Is the European ‘Christian democracy’ party model dead?

When Dutch voters go to the polls on September 12, we don’t know whether they’ll favor prime minister Mark Rutte’s Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (VVD, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) or Emile Roemer’s Socialistische Partij (SP, the Socialist Party) or even Diederik Samsom’s Partij van de Arbeid (PvdA, the Labour Party) as their top choice.

What we do know is that the election could well be the worst post-war finish for the traditional Christian Democratic party in the Netherlands, the Christen-Democratisch Appèl (CDA, Christian Democratic Appeal).  It’s currently on track to finish in fifth place (or even sixth place) in a country that it had a hand in governing virtually without break in Dutch post-war politics until 2010.

In 2010, the CDA won just 21 seats in the lower house of the Dutch parliament, and it could win just 15 seats or less this time around.

So it goes all across Europe:

  • In Italy, the Democrazia Cristiana controlled the government (or participated in governing coalitions) for nearly 50 years of post-war Italian politics.  The Tangentopoli (‘Bribesville’) scandal led to its demise under the weight of massive corruption allegations in 1992, and the remaining core of that party, the Unione dei Democratici Cristiani e di Centro (UDC, the Union of Christian and Centre Democrats), led by Pier Ferdinando Casini, plays a significant, but minor role in Italian politics today.
  • Norway’s Christian Democratic Party, the Kristelig Folkeparti (KrF) once dominated Norwegian politics as well, but now holds just 10 out of 169 seats in the Norwegian parliament.
  • In Bavaria, the Christlich-Soziale Union (CSU, Christian Social Union) has controlled Bavaria’s state government since 1957.  It’s still the overwhelmingly largest party in Bavarian politics, but it lost 32 seats in the Landtag in 2008 and now holds just 92, and it looks likely to lose even more seats in the Bavarian state elections that must be held in 2013.
  • In Switzerland, the Christlichdemokratische Volkspartei der Schweiz (CVP, Christian Democratic People’s Party of Switzerland) has steadily declined since the 1970s.

Only in German federal politics does Christian democracy seem to be holding on — in the form of Angel Merkel’s Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU, Christian Democratic Union), which is allied at the federal level with Bavaria’s CSU.

So what’s happened to Christian democracy? And is it a concept whose time is up?

Christian democracy emerged as a political movement in the 19th century, as much as anything a reaction of the Catholic Church to the Industrial Revolution — and to the Marxist ideas that had so effectively challenged industrial capitalism in the mid-19th century, in the same way that the social democratic movement that gave voice to (and moderated) the growing labor movement.  (Some political scientists see a parallel in the “justice and development” strand of moderate Islamist parties that have emerged in Turkey and through vehicles like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan).

It reached its heyday during the Cold War as a bulwark against the communist influences of Soviet Russia, but today seems increasingly an anachronism as the European right divides into, on the one hand, a free-market liberal ideology untroubled with cultural issues and, on the other hand, a nationalist ideology that is increasingly both anti-Europe and anti-immigrant.  That fragmentation provides yet another complication in navigating the European Union out of its current debt and currency crisis — the European Union was formed and the eurozone conceived in a world where Christian democracy largely controlled the initial EU member states.

In 1891, Catholic Pope Leo XIII promulgated the Rerum Novarum, an encyclical on the rights and duties of capital and labor, with the idea being that there was a role for the Church in lessening the harsh working conditions that had evolved in the transformation into an industrialized society.  The Rerum Novarum discouraged the kind of violence and radicalism that Marxists were calling for, while criticizing the effects of untrammeled capitalism, not least of which upon the family and religious lives of many of Europe’s 19th century workers.

In so doing, Leo XIII launched an entire intellectual school of Catholic social teaching, but politically, it was an endorsement of a nascent movement on the European right that also gave voice to the Church’s moral values, much as the labor movement was becoming a vehicle for the mobilization of the European left.

Even earlier, however, the movement was spreading beyond the hinterlands of the Vatican: in 1870, the German Centre Party emerged as a response to the attempts by Otto von Bismarck to limit the Catholic Church; in 1879, the Dutch Anti Revolutionary Party attempted to realign Catholics and Protestants on the political right, and “Catholic Action” groups sprung up from Spain to Ukraine.

In 1919, Luigi Sturzo formed the Italian People’s Party, a predecessor of the Christian Democratic Party in Italy — Benito Mussolini subsequently outlawed it in 1925 and Sturzo spent the next 22 years in exile.  It marks a turning point in Europe, where the moderate politics of labor-friendly social democrats and church-friendly christian democrats were subsumed in the wider symphony of fascism, nazism, communism, depression, war and slaughter.

Out of the ashes of the postwar turmoil, however, Christian democracy was reborn.

With the nationalist right wing of European politics tarnished by associations with Mussolini, Adolf Hitler and Spain’s Francisco Franco, Christian democracy provided a softer, less strident vehicle in the face of the new Cold War bipolarism and what much of Western Europe and the United States saw as a growing threat in the socialist left.  So across Europe — from Catholic Bavaria to Protestant Holland — Christian Democratic parties were reestablished and soon came to wield power through the end of the Cold War.

At times, Christian democracy’s hegemony was comically unassailable — for example, much like the cartoon where the Roadrunner always seems to outwit Wile E. Coyote, Italy’s Communist Party never quite won (or was permitted to win) enough votes to take power, despite a charismatic and thoughtful leader in Enrique Berlinguer in the 1970s and 1980s.  Italy’s governing Christian Democrats, with plenty of aid from the U.S. government, and with ideological dexterity to shift left or right as the circumstances allowed, in essence led a one-party state for nearly half a century.

Today, however, in Italy and elsewhere, those days are gone, with an Italian right fragmented among neofascists, separatists and the populist movement of Silvio Berlusconi.

So, too, in the Netherlands, where CDA’s Jan Peter Balkenende held power for nearly a decade in the 2000s, but where the CDA has been leaking support since the 1990s: some support has gone to Rutte’s liberals, but much support has also gone to the anti-Muslim Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV, Party for Freedom) of Geert Wilders (and to Pim Fortuyn before him).  With the Dutch right divided between free-market liberals and cultural-touchstone populists, there’s increasingly little room for Christian democracy in a post-industrial and post-communist world.

Even in Germany, the success of the liberal Free Democratic Party has fragmented voters away from Merkel’s Christian Democrats — the strong postwar cultural taboo against nationalism and virulently right-wing politics in Germany (unlike in Italy or the Netherlands — or even France or the United Kingdom) explains in part the enduring stability of Christian democracy there.

It’s the exception, however, that proves the rule.

3 thoughts on “Is the European ‘Christian democracy’ party model dead?”

  1. You seem to forget about the unashamed Christan Democrat parties in Ireland (Fine Gael, who won a landslide election victory in 2011), Belgium (CD&V, still one of the major parties there and have provided 3 of the last 4 prime ministers), Lithuania (Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats, currently the largest party in the parliament), Luxembourg (Christian Social People's party, currently the governing party) – all traditional christian democrat parties, and all of them thriving. Seems strange to have left these out!

  2. I think that’s an entirely fair point — there are Christian democratic parties in small countries that are dominating their country’s politics. That’s absolutely the case with Fine Gael, and I think that’s the strongest example you can find of a thriving major Christian democratic party in Europe. I think it’s more complicated because I view Fianna Fáil as having performed many of the functions of the prototypical ‘Cold War’ Christian democratic party in the last half of the 20th century — pro-Catholic, socially conservative and more fiscally flexible, pro-Western, etc. So I think of both of them as having Christian democratic features (though Fine Gael has the stronger tradition as a Christian democratic party, strictly speaking), and Fianna Fáil may well end up extinct in a couple of election cycles.

    It’s hard to say that anything in Belgian politics is thriving — there’s no one party that can break through the Flemish/Walloon divide to be a true national party, Christian democratic or otherwise. It’s hard enough to build a coalition of parties to form a Belgium-level government. In 1968, the Christian Social Party ceased to exist as a truly national Belgian party, but split into Flemish and Walloon counterparts. So in that sense, Christian democracy has failed Belgium as well.

    But even in Flanders, I don’t think the Christen-Democratisch en Vlaams is exactly thriving — it fits the trend I’ve described. With the exception of 2007, when it was in a coalition with the New-Flemish Alliance, the broad trend for the CD&V has been to go from around 30% of the total Belgian vote in the 1970s to something like 10% today.

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