No. 35




Sociological approach and core conflicts shaping competition between political parties in Estonia and elsewhere in Europe *

08 June 2017


RiTo No. 35, 2017

  • Tõnis Saarts

    Tõnis Saarts

    Tallinn University, Lecturer of Political Science

This article discusses the impact of social cleavages on the party system and its formation in the Baltic States, including Estonia. Dealing with social cleavages is the main issue in the sociological approach to party systems.

Roots of the approach reach into the classical works of political researchers M. S. Lipset and S. Rokkan (1967), who claimed that the party systems of Western Europe have been shaped by four main cleavages: centre-periphery, town-country, state-church and class cleavage. The last of them has been considered the most influential in shaping the existing party systems of Western Europe. In the Central and Eastern European context it is much more complicated to study the issues relating to cleavages, because Lipset’s and Rokkan’s classical approach cannot be transposed one to one, and the complicated history of the region has shaped a system of cleavages that is different from the Western one. So far the approaches have focused on larger Visegrad countries, paying little attention to the Baltic States. This article is based on the doctoral thesis on the author and analyses the general patterns of cleavages in the Baltic States, the impact of cleavages on the formation of party systems from the historical perspective (influence of the Soviet past), and the impact of interconnections with important social cleavages on the endurance or perishing of individual political parties. The results of the analysis show that the dominant cleavages in the Baltic States are related to identity and values: ethnic cleavage in Estonia and Latvia, historical cleavage (communist/anti-communist cleavage) in Lithuania. Class cleavage is not unimportant in the Baltic States, but it is shadowed by the cleavages relating to identity and the past. The patterns of cleavages in the Baltic States also explain the peculiarities of the party systems in these countries, showing among other things why the Social Democratic Party, which has communist roots, is still one of the main parties in Lithuania, and why in Estonia and Latvia the leftist niche is filled mainly by parties standing for the rights of the Russian minority. In the case of Estonia and Latvia, the weakness of leftist forces, the ideological imbalance of the party system (too much inclined to the right) and the perishing of communist successor-parties can be explained by the experience of those countries with the earlier communist regime. This regime and its inheritance may be called ethnic-colonial communism, and this caused the emergence of the specific party system, where the ethnic cleavage has an unusually large role. In addition to that, the analysis also discussed how interconnections or not having connections with different social cleavages influenced the enduring/perishing of political parties, and it was found that when the elites of political parties make a conscious decision not to connect the political party with any of important cleavages, it may become fatal to the party in a longer perspective. This approach indicates the need to make the existing approaches to cleavages more context-sensitive and dynamic, and take more into consideration the strategic choices of political elites. Studying purely the strength of class cleavage is not of much use in the case of the Baltic States; the research perspectives should be richer in nuances, take the historical context more into account and be more innovative theoretically.