Still second-order? European elections in the era of populism, extremism, and Euroscepticism

Publication Date01 November 2021
AuthorLiisa Talving,Piret Ehin
Date01 November 2021
SubjectSpecial Issue Articles
2021, Vol. 41(4) 467 –485
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0263395720986026
Still second-order? European
elections in the era of populism,
extremism, and Euroscepticism
Piret Ehin and Liisa Talving
University of Tartu, Estonia
The continued relevance of the second-order elections (SOE) theory is one of the most widely
debated issues in the study of European Parliament (EP) elections. While the theory has been
criticised from many angles, the recent success of populist, extremist, and Eurosceptic parties
raises additional questions about the applicability of a model that depicts EP elections as a low-
stakes affair revolving around national issues. This article tests the SOE model with party-level
data from all 175 EP elections held between 1979 and 2019. While turnout in EP elections remains
well below participation rates in national elections, the 2019 EP elections were marked by a
significant reduction in the average turnout gap. Across all election years, party size is the most
potent predictor of electoral gains and losses in EP elections. Incumbency is associated with
electoral losses in most EP election years. These effects are moderated by the electoral cycle and
the electoral system in some but not all years. The expectation that the SOE model performs
worse in countries with fragmented party systems was not confirmed. All in all, the SOE model
continues to wield significant explanatory power in both the West and the East.
European Parliament elections, political parties, second-order theory, turnout, voting behaviour
Received: 8th June 2020; Revised version received: 1st December 2020; Accepted: 10th December 2020
The continued viability of the 40-year-old second-order elections (SOE) theory is a much-
discussed subject in the study of European Parliament (EP) elections (Nielsen and
Franklin, 2017; Schmitt, 2005; Schmitt and Teperoglou, 2019; Van Der Brug et al., 2016).
A year after the first direct elections to the EP, Reif and Schmitt (1980: 3) famously
argued that European elections are additional national SOE ‘(a)s long as the national
political systems decide most of what there is to be decided politically, and everything
really important’. After decades of unprecedented widening and deepening of integration,
and in the context of mounting transnational challenges, this condition no longer seems to
apply. With strong supranational institutions and an ever-expanding body of community
Corresponding author:
Piret Ehin, Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies, University of Tartu, Lossi 36, 51003 Tartu, Estonia.
986026POL0010.1177/0263395720986026PoliticsEhin and Talving
Special Issue Article
468 Politics 41(4)
law, the EU now exercises great power over the lives of Europeans. The EP itself has
undergone a metamorphosis from a representative body with ‘very little real power’ (Reif
and Schmitt, 1980: 12) to a powerful co-legislator with significant budgetary and scrutiny
powers (Costa, 2018).
The SOE model has been challenged on multiple accounts. A series of studies span-
ning several decades have argued that ‘Europe matters’ in EP elections (e.g. Beach et al.,
2018; Carruba and Timpone, 2005; Hobolt, 2015). Tests of the SOE model conducted
after the Eastern enlargement showed that while the model persists in Western Europe,
it fails to explain patterns of electoral gains and losses in the new East European member
states (Koepke and Ringe, 2006; Schmitt, 2005). More recently, doubts about the viabil-
ity of the second-order model have been amplified by the apparent politicisation of
European integration (Hooghe and Marks, 2009; Hutter and Kriesi, 2019; Kriesi, 2016)
as well as the rise of populist, extremist, and Eurosceptic parties in EP elections. In 2014,
such parties won a quarter of all seats in the EP while traditional liberal, conservative,
and social-democratic parties suffered losses (Luo, 2017; Martín-Cubas et al., 2019). In
2019, populist, extremist, and Eurosceptic parties largely held the ground gained in
2014, with nationalist and far-right groups taking the majority of the vote in Hungary,
Italy, and Poland. The EP became more fragmented than ever before, with the two larg-
est political groups for the first time controlling less than half of the seats (Bolin et al.,
2019). It is not clear whether and how increasingly prominent clashes over liberal-dem-
ocratic Europeanism can be reconciled with a model that depicts EP elections as a sec-
ond-order national affair.
This article tests the SOE model in the context of all EP elections held to date, while
also seeking to ascertain whether the 2019 contests differed from previous EP elections
and how. While our approach is conventional in the sense that it focusses on the original
SOE hypotheses proposed by Reif and Schmitt (1980) and tests these with aggregate-
level data, this test goes beyond existing studies in that it (a) systematically evaluates the
performance of all core SOE hypotheses over a period of 40 years, (b) addresses a number
of concerns related to party size effects by controlling for variation in electoral rules and
conducting a robustness check focussing on relative, as opposed to absolute change in
party vote shares, and (c) contributes to the debate on the performance of the SOE model
in less consolidated party systems by controlling for party system fragmentation and
comparing the model’s predictive power in Western and Eastern Europe. Although the
extent to which the model’s key predictions are empirically corroborated varies from year
to year, we conclude that, overall, the SOE model has withstood the test of time, and
continues to wield significant explanatory power in both the old and the new member
states of the EU.
The second-order model and its limitations
As a dominant paradigm for understanding EP elections, the SOE model has proven to be
astoundingly durable. Because its main arguments are well known and have been exten-
sively covered in the rich, diverse literature on EP elections, a brief summary will suffice
here. Depicting EP elections as simultaneously held national contests between national
parties, the model argues that because European elections do not determine political lead-
ership, less is at stake for all relevant actors, including the voters and parties (Reif and
Schmitt, 1980). In such a setting, voters are less likely to turn out, and more likely to
engage in sincere or protest voting, as opposed to strategic voting (Oppenhuis et al.,

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