February 4, 2021
Written by WID.world

Changing Party Systems, Socio-Economic Cleavages, and Nationalism in Northern Europe



In this paper, Clara Martínez-Toledano and Alice Sodano draw on a rich set of electoral surveys to explore the changing relationship between party support and electoral socio-economic cleavages in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden from the mid-twentieth century until the present. All Nordic countries except from Iceland have experienced a progressive decline in their strong class cleavages, which coincides with the emergence of multi-elite party systems. Since the 1970s-1980s the vote for the social democratic, socialist, and affiliated parties has gradually become associated with the highest-educated voters, whereas the top-income earners have remained more right-wing. The authors also investigate how the decreasing support for the traditional left relates to the success of populism and nationalism over the recent decades among the lowest-educated and lowest-income earners.


Key results


  • The traditionally strong class cleavages have progressively weakened in Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland, although at different speeds and strength.


  • The transition towards multi-elite party systems has been faster in Norway and Denmark, where the Labour and the Social Democratic Party have consistently lost the support of the lowest educated. In Sweden and Finland, instead, the reversal has been less pronounced as the traditional left has managed to keep a larger share of its working-class electorate (Figure 9).


  • The loss of consensus of the traditional left has represented an opportunity for the emerging right-wing anti-immigration parties (e.g. Progress Party, Sweden Democrats, True Finns) to capture the growing dissatisfaction of the lowest-educated and lowest-income voters, while the New Left has attracted the vote of the highest educated.


  • Iceland represents an exception since it did not develop a strong class-based party system and has had a very stable multi-elite party system since the late 1970s. Social Democrats and Socialists have been primarily supported by the highest educated at least since the 1980s, whereas the right-wing Progressive Party has retained the support of the lowest-educated and lowest-earners in the rural and poorer areas of the country, preventing new nationalist parties from emerging (Table 5).

Figure: A multi-elite party system in Norway



The figure shows the relative support of top-income and highest-educated voters for the Labour Party, the Socialist Left Party, and other affiliated parties.



Party System Norway World Inequality Lab



Media inquiries

  • Olivia Ronsain: olivia.ronsain@wid.world; +33 7 63 91 81 68




The authors thank Amory Gethin and Thomas Piketty for their useful comments.