Redefining European Politics: The Rise of the Triad and Fall of Bipartisanship

Let’s talk about bipartisanship.

This is a political scenario whereby only two political parties share power - succeeding each other in electoral victory and assuming the role of national government and opposition alternatingly. It was born after the French Revolution, which marked a separation between the so-called conservatives and liberals and pitted one against another for power. Conservatives advocated for maintaining the status quo, preserving hierarchical social structures, and resisting radical change. In contrast, liberals championed individual rights, free markets, constitutional government, and social progress. Though the birth of Marxism heralded the breaking of bipartisanship in most European democracies during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this did not mean that the presence of this political scenario vanished. In fact, both in the European Parliament and in the domestic Portuguese Parliament, bipartisanship has grown and set down roots. 

Since its inception, the Portuguese constitutional parliament has consistently been dominated by the two largest parties. Likewise, a similar pattern has been evident in the European Parliament, where the center-left and center-right factions have traditionally secured the majority of seats.

Recently, however, there have been some changes in the voting results, to the point where we can confidently say that bipartisanship has sat on steadier foundations.


Bipartisanship at the European level

Let’s begin with the European Parliament. In its first elections - 1979 - the Socialist Group had the most representatives, electing 112 out of 410 total members of the inaugural sitting. However, since 1999 until today, the dominant force in the European Parliament elections has been the group of the European People's Party (EPP) - the party of the European Christian Democrat tradition.

Between them, these two groups have dominated this institution for most of its existence, managing - with only a few successive changes - to control between 50% and 70% of parliamentary seats until this trend ended in 2019. In an election in which the average voter turnout in the European Union was the highest in the last 20 years, the two prominent political families in the European Parliament lost the joint majority they had held for decades in this assembly. At the present moment (and since 2019), the European Parliament constitutes 182 MEPs from the European People's Party, 154 from the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament (or S&D), and 108 MEPs from the Renew Europe Group - the biggest net winner of the 2019 election by far. Renew - the party of the European Liberal tradition - managed in 2019 to do something unseen for any of the remaining groups contesting the European Parliament until then: elect more than 100 MEPs! They were followed by the Greens (with 74 seats) and by Identity and Democracy Group (with 73 seats), which is preparing for significant electoral growth in 2024. 

Has this triad – liberals, greens and the far-right – joined the big group chat to stay, threatening the lengthy existence of bipartisanship in this European Parliament?

According to POLITICO, in the upcoming elections, the EPP will still win, followed by the S&D and then - by some margin - the ID (87 seats), and Renew (with 81 seats). Another poll by Europe Elects supports the rise of the EPP and ID, as well as the decline of the S&D and the Liberals. As for the Greens, they are at risk of suffering the biggest fall (projected at around 22 seats), leaving this triad as a rump duo, instead.


Bipartisanship in Portugal

As for Portugal, known as a classic example of a bipartisan country, Partido Socialista and the Partido Social Democrata (respectively belonging to EPP and the S&D) have alternated government since full democracy came to Portugal in 1976. In the most critical Portuguese elections, which took place this year, a coalition led by Partido Social Democrata won with 28% of the votes, followed by Partido Socialista with an equal 28% and the Chega, the extreme right-wing party, with 18% of the vote.

Chega's success spells a fundamental structural change to the party system in Portugal. This unprecedented result has been said to kill the phenomenon of bipartisanship in Portugal, replacing it with a triad composed of these three largest parties. 

But some contest this - citing the Spanish example.

In Spain from 2014 to 2016, there was an emergence of three new parties with great initial impact, which may in the future see their influence disappear entirely

At first, Podemos, a left-wing populist party, emerged successfully from the 2014 European Parliament elections - securing 5 seats and managing to grow rapidly among disaffected Spanish voters, reaching the third electoral position in the 2015 general elections. In the same elections, the liberal party Ciudadanos became the fourth political force - boosted, among other reasons, by notorious corruption scandals involving high-ranking Partido Popular officials and the Catalan secessionist crisis. Finally, the populist, radical right-wing party Vox also later experienced a boost, winning 15% of the seats in Parliament in the general elections in November 2019. 

Will Portugal witness a similar scenario? 


The future of Portuguese politics in the wake of bipartisanship

The growth of the liberals, the greens and the far-right in Portugal has brought with it a number of consequences in the Portuguese National Assembly, which may bleed even into the European Parliament. 

Future Portuguese governments may begin to become composed of multiple parties, such as is already the case with the German government, for example, where the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Liberals govern jointly. Alternately, simple fractionalism and - resultingly - instability may be that which comes to rule the country.

Also, due to the presence of more middle-sized parties represented in the Parliament, new issues may arise which deserve a proper discussion and vote.

Lastly, according to Euronews, Portugal will for the first time elect one liberal MEP and possibly three from the far-right and the national Portuguese party will finally become aligned with the EP with the Christian democrats upon the podium, with the S&D taking home silver, the far-right in third, and the liberals in fourth - fighting to secure a place upon the podium again. 

As liberalism gains momentum in Portugal, it marks a significant evolution in the nation's political landscape, heralding a new era of ideological diversity and democratic engagement.





The views expressed herein are those of the author(s) alone. These views do not necessarily reflect those of LYMEC.

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