Pressuring Parties: How European Social Movements Use Elections to Influence Parties

By Steffen Blings

During electoral campaigns the focus both in the media and social science is on voters, political parties, and the candidates they run. Candidates appear in the media, horse race polls dominate the headlines, and ads and campaigns messages saturate the airwaves. Other actors, like social movements, only receive attention when they are directly linked to political parties. For instance in the context of the recent string of electoral successes of Germany’s right-wing populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), the party’ links to anti-Muslim movement activity have received both media and scientific attention. Yet in the same state election that gave the AfD one of its biggest electoral victories, far-right activists were by no means the only relevant movement actors. A group of seven organizations originating in social movement activity concerned about information-related issues, like the state of copyright law and the protection of privacy, founded the “Coalition Free Knowledge” (Koalition Freies Wissen). This coalition sent surveys to the parties competing in the state election to elicit the parties’ positions on issues like free software and access to the digital space and evaluated the parties’ answers. In their evaluation, which was distributed to the media, the organizations come to clear conclusions, calling the positions of Social, as well as Christian Democrats unsatisfactory and highlighting the Greens as the party with the most progressive position regarding changes in increasingly digital societies.

That social movement organizations (SMOs) use electoral campaigns to advance their issue should not be surprising. In fact, these campaigns are prime opportunities to elicit politicians’ public commitments to policy goals and get the movements’ messages heard by a public that is more attentive than usual. Thus social movements engage in what Doug McAdam and Sidney Tarrow have described as “proactive electoral mobilization” as for instance seen in activities of the Civil Rights Movement in the Freedom Summer of 1964 or more recently documented in Michael Heaney and Fabio Rojas research on the antiwar movement in the early 2000s. By providing information about and evaluations of political parties to voters these SMOs try to exert pressure on parties to fall in line with movement demands.

My own research on the interactions between social movements and the parties they spawn shows that contemporary European SMOs have standardized the ways in which they engage with electoral campaigns, relying on two strategies. First, evaluations of party positions based on surveys sent to the parties, like those used by the Coalition Free Knowledge described above, and, second, organizing protests to raise the salience of the movements’ core concerns before elections. Between 2013 and 2014 I spent a year in Sweden and Germany conducting participant observation and interviews regarding the Pirate and Green parties, as well as the social movements that spawned them. Movement leaders I spoke with identified evaluations of party positions during election campaigns as a helpful means of exerting pressure on parties without having to give up their genuine non-partisan approach. While these reports usually speak a clear language about which party or parties are most in line with movement demands, they stop short of explicit endorsements of a party. The Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, for instance, used bar graphs to show the extent to which the parliamentary parties agreed with the organization’s 18 central demands for the 2014 elections and evaluated party performance over the last parliamentary period. The report, however, never explicitly recommended voting for one party over another. This prevents parties from taking movement support for granted and allows SMOs to lobby and work with governments of all partisan-political compositions. One movement leader in Germany accordingly described the surveys his organization sends out before elections as “a very elegant option to participate in the political discourse without having to position ourselves.”


The second approach, protest, has long been a central tactic of social movements. With respect to the Swedish and German movements in my study, activists concerned about the protection of private sphere have organized a yearly protest against surveillance in Berlin under the title “Freedom not fear” since 2006. In the election years of 2009 and 2013, the protest took place about two weeks before the elections. Similarly, the Pirate Bay Trial, as well as the Swedish Parliament’s (affirmative) vote on the European directive to enforce intellectual property, led to a massive phase of movement mobilization and activists gathering in Stockholm in early 2009. But even the more institutionalized environmental movements continue to rely on contentious activity to pressure political parties. At Almedalsveckan 2014, a yearly Swedish political event on the island of Gotland, for instance, activists from the anti-nuclear movements were noticeably present, holding flags, at the Green Party’s leader’s speech. The Greens were widely seen as having a good chance to enter government in the near future, and eventually formed a coalition with the Social Democrats after the 2014 elections. The activists’ presence was a clear reminder to the party’s elites that the Greens would be held accountable for their promises on (anti-) nuclear policy.

The picture below also reveals the presence of supporters from another party at the Green Party’s leader’s speech. In their pink vests the activists from the Feminist Initiative (F!) are hard to overlook. The party was founded in 2005, but has never been able to overcome the 4% threshold for entering the Swedish national parliament (though it has had successes in local and the 2014 European election). In many ways F! is a hybrid form between political party, social movement organization, and pressure group highlighting another way by which movements engage with electoral politics. While this type of movement-based party activism is rare in the relatively permissive proportional electoral systems in Europe, they are much more common in the United States where third parties electoral fortunes are much longer. The origins and consequences of these party-based forms of movement activism are worth much further study and currently the subject of research being conducted by Catherine Kane and Kanisha Bond at the University of Maryland.


These recent examples show that despite the common focus on parties and voters during elections, electoral campaigns are also important opportunities for social movement organizations to get their message heard and put pressure on political parties. They exercise their influence through standardized forms, most prominently reports on party positions and protests around the election date. My research furthermore indicates that these activities strongly influence the platforms and campaigns of parties with movement roots. Yet, as the open questions regarding third parties above demonstrate, much about how activists engage with elections and parties remains to be learned.

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