assistants and secretaries since
1959; individual MPs have been able to claim an allowance for employing
personal assistants since 1969. The party organizations received state
subventions for general political activities between 1959 and 1966, and
campaign reimbursement as well as substantial subsidies for their political
foundations from 1967 onwards. As long ago as the 1970s, the national
levels of both the SPD and the CDU were financed primarily by the state.
However, the introduction and expansion of public subsidies coincided with
a massive expansion of the membership organizations and with a process
of defragmentation in the party system in the 1960s and 1970s (Wiesendahl,
1999). The established parties therefore began to look elsewhere for further
income at a time when they were successful in mobilizing new members and
in closing off the political market. The strong position of German parties
in the state institutions, the ‘Parteienstaat’, enabled the established parties
to expand state funding, although this was restricted to some extent by the
Constitutional Court. The discovery of common interests rather than
vulnerability led to formation of the German party cartel.
In Denmark, the interpenetration of parties and the state began later, and
is as yet weaker than in Germany. The Danish move towards the state was
clearly triggered by vulnerability. In the 1970s, volatility increased significantly and the number of parties in parliament doubled in the ‘earthquake
election’ of 1973. Since then, fragmentation of the party system has remained
at a high level and the number of party members has fallen dramatically
(Bille, 1994; Mair and van Biezen, 2001). Danish parties adapted to this
crisis by turning to state resources: subsidies to the parliamentary parties,
introduced in 1965, were considerably expanded in the 1980s. In 1986,
parliament passed a law introducing public subsidies to the party organizations. In 1995 these subventions quadrupled, with the opposition Konservative Folkeparti (KF) carrying the bill for the SD-led government (Bille,
1999). As a result, the national budget of the Danish parties, while growing,
became increasingly dependent on state subventions (see below).
In neither Switzerland nor the United Kingdom was there a similar move
of parties towards the state. There are no direct public subsidies to party
organizations and only rather modest payments to the parliamentary parties.
However, the reasons why cartels have not formed are very different.
The British parties are clearly in control of the political decision-making
process. The Westminster system gives strong leeway to the governmental
party in terms of political competence and patronage potential. However,
the major parties choose to rely on non-state sources of finance. The Labour
Party made some effort in the 1970s to introduce public subsidies, yet hesitated to go further than introducing modest grants to the opposition parties
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PA RT Y P O L I T I C S 1 1 ( 2 )
in parliament (‘Short Money’) in 1974. The opposition Conservative Party,
with its access to wealthy donors, rendered inter-party cooperation infeasible (Scarrow, 1996: 120). The long period in opposition (1979–97) led
Labour to rethink the institutional arrangements that upheld the British
two-party system. The reform agenda on which Labour and the Liberal
Democrats agreed included the provision of state financing. However, in
contrast to other reform projects, for example devolution, the Blair government did not force the issue when in office (Webb, 1999). The strict
competitive logic within British parliamentarianism has been reinforced by
the ideological polarization which took place in the 1970s and 1980s.
Instead of mutually securing their respective organizational maintenance, as
envisaged in the cartel party model, the Conservative government violated
vital interests of their opponents (abolition of local councils, weakening of
trade unions, unwillingness to share appointments), while the Labour Party
ended the implicit consensus on the institutional rules of the game. For
introducing public subsidies, there was no common ground to agree on. The
British case demonstrates that agreement on common organizational interests is a sine qua non for forming a party cartel.
By contrast, in Switzerland, there has been widespread consensus among
the established parties on the need for state funding. The ‘Grand Coalition’,
which has held power since 1959 according to the ‘magic formula’, failed
to expand parties’ organizational resources by providing for state subventions. In the early 1970s, the CVP began to set the agenda for closer
cooperation between the government partners. In 1973, the national
government (initiated by the CVP) introduced a bill that contained regulations on campaign reimbursement. Interest groups and regional governments rejected this initiative in the pre-parliamentarian consultations. The
government settled for modest subsidies to the parliamentary parties. In
1977, the same proposal was part of a constitutional revision and
contributed to the downfall of the whole project. Once again, interest
groups and regional governments declared their opposition to the national
government in the obligatory referendum. In 1989, parliament (initiated by
the SPS) called for an expansion of subsidies to the parliamentary parties
(realized in 1990) and for the introduction of campaign reimbursement to
the party organizations. In addition, parliamentary reform (including higher
allowances and better infrastructure for MPs) was passed supported by
nearly all parties. This reform was rejected in a referendum in 1992,
showing the reluctance of Swiss citizens to accept the professionalization of
politics (Wiesli, 2003).
This chronology of events demonstrates that the Swiss parties would have
been willing to secure their organizational self-interest by moving towards
the state. However, the Swiss institutional setting, with federalism, direct
democracy and corporatism representing alternative political channels to
the parliamentary arena, necessitates wide-ranging consensus for reform
(Sciarini and Hug, 1999). The cartel of the ‘magic formula’, which has
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proved so successful in maintaining governmental status, has not been able
to benefit from this status organizationally, since there are important
channels of political decision-making beyond the parliamentary arena in
Switzerland that the national parties cannot control.
As a result, Germany and Denmark can be described as ‘positive’ cartel
cases, while the United Kingdom and Switzerland classify as ‘negative’ cases.
The Organizational Dimension
On the organizational dimension, ideal-type cartel parties are characterized
by the ascendancy of the party in public office and by stratarchy. National
parliamentarians and cabinet members control the most important power
positions within their party organizations at the national level. At the same
time, there is autonomy between the different territorial party strata.
Regional party leaders lack influence on national party politics, yet are given
free rein in regard to subnational politics (Katz and Mair, 1995: 21).
However, if we analyse the composition of the parties’ national executive
committees, the empirical results suggest that ‘federalization’, rather than
stratarchy, characterizes the internal power distribution of the parties
analysed (see also Koole, 1996: 518). The percentage of national public
office-holders in the party leading bodies has actually declined in all cases
since the 1960s, largely due to the fact that executive committees in all the
parties studied (except the Swiss CVP) tended to comprise more members
over time (see Table 2). Those that have benefited most from these enlargements are representatives of the lower party strata. In general, while
members of this group possess leading positions in subnational party
organs, they also hold public office at the regional or local level. Thus, our
analysis does not deny the ascendancy of the party in public office. In all
parties (except the Labour Party with the still strong representation of the
trade unions), public office-holders constitute the majority within national
executive committees. Groups such as staff of party headquarters or delegates of affiliated organizations have become less frequently represented
over time. Yet, there seems to have been an increasing need to integrate
party elites from different political levels, to give them fora to meet and to
decide policies and political strategies. As in most European countries,
political decision-making has become more multilayered in recent decades
owing to factors such as the extension of the welfare state, Europeanization
and regionalization (see, e.g., Scharpf, 1999). The leading party bodies have
developed into multi-level organs, bringing together the most important
politicians of the national and subnational levels and, to some extent, representatives of the European level.1
The table indicates the most significant development in the personnel of
national party executive committees, the increasing representation of
members of lower party strata (and the ‘higher’ European party level in the
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PA RT Y P O L I T I C S 1 1 ( 2 )
1990s). The Conservative Party is not included, since it created a politically
relevant leading organ, the Governing Board, only in 1998.2
The predominance of public office-holders within parties and federalization are general trends that are not restricted to ‘positive’ cartel cases. These
are likely to be caused by developments other than cartelization.
In both Danish parties, regional party leaders (Amtsformand) are strongly
present within national executive committees in the 1990s. While in the KF,
with its decentralist tradition, there has been stable regional representation
over the whole period, there have been more changes to the internal power
distribution within the Socialdemocratiet since the party reform in 1969.
The stronger impact of regional leaders within the SD was paralleled by the
increasing political weight of the lower political levels in Denmark in administering the welfare state and European policies (Pedersen, 1987: 42–3).
Table 2. Representatives of subnational and supranational party strata in
national party executive committees
(Forretningsudvalg) 3/7
Source: Detterbeck (2002). Under this heading, all members of national executive committees
have been counted who have held a supranational/regional/local public office or party
mandate and were not members of national parliaments or cabinets at the time. The second
line gives exact numbers and the size of the party body. The analysis is based on parties’
yearbooks and homepages, parliamentary records and relevant newspaper articles.
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In both German parties, the national party in public office held at least half
of the seats throughout the whole period. From the 1970s onwards, leading
politicians from the Länder, often regional prime ministers or opposition
leaders, have been elected more frequently into the national party executive
committees. The CDU and SPD tended to include more regional party
leaders in their national leadership while in opposition, when the federal
party lacked power and resources. However, there is no doubt that strong
regional party units, especially when in office, can exert considerable influence on their national party. This interdependence between party levels
reflects the increasingly cooperative federal structure of Germany with its
powerful Länder executives (Detterbeck and Renzsch, 2003; Scharpf, 1999).
In the ‘negative’ Swiss case, the development has been similar. There is
an increased representation of the powerful regional party level in
national party bodies. Since the 1960s, the incentives for leading regional
politicians to participate in national politics have become stronger as the
Swiss polity has become more multilayered, and as both Christian democrats and social democrats have sought to develop national political
strategies and policies.
The development within the British Labour Party has been different. The
national executive (NEC) traditionally has been, and still is, dominated by
national MPs and representatives of the corporate organizations. Only since
the NEC reform in 1998 has there been representation of public officeholders from different political levels (MEPs, MPs, local councillors). This
can be interpreted as a concession to the increasingly multi-level character
of British politics. The representation of trade unions with some 40 percent
of the NEC seats has not been affected by this reform. However, the political
status of the NEC was reduced significantly in the 1990s. New policymaking bodies, such as the ‘Joint Policy Committee’ and the ‘National
Policy Forum’, are clearly dominated by the parliamentary leadership and
have taken over competences once exercised by the NEC. For the organization of election campaigns, much the same could be said. In addition,
reforms of the voting procedures at party conferences and the introduction
of party plebiscites (‘one member, one vote’) in the selection of candidates
and party leaders reduced the political influence of trade union officials and
party activists (Webb, 1999).
Yet, the comparative analysis shows that the development of the Labour
Party in the 1990s has been quite exceptional. Within the other three social
democratic parties there have been only few institutional changes in internal
decision-making procedures. They are still characterized by the working of
party commissions bringing together all sections and wings of the party.
Programmatic debates tend to be slow and driven by the search for
compromises; national executives remain the locus of political and strategic
long-term decision-making. The delegates at party conferences still have
veto rights; direct democratic procedures, while introduced in the 1990s,
have only slightly altered the mechanics of internal decision-making.
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Looking at the period from the 1960s onwards as a whole, programmatic
debates and internal policy conflict were more intense in the 1970s and
1980s than in previous decades. Only in the 1990s was there a return to
more pragmatism and freedom of manoeuvre for the party elites.
Following electoral disappointments, the Christian democratic parties of
Switzerland and Germany have gone through a period of ‘belated democratization’ in the 1970s. Within both parties the extra-parliamentary
organization gained influence, national executives developed into loci of real
decision-making, and programmatic debates became more controversial.
Again, we see that in the 1990s the parliamentary leadership regained
control, with party headquarters and the membership organization losing
political momentum (Ladner, 1999). Still, having developed into membership parties in the 1970s, the CVP and CDU are now characterized by a more
balanced power structure between parliamentary and extra-parliamentary
The Danish Conservatives have travelled some way along the same lines,
limiting the political autonomy of the parliamentary leadership from the
early 1970s onwards. Party policies that used to be the domain of the parliamentary party are now discussed and decided within the wider party.
However, the national party executive only developed its own political
profile in times of acute crisis. Until 1998, it was up to the parliamentary
party leader of the British Conservatives to decide party policies. No formal
mechanisms stipulated whether and to which political advice he (or she)
would listen. Only after the 1997 electoral fiasco did the Conservatives
decide to end the separation of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary party,
and to give their members a say in the election of the party leader and
to create an executive committee with formal policy-making competences
(Peele, 1998).
Looking at organizational change, the analysis suggests that party-specific
features, such as electoral fortunes or the traditions of specific party
families, are more important than cartel tendencies. With respect to organizational power structures, the different ‘familles spirituelles’ have gradually
become more alike. Whereas in social democratic parties there is more
control for the parliamentary elites, in bourgeois parties there is less than
there was some decades ago. Organizational changes do not follow the lines
between ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ cartel cases. Although there is no party
cartel in Britain, no other party saw a similar increase in the dominance of
the national party in public office than Labour. The organizational developments of both Christian democratic parties show nearly identical patterns,
although the degree of cartelization in both countries proved to be quite
different. Parties have adapted in similar ways to similar challenges, for
example Europeanization, societal change and media expansion. Katz and
Mair (1995) rightly argue that the ascendancy of the party in public office
has been the result of these common challenges to parties in Western
Europe. In the 1990s, the leading politicians were better equipped and more
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D E T T E R B E C K : C A RT E L PA RT I E S I N W E S T E R N E U R O P E ?
professional in pushing through their policy preferences than in earlier
periods. They had more staff at their disposal; they were better able to set
political agendas via the mass media; and they had expertise in and access
to an enlarged set of policy decision-making at both national and European
Union level. However, more centralized parties do not necessarily form a
cartel, as the British case shows. Even in Germany and Denmark, the
autonomy of parliamentary elites and the marginalization of party activists
is less marked than the cartel thesis assumes. Obviously then, cartels can be
formed by parties that still have strong remainders of mass parties.
The Functional Dimension
On the second analytical dimension, Katz and Mair (1995) postulate that
the ways the cartel parties fulfil their political role distinguish them from
former party types. While parties increasingly lose their embeddedness in
society, they compensate by making use of state resources and by focusing
on their functions in parliament and government.
Taking the importance of state resources for the national party organizations as an empirical indicator of the increasing interpenetration of parties
and the state, we find strong evidence in Germany and Denmark. By contrast,
public subsidies are of little importance to British and Swiss parties.
The process of ‘etatization’ is fairly advanced in the German case. National
party organizations are financed primarily by the state; parliamentary
parties and individual MPs can rely on the expertise of an extensive number
of publicly paid staff. However, it would be an exaggeration to describe the
SPD and CDU as estranged from society. Membership fees still constitute
some 20 percent (CDU) to 25 per cent (SPD) of the budget of the national
parties. For the regional and local party levels, fees are even more important. Members are therefore a financial asset for German parties, the more
so since state subventions have been coupled to member fees in 1994. The
delegatory principle, stipulated by the party law of 1967, has not been
eroded substantially. Ties to interest groups have become weaker and more
pluralized over time, conflicts between former allies more common, but still
there is an organized trade union wing among both parties and a rather
influential business group wing within the CDU. So, German parties have
moved closer to the sphere of the state but, like amphibians, have not lost
their ability to ‘swim in society’ (Poguntke, 1994: 212).
In Denmark, the national level of the SD used to be 90 percent financed
by membership fees and donations from the trade unions until the 1980s.
In the 1990s, this share of private means was reduced to 60 percent, while
public subsidies now constituted around 40 percent of the total income of
the national party. While the trade unions remained the primary source of
income, their financial dominance has been lessened and may be decreasing
further with the end of mutual ex officio representation in 1996. In the
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PA RT Y P O L I T I C S 1 1 ( 2 )
1990s, the KF, which traditionally relied on private donations, became
financed primarily by the public purse (to some 60 percent). Both parties
could double their staff at party headquarters and in parliament in the
1990s compared to the 1960s (Bille, 1994). However, at the same time as
the Danish parties tapped into state resources they also tried to revitalize
their membership organizations through internal reforms. While it is fair to
say that they have been much more successful in the former than in the
latter, there is no systematic marginalization of party executives and party
delegates with respect to internal decision-making. While there is clear
evidence for a loosening of ties to historically related interest groups in
recent decades, trade unions remain influential partners of the SD while
business groups still have privileged access to the KF. Thus, in both ‘positive’
cartel cases, parties have moved closer to the sphere of the state without,
however, becoming detached from societal bonds.
The Swiss national party organizations have remained relatively weak in
terms of financial means, with the bulk of revenue coming either from the
party members (SPS) or out of private donations (CVP). In the 1990s, public
subsidies to the parliamentary parties amounted to some 20 percent of the
national budget of both the SPS and the CVP. Swiss parties continue to rely
on permanent organizational linkages to society. For the Social Democrats,
the trade unions – with their superior financial and organizational resources
– remain the most important political partner. The CVP continues to depend
on the support of Catholic organizations, small business firms and peasant
associations, since the party did not succeed in extending its electoral appeal
beyond its traditional milieu (Ladner, 1999). The dilemma of both Swiss
parties is that, although the relationships with their historical allies have
become more conflict-ridden, there is hardly any effective political initiative
feasible without their expertise and support. The Swiss ‘militia system’, in
which many full-time politicians accumulate different part-time functions
within parliaments, parties and the wider cultural and economic sector,
results in a fairly underdeveloped differentiation of the societal subsystems
(Wiesli, 2003). Thus, although the parties monopolize elite recruitment to
the sphere of the state, they remain anchored within society. In some ways,
it is even fair to say that the Swiss parties are not detached enough to make
use of their dominant position within state institutions.
In Britain, the Labour Party has traditionally been financed primarily by
the affiliation fees of trade unions. In the 1990s, the Blair leadership successfully undertook efforts to reduce this financial dependence and to expand
the party budget by reversing the downward trend of individual party
membership, raising membership fees and attracting donations from the
business sector (Scarrow, 1996: 120–1). Having more revenues made it
possible to expand and professionalize party headquarters, and to employ
new strategies of political marketing and capital-intensive campaigning
(Webb, 1999). Thus, New Labour sought to further its electoral fortunes
by attracting new sectors of society, instead of moving towards the state, at
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that time dominated by a rather hostile Conservative Party. At the same
time, the parliamentary party elite could increase its political autonomy by
reducing the policy input of trade unionist leaders and party activists through
party reforms. While the party intended to listen to a wider spectrum within
society, it was less willing to give these voices direct impact on party policies.
However, the historical alliance with the trade unions continues to matter
organizationally and financially. The Conservative Party has always been
financed primarily by donations from the business sector. Although the social
and political proximity to the upper middle class is beyond doubt, the party
did not develop permanent organizational linkages to business interest
groups. Likewise, the Tories entertained a large membership organization
without formal political influence. Thus, the Conservative leadership has
always been less constrained by direct involvement of party members and
interest groups than other party elites. However, the party depends on financial and organizational resources provided by its supporters.
Summing up, there are very different national patterns with respect to the
interpenetration of party and state. While we have observed that permanent
organizational links to society via party membership and interest groups
have generally become weaker, they have not been eroded altogether. There
remain significant differences in the degree to which these links are still
present in European parties. There is an equal variety to the importance of
state resources for party organizations. The cartel thesis captures this significant development and accounts for country-specific differences. Our cases
amply underline that, at this point, we are close to the heart of the cartel
thesis. However, we have seen that parties in ‘positive’ cases have become
more attached to the sphere of the state without losing their ability to
provide selective and collective incentives for aligned social groups.
The Competitive Dimension
The third analytical dimension is concerned with the systemic level of party
competition. Party cartels are characterized by the cartelization of privileges
and the exclusion of new parties. There is a high level of at least implicit
inter-party cooperation in securing state resources for themselves and
building ‘protective walls’ against new competitors.
In both ‘positive’ cases there is clear evidence of collusion. In Germany,
most reforms of public funding since 1967 have been based on inter-party
parliamentary initiatives (Ebbighausen et al., 1996: 158–87). In Denmark,
the introduction and expansion of public funding since 1965 has been
supported by all moderate parties (Bille, 1999). However, in both countries
the level of exclusion of new parties has been rather low. In German elections there is a high threshold to obtain seats at both national and regional
level (5 percent), which proved to be an effective instrument of exclusion.
Proportional regulations are in force with respect to state funding and media
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PA RT Y P O L I T I C S 1 1 ( 2 )
access in election campaigns. The electorally more successful parties will
thus receive more state resources, which provides them with a competitive
advantage. However, the access to public subsidies is modest (0.5 percent
of the votes) and even minuscule parties can have their TV spot. The case
of the Green Party demonstrates that public funding can facilitate an easy
consolidation of new parties. In the 1980s, electoral success provided
extensive public means by which to put the political agenda of the Greens
forward, to build up an organizational network and to turn political
activists into professional politicians. Thus, public funding helped the new
party to secure its place in party competition. With the Greens becoming
more pragmatic politically, the SPD accepted them as junior partner in
several coalitions on the regional level before they joined forces in the
national government of 1998. In terms of inter-party cooperation, the SPD
introduced an ‘outsider’ that proved to be increasingly willing to play
according to the established rules, e.g. accept the parties’ need for public
In Denmark, there is a similar cartelization with respect to government
formation. While new moderate parties were invited to participate in coalitions, extreme parties on both sides of the party spectrum remained
‘pariahs’. In terms of electoral competition, the level of exclusion is even
lower than in Germany. The electoral threshold (2 percent) remained relatively low despite the increasing fragmentation of the party system; the
proportional access to public subsidies is not restricted and all parties have
equal access to the public media in election campaigns. Small parties could
increase their organizational means very rapidly by tapping into state
resources (Bille, 1994).
In both countries the established parties used their leverage within state
institutions to further their mutual organizational self-interest. However, it
seems that this was less a matter of excluding new parties than an attempt
to secure resources from which all parties would benefit. In addition, this
is not equivalent to parties pursuing the same policies. As a ‘political class’,
parties may share common interests, yet as a policy-making elite parties may
remain competitive, at least in some respects (von Beyme, 1996: 151). As
far as there are policy differences among the established cartel parties, voters
still have political alternatives, and elections do not become ‘dignified parts’
of the constitution (Katz and Mair, 1995: 22).
If we compare the patterns to the ‘negative’ cases, Britain and Switzerland,
we have already seen that inter-party cooperation on common organizational
interests either did not happen or was not successful. However, in both cases
a long-term institutional consensus prevailed that exclusively benefited the
established parties. In the UK, the majoritarian voting system, the unitary
state structure and the absence of public funding made it quite difficult for
third parties, especially on a national platform, to break the duopoly of
Labour and Conservative. In Switzerland, the openness of the electoral
system was counteracted by the voluntary agreement to maintain the Grand
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Coalition according to the ‘magic formula’. Although new parties, like the
Greens, emerged, they were excluded from government office. Thus, effective barriers against new competitors were erected in both countries due to
quite different political traditions. In both countries, the institutional consensus has become weaker over the past decade. In the 1990s, the opposition
Labour Party agreed with the Liberal Democrats on an institutional reform
agenda, introducing devolution and a mixed member voting system at the
regional level when coming into office in 1997. In Switzerland, the tensions
within the Grand Coalition intensified and the changing electoral strength of
the four parties led to an adjustment of the ‘magic formula’ in 2003.3
The cartel thesis points to an important development in party politics
when focusing on the increased amount of inter-party cooperation in institutional matters, especially on state funding, in some European countries.
However, we have found that state funding is more likely to help rather
than hinder new challengers to consolidate (see also Pierre et al., 2000).
Other factors, too, such as the voting system or the nature of coalitionbuilding, have to be taken into account when evaluating the degree of
exclusion. Furthermore, the electoral success of newcomers depends on the
evolution of cleavage structures within a polity. There is thus no direct
relationship between cartel formation and party system fractionalization.
While in Germany and the United Kingdom, quite different cases with
respect to cartelization, the number of relevant parties remained limited,
fractionalization increased significantly in Denmark and remained on a high
level in the plural society of Switzerland.
The foregoing discussion could be summed up in the suggestion that there
should be three modifications to the cartel thesis. Denmark and Germany
represent alternative paths to a party cartel. In Denmark, parties perceived
an increasing vulnerability of societal resources and adapted by moving
towards the state. In Germany, parties realized that they could use their
dominance in the political institutions (‘Parteienstaat’) to expand their
organizational resources by acting collectively and sharing the resources
provided by the state. Thus, it was not a crisis that motivated formation of
the German party cartel, but the capacity of the major parties to further their
common interests. My first suggestion, therefore, is that we should allow for
‘multiple causation’ (Ragin, 1987) when explaining cartel tendencies.
My second suggestion is that we restrict the cartel thesis to its core
elements. The cartel thesis elaborates on significant changes in at least some
European countries when pointing to the stronger symbiosis between parties
and the state, as well as to the increased disposition of parties to engage in
inter-party cooperation with respect to organizational self-interests. However,
the empirical analysis suggests that not all of the aspects associated with the
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PA RT Y P O L I T I C S 1 1 ( 2 )
cartel type form ‘defining characteristics’ (Koole, 1996). The cartel model
is overloaded with assumptions. On the organizational dimension, there
have been important changes, especially the ascendancy of the ‘party in
public office’, which are not restricted to the ‘positive cases’, however. Thus,
cartelization does not seem to be the cause of such organizational developments that nevertheless may be seen as facilitating the capacity of party
leaders to engage in inter-party cooperation. The German and Danish cases
suggest that parties with quite different organizational patterns can collude
and form a cartel. In a similar vein, on the functional dimension, loosened
societal ties have also been found in the United Kingdom and to some extent
in Switzerland. Yet, only in Denmark and Germany has there been a significant move towards the state. With respect to the competitive dimension, the
level of inter-party cooperation is higher in the ‘positive cases’, although the
exclusion of new parties is a more complex question than Katz and Mair
(1995) claimed.
My third suggestion concerns favourable and unfavourable conditions in
forming a party cartel. This line of argument is already present in the original
article by Katz and Mair (1995), yet needs to be elaborated. I would like to
stress three aspects.
First, institutional parameters proved to be important. On the one hand,
the electoral system either reinforced (e.g. Denmark) or blocked (e.g. United
Kingdom) the perception of vulnerability and thereby influenced the
intensity of pressure to adapt. On the other hand, the strength of the party
state (e.g. Germany) furthered the capacities of parties to control their
organizational development, whereas a weak party state (e.g. Switzerland)
diminished these possibilities. In particular, direct democracy counteracted
cartelization in the Swiss case.
Second, political traditions of accommodation facilitate cartel formation.
Political actors have learned to cooperate with their political opponents by
solving major political issues. Compromises and mutual trust came to
dominate the political process. The basis for collective action was therefore
laid in the consensual traditions of Denmark and Switzerland. In Germany,
the parties tried, after 1945, to overcome the traditional hostilities between
the political subcultures that have characterized the Weimar Republic. In
contrast, British parties were socialized in an ‘adversarial’ political culture.
When Thatcherism ended the Keynesian ‘post-war consensus’, the ideological cleavages between the opponents were reinforced.
Third, political professionalization facilitates cartel formation. Full-time
politicians planning a long-term political career ‘come to regard their
political opponents as fellow professionals, who are driven by the same
desire for job security’ (Katz and Mair, 1995: 23). Thus, politicians of
different parties not only work together in coalitions and parliamentary
committees, they also share common interests concerning their individual
(income, re-election, career ambitions) and organizational (state subsidies,
patronage) self-maintenance, and are therefore prepared to participate in
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institutional inter-party cooperation (Borchert, 2003). The high level of
professionalization in Germany and the increasing professionalization in
Denmark added to the favourable conditions for establishing a party cartel.
In contrast, Westminster MPs, especially Conservative members, continued
to remain part-time parliamentarians well into the 1970s. Again, this
contributed to the rather different perception of self-interest on both sides
of parliament.
A first draft of the article, which is based on my 2002 PhD thesis, was presented at
the ECPR Workshop on ‘Causes and Consequences of Organisational Innovation in
European Political Parties’, ECPR Joint Sessions, Grenoble, 6–11 April 2001. I am
grateful to Jens Borchert, Peter Lösche, Peter Mair, Angelika Maser, Klaus Stolz,
Wolfgang Renzsch and two anonymous referees for comments.
1 In the 1990s, both German parties, the Danish SD and the Labour Party included
one MEP in their highest party body, which may be interpreted as modest attempts
to integrate the supranational level in the national party executives.
2 Although the party leader has decisive powers in appointing members to the
Board, it is interesting to note that among its 16 members there are three ex officio
representatives of the Scottish, the Welsh and the local party level (Peele, 1998).
3 In the 2003 election, the Swiss People’s Party became the strongest party, with the
rightist proponent, Christoph Blocher, demanding a second seat for his party in
the government coalition. In the parliamentary ballot, Blocher replaced the CVP
minister. The first change to the ‘magic formula’ since 1959 initiated debates as
to whether this would signal the end of the Grand Coalition altogether. There still
seems to be the possibility that the Social Democrats will leave the Coalition,
giving way to a competitive style of government formation.
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KLAUS DETTERBECK is Assistant Professor at the University of Magdeburg,
Germany. His research focuses on party organizations, party systems and the
dynamics of federal systems in Western democracies. His works include Der Wandel
politischer Parteien in Westeuropa (Opladen, 2002) and articles in several journals,
including European Urban and Regional Studies and Jahrbuch des Föderalismus.
ADDRESS: Institute of Political Science, University of Magdeburg, Zschokkestr. 32,
D-39016 Magdeburg, Germany. [email: [email protected]]
Paper submitted 7 May 2003; accepted for publication 13 March 2004.
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