Brace yourself for a study that delves into the divergent paths taken by Belgium’s socialist parties in forming connections with civil society. In this edition of TL;DR, we’ll delve into the most captivating sections of a recent paper published by Palgrave Macmillan’s Acta Politica journal. It explores the diverse paths adopted by parties that share similar origins, ideology, and governmental involvement when engaging with civil society.
Researchers have sought to understand party ties with organised civil society. While literature shows parties’ links to civil society are crucial for articulating social interests and reaping electoral gains, a comprehensive study of the different connections among parties with common origins, ideology, goals, and governance was lacking. This study involved interviews with 28 participants – officials of Belgian left-wing parties, experts, commentators, and representatives of civil society – supported by a literature review and document analysis. It explores how party elite perspectives on political shifts shape strategic choices, impacting ties with organised civil society.
Implications for Party Politics:
The study reaffirms earlier insights surrounding the ‘inclusion dilemmas’, highlighting the intricate balance between appealing to traditional supporter groups and forging connections with, and mobilising, new voters in migrant communities.
Distinct strategic decisions, prompted by differing perceptions about emerging challenges had deep consequences on a party’s affiliation with civil society. The study suggests that the party maintaining its focus on socio-economic concerns rather than shifting towards the values dimension introduced by rising nationalist parties was able to maintain close links with civil society groups despite increased electoral competition.
In contrast, the deliberate decision of elite members to distance the party from conventional allies within the socialist domain was exacerbated by policy shifts in welfare reform and migration, leading to the alienation of previously committed civil actor groups. Conversely, the study indicates that maintaining a political discourse inclusive of immigrant-origin electorates and a well-defined ideological stance empower moderate left-leaning parties (here the subject of the case study) to maintain strong connections with civil society.
Interestingly, differing levels of centralisation and the ability of party elites to disregard the branch structure also impacted links with civil society. Centralisation grants party elites the power to steer the party’s strategic trajectory without significant constraints from party members or pillar institutions. Within the discussed case study, the party preserving a comparatively robust local party framework and allowing substantial input from ordinary members on policy decisions also retained a more substantial connection with civil society, reaping the benefits of such “proximity” at the ballot box.
Ultimately, the extent of engagement with civil society seems to directly impact the party’s ability to effectively counter competitive challenges over time. We now have further evidence suggesting that parties maintaining stronger ties to civil society and exhibiting greater responsiveness to the campaigns of emerging social movements have more chances to succeed in mitigating electoral losses when confronted by new contenders.
Join the Conversation:
What do you think of the results of this study? Do you have any ideas as to what the possible implications of these results can be? Leave your comments below!
Click here to read the full article!
References: Martin, N. (2023). Remaining close or drifting apart? Explaining the divergent paths taken by Belgium’s socialist parties in connecting to civil society. Acta Politica, 1-31.