Forward (Kadima) to the Centre? - The Rise and Fall of Israeli Centre Parties

Thesis (M.A.), 2008

160 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents










I.1 Aims and Objectives

While political parties, party systems and party positioning along the left-right continuum have been subject to research by scholars of political science, the phenomenon of the centre party has been neglected until recently. Duverger’s verdict that “the centre does not exist in politics” (Duverger 1969: 215), seems to have had a devastating effect on centre party research: there is no universal definition and hardly any theoretical groundwork on which to base an analysis of past and contemporary centre parties.

With this thesis I would like to make a contribution to the quest for such a universal definition by proposing one of my own. It is partly drawn from the findings of others, such as Daalder (1984) and Hazan (1997a; 1999b), combining several features proposed for centre parties in general research as well as research on Israeli parties in particular.

Why study Israeli centre parties, of all things? Not just because “Israel is the most baffling case” (Sartori 1976: 151) when it comes to political parties and the dynamics between them, but because the Israeli party system throughout its history provides a number of cases due to a very low threshold (gradually raised from zero percent in 1948 to two percent in 2006). The result is “a strongly developed, one might even say overdeveloped, multi-party system” (Akzin 1955: 508): the country has experienced the appearance and the demise of a number of possible centre parties. Thus, it allows for a diachronical intra-national comparison of centre parties (see Lijphart 1971: 689). Information gained from this analysis might then be successfully applied to cases in other political systems.

But are the findings really transferable? Isn’t Israel a case so unique in its composition, its history and its society, that it does not fit the conventional classifications of comparative politics (see Barnett 1999), and therefore the conclusions drawn from its analysis are of no use when studying European parties and party systems, for example? Fact is: Israel really is unique. But so is every other country as well, and “[a]n emphasis on national exceptionalism per se is an intellectual dead-end” (Levi-Faur et al. 1999: 1). While it may have posed a peculiarity at the time of its establishment (as well as – to some degree – during the interlude of the direct elections), fundamental changes on the economic, political and social level (see Yishai 2001: 669), not least in the course of globalization, helped Israel to assimilate to a great extent to Western multi-party systems.

I.2 Research Question and Method

The political earthquake that shook Israel in November 2006 eventually led to the establishment of a new party with a centre image, KADIMA, led by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Only four months later, after a lot of political turmoil (domestic as well as external), including losing its charismatic leader as Sharon fell into a coma, KADIMA entered the Knesset as the largest party, and its new leader, Ehud Olmert, formed the new government. Never before had an Israeli centre party been this successful.

It is the aim of this thesis to analyze the phenomenon of KADIMA in conjunction with former Israeli centre parties and the general changes in the Israeli political system. The research question guiding this analysis is:

Why was Kadima in the elections 2006 so much more successful than any other Israeli centre party had ever been before?

Is it because it is not really a centre party, but rather a new and more attractive version of the LIKUD? Is it because the change of the political system finally allowed for the emergence of a strong centre party? Is it because, after almost six years of Intifada[1], the Israeli population moved to the centre and adopted a more pragmatic approach to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict? Is it because of the dominating figure of Ariel Sharon?

In a multi-party system such as that of Israel, governing parties have to form a coalition with other parties, therefore narrowing the impact each party has on government policy, according to its size and its (possibly pivotal or insignificant) position in the coalition. A determination of a party’s success according to the implementation of its policy is thus rather difficult and would go well beyond the scope of this thesis. Instead, success will be measured according to the number of mandates won in the election, the party’s participation in the government coalition and the number of portfolios received. Moreover, a successful party is expected to have a lifespan that at least covers a whole legislative period.

This thesis seeks to probe the assumption that the fate of Israeli centre parties is closely connected to the behaviour of the two major parties, to the personality of the party leader(s), the party’s platform and raison d’être, as well as the kind of party system prevailing at that time.

I will propose hypotheses generated from established party and party system theory, which will then be applied to those five cases, which are most commonly named in scientific literature as examples for Israeli centre parties (RAFI, TELEM, DASH, HADERECH HASHLISHIT, MIFLEGET

HAMERKAZ). I first test if (or better: to which degree) they comply with the definition of a centre party proposed here, and compare them subsequently with the most recent party in Israeli politics claiming to be a centre party – KADIMA – in order to determine why it was so much more successful than the other parties. My method of research is the qualitative analysis of secondary and primary sources: research conducted in the past by experts of Israeli politics, as well as articles in established Israeli newspapers, party advertisements and party platforms published before the elections.

I.3 Research to Date

Political parties have been object to countless research and analyses concerning their emergence, development, and classification (see, for example, Lipset / Rokkan 1967; Duverger 1969; von Beyme 1985, Gunther / Diamond 2003), their ideological positioning both absolute and relative to each other on a left-right continuum (see, for example, Downs 1957; Castles / Mair 1984; Budge / Klingemann 2001; Benoit / Laver 2006), their interaction with each other (see, for example, Katz / Mair 1995; Wolinetz 2002) and the systems in which they are situated (see, for example, Kirchheimer 1965, Sartori 1976; Mair 1997a+b).

Research about centre parties in general and Israeli centre parties in particular has been neglected for the longest time. Political scientists engaged rather in the analysis of Left and Right than of the Centre,

which is considered only a “dilution” of the doctrines of the Right and the Left (Duverger 1964: 230) at worst, and is not defined in unison (sometimes in contradiction) at best (see an overview see Daalder 1984). Only Downs (1957), Duverger (1969), Sartori (1976) and Daalder (1984) have bothered to include the centre in their analysis of party systems. Only since the 1990s did political scientists get interested in the centre, but they still use the term “centre” indiscriminately for moderate parties and indispensable parties alike. Noteworthy progress has been made with Hazan (1997a; 1999b) distinguishing between “centre parties” and “middle parties,” a differentiation that can be useful for most countries and cross-country comparisons, but not necessarily for Israel.

The most thorough research on the topic of Israeli centre parties so far - though on the basis of a different definition, and therefore including partially different cases – has been done by Knoller (2004)[2]. She comes to the conclusion that the appearance and disappearance of centre parties is closely connected to the type of party system prevalent at that time. Other scholars, such as Torgovnik (1980; 2001), Yanai (2002) and Hazan (2007) concentrated on one of the parties, often comparing it to another one. Others, like Arian and Shamir (2001) and Sandler and Mollov (2004) don’t deal solely with centre parties, but touch on the subject while analyzing the Israeli Left and Right.

I.4 Structure of the Thesis

This thesis is divided into five main parts. The first part provides the analytical background on the basis of which this research is conducted, by defining the fundamentals: what are political parties? What is a successful political party? With which intentions do new parties emerge?

What are the ideological issues dividing political parties? How can we position them in relation to each other? How useful is the popular leftright continuum really? With so many diverging definitions of the Centre, which one should be applied? When looking at political parties, the environment in which they exist (the party system) should also not be ignored. Party leadership is another factor, albeit a controversial one, when it comes to a political party’s success. The first part concludes with a number of hypotheses, which are then to be tested in the following.

The second part introduces the case of Israel, the context in which the cases evolved and in which they are examined. By inquiring how academic literature has viewed Israeli centre parties so far, the scope of this thesis is determined. While Israeli political parties are not that different from their European counterparts, the cleavages along which they emerge and position themselves, are not the same. This peculiarity has to be taken into account. Subsequently, the susceptibility of the different Israeli party systems for the emergence of centre parties as well as the role of party leadership in Israeli politics is studied.

In the third part, the cases of five centre parties in Israel until 2005 are analyzed. Eventually, none of the cases does fit the definition of a centre party in its entirety (as reality hardly ever lives up to theory), but they can nevertheless be seen as viable cases of not-so successful Israeli centre parties. The fourth part concentrates on KADIMA, assessing if it really does constitute a centre party (which it does, to a limited degree, just like the others) and comparing it to the preceding cases, in order to diagnose the difference and thus the reason for its (relative) success.


II.1 Political Parties

“Parties are often criticized, but they are not an evil by definition.” (Sartori 1976: 25 – emphasis by the author)

Within the time frame of a hundred years, between 1850 and 1950, political parties as we know them today have developed from a peculiar, isolated case in the United States of America into an integral part of “most civilized nations” (Duverger 1969: xxii). Already in 1918, Max Weber stated that political parties “are by far the most important bearer of all political wanting of those governed by bureaucracy, of the ‘citizens’” (Weber 1980: 837).

This chapter seeks to define the nature as well as the goals of political parties. It will then examine the phenomenon of new political parties, the circumstances under which they emerge and which roles they assume in the party system.

II.1.1 What are Political Parties?

The term “party” originally derived from the Latin verb partire (“to divide”), but at the same time has the connotation of “taking part,” thus combining “two opposite semantic pulls” (Sartori 1976: 4): dividing and sharing. Or, as Neumann put it: the term “party” already implies the “identification with one group and differentiation from another” (Neumann 1956: 395). Even though “it is generally wrong to view parties as ‘unitary actors” (Lijphart 1999: 32), for the sake of lucidity it is necessary to assume a certain degree of cohesion, except for really extreme cases.

In his work Political Parties and Party Systems, Ware stresses the difficulty of defining a political party and compares it to defining an elephant: “anyone who has seen one knows what it looks like, but providing a definition for a person who happens to have never come across one is rather difficult” (Ware 1996: 1).

A number of criteria have been cited necessary for a political party to be recognized as such, but Ware managed to find exceptions to basically all of them. In order to include also institutions whose goal it is to bring down the system and not to exercise power within it, institutions which do not take part in elections and which use illegitimate means to achieve their goals, which do not represent more than one interest and which are not based on certain shared values, he offers a rather broad definition of a political party being “an institution that (a) seeks influence in a state, often by attempting to occupy positions in government,[3] and (b) usually consists of more than a single interest in the society and to some degree attempts to ‘aggregate interests’” (Ware 1996: 5).

According to von Beyme the functions of political parties are “(a) the identification of goals […] (b) the articulation and aggregation of social interests […], (c) the mobilisation and socialisation of the general public within the system, particularly at elections […], and (d) élite recruitment and government formation” (von Beyme 1985: 13).

II.1.2 Success and Failure: What Parties Want

In order to assess if a political party is successful or not, one needs to know what it is they aspire. The primary goals of political parties, as identified by political scientists, are to win votes, to implement a certain policy and to gain access to office. Even though in reality there are no clear-cut examples of either type, a classification according to each goal respectively has successfully been used to analyse the behaviour of political parties, especially in the process of coalition formation.

A policy-seeking party is issue-oriented, its goal being the implementation of its platform. It “is concerned about government portfolios, as well as about the ideological disposition of the coalition in which it participates” (Strøm 1990: 567f.). Some of the Mass Parties (see, for example, Neumann 1956), highly ideological and extreme parties with welldefined platforms and Single-Issue Parties as well as environmental parties can be counted into this category.

The vote-seeking party is based on the Downsian model of a party (see Downs 1957). It manipulates its policies and positions in order to win as many votes as possible. In general, the Catch-All Party (see, for example, Kirchheimer 1965) could be an example, also leader-centred parties and parties with a minimum of member activity between the elections, and professional party hacks at the top. The two major parties in two party systems, where a maximum of votes basically guarantees a maximum of access to office and policy influence, are also vote-seeking parties (see Strøm 1990: 592).

An office-seeking party seeks to secure the control of its leaders and members over political office, which means that its ultimate goal is to govern – alone or (if need be) in coalition with other parties. It will try to avoid firm policy stances on controversial issues and not attack other parties lest they lose a potential coalition partner. The Cadre Party (see, for example, Weber 1980) can be counted as such an office-seeking party, as well as most Cartel Parties (see Katz / Mair 1995) and some of the small parties in multiparty systems (especially in those with one dominant party) and parties that are build on clientelism (see Wolinetz 2002: 150f.).

As mentioned before, no real party can be placed exclusively in one category – in order to implement its policy and gain access to office, a party has to win votes. To get the votes, it needs a convincing platform, to implement its policies, it needs people in the right positions, etc. Balancing those three objectives, the party has to factor in short-term as well as long-term benefits (see Strøm 1990: 573).

A party can be internally split over which way to go, different factions might have different interests. Often parties emphasize one of the three objectives at the expense of one of the other two – or even both (see Wolinetz 2002: 150). This can be necessary, since sometimes the objectives are contradictory, for example when it comes to the question if a party should firmly stand by its ideology when a shift could win it more votes or if it was offered to join the government with a party of contradicting ideology.

A governing party is usually scrutinized more thoroughly than one in the opposition and sometimes has its election promises constrained by given institutional settings – unlike an opposition party, that can promise the voter anything. Therefore, being in office may actually have a negative effect on the next elections.

An analysis of the degree to which a party was or is able to implement its policies – especially when dealing with government coalitions that include more than two parties, where, necessarily, there have to be compromises – would go beyond the scope of this paper.

Thus, in the following a party will be considered successful if it does not only (1) manage to win seats in parliament, but also (2) participates in the government coalition, (3) holds adequate ministerial posts, and (4) survives as an independent party until the following elections. Accordingly, a party fails even if it does win several seats in parliament, but is not included in the coalition or if it is included, but does not receive the portfolios it would be entitled to according to its parliamentarian strength, or if it disintegrates shortly after the elections[4].

II.1.3 The Emergence of New Parties

Despite the excluding behaviour of the established political parties especially in the last few decades (see Katz / Mair 1995: 21), every so often new contesters emerge to run in an election and in multi-party systems some of them do win seats in parliament.

II.1.3.1 Preconditions for a New Party’s Success

In order for a new party to develop successfully, it needs a number of preconditions:

(1) a viable political project the public will embrace: an issue, an ideology or a charismatic leadership – in short: a “raison d’être;”
(2) financial and human resources to enter the political arena at all: money in order to register and later to pay for the election campaign (and the professionals who will run it), members, supporters, donors and, at some point before the elections, a convincing list of candidates;
(3) favourable institutional parameters, which means that the costs of entry are low and the probability of attracting votes as well as the benefits of office are high (see Tavits 2006: 100): an electoral system of representation, a low threshold and a low degree of cartelization by the established parties, high volatility and state funding for political parties, to name just a few;
(4) favourable societal, political and economical circumstances, such as a sympathetic mass media, or a leadership crisis, or a corruption scandal in one of the major parties, a security threat to the country, rising unemployment or a recession, but also just the public’s perception of a crisis and misbehaviour on the part of the government (see Lucardie 200: 180ff.).

II.1.3.2 Different Types of New Parties

According to their raison d’être, Lucardie (2000) distinguishes four kinds of new parties:

The Prolocutor Party (a better name might be “Single-Issue Party”) does not represent any explicit ideology, but either a certain position on an acute, salient issue. If this issue is the interests of a certain group, which is (or at least considers itself) marginalized and neglected in the overall political process, such as ethnic or religious minorities, seniors or a particular occupational group, I would suggest the name “Sectoral Party”. The danger of a Single-Issue Party is that it falls victim to its own success: unless it succeeds to broaden its platform to include other issues as well, it will disappear once the issue it pursues is picked up by the established parties – and sometimes even before that. A Sectoral Party has to avoid the same danger, but in addition it has to make sure that its constituency continues to nourish its particular identity and does not merge into the general population, and that it keeps feeling marginalized.

The Purifying Party is a new party with a strong ideological base, established after its members defected from an established one, claiming the latter had betrayed its original ideology by either adopting a more moderate or a more radical platform. Such a party has good short-term chances, but is likely to disappear in the long run.

The Prophetic Party is the other ideological party, but it is built on a new ideology rather than an existing one. This new ideology is based on problems (new or old) which the party members feel are being ignored by the established parties. The Prophetic Party introduces a new cleavage into the party system and if it is adopted by a sufficient percentage of the population, it forces the established parties to position themselves on this cleavage as well, thereby possibly rendering the Prophetic Party superfluous.

The Personal Vehicle Party (I would rather call it the “Follow-the-Man Party”) does not revolve around an ideology, but around one person, serving his or her interests rather than those of the public, his or her personality and merits overshadow any party platform. Since such a platform often combines different ideologies and positions on issues, it often ends up being something that “seems too opaque and confounded to make sense to anyone outside the party founders” (Lucardie 2000: 177).

Again, it is not always possible to clearly identify a new party with the aforementioned types. Not always is it possible to distinguish new ideologies from old ones, and a party might “appear[…] pragmatic but is inevitably embedded in an implicit ideology, very likely the dominant ideology at the time, or a mixture of prevailing ideologies” (Lucardie 2000: 176).

II.2 The Centre and Centre Parties

“Left parties take leftist stands. Right parties take rightist stands.

And center parties wander about in the middle”

(Klingemann et al. 1994: 254).

Based on the model of spatial competition between two grocery stores on the same street, introduced by Hotelling (1929), which was later advanced by Smithies (1941), Downs (1957) developed a model of spatial party competition, which has been widely adopted by political scientists around the world, since “there is certainly no getting away from the fact that a uniform spatial map is an awfully convenient way of presenting a lot of information about a given party system” (Laver / Hunt 1992: 48).

In the following, I want to discern the different cleavages, along which such a spatial map can be arranged, and discuss the questions that arise when trying to depict political positions by mathematical and graphic means: how feasible is the left-right continuum that is generally used for such a purpose? Which tools should be used in order to determine a party’s position? How can it be best visualized, taking into account the relevant factors? After the question of how to position the parties, the main issue is discussed: how to define the centre, how to define a centre party?

II.2.1 Cleavages

When attempting to use spatial models of party competition, it is necessary to first determine the basis on which the parties are being distinguished. Parties, in their role as aggregators of interests, usually hold positions on several issues that are important to the public. On each of those issues thus exists a conflict dimension, e.g. a cleavage (see Sjöblom 1968: 169).

One has to distinguish, though, between position issues, which are leading to different positions on cleavages due to divergent (ideological) approaches to a problem, and valence issues. Valence issues are issues on which the political parties generally agree, diverging only on the question of when a certain measure should be executed, how exactly it should be executed and which party has the most suitable politician. A lot of the conflicts between political parties are on such valence issues (see Sjöblom 1968: 169), especially in societies with a broad consensus.

Also, not every important position issue constitutes a cleavage that divides the parties from each other. Instead, some might split a party internally (see Lijphart et al. 1999: 35). Some cleavages might be important in one election and completely disappear by the next. But others are durable and define the party system over decades.

In 1967, Lipset and Rokkan introduced the cleavage model in order to explain the emergence of the European party system: according to them, European parties developed along the lines of State vs. Church, Centre vs. Periphery, Industry vs. Land, and Owner vs. Worker (see Lipset / Rokkan 1967: 47), leading to four cleavages that split the nation: the religious, the cultural-ethnic, the economic and the urban-rural cleavage. Parties emerged, fighting for or against the influence of Church on state matters, for national unity or separation, for or against agricultural subsidies, for free markets or state intervention – to name just a few.

Later, scholars dealing with party positions and competition have identified an additional three cleavages to be important in modern democracies: regime support, foreign policy and materialist vs. post-materialist values (such as environmentalism and participatory democracy). There has been a tendency to combine the economic cleavage with that of social and moral policy, thus creating a “socio-economic” cleavage[5], that is said to be the most important one in most of the modern democracies, followed by the religious and the foreign policy cleavage (see Lijphart et al. 1999: 35ff.). Of course this combination of two cleavages causes some imprecision when it comes to liberal parties, which advocates a laissez-faire economy and social Liberalism at the same time (see Benoit / Laver 2006: 132).

The number and dominance of cleavages can differ between countries, as well as over time within one country. Certain cleavages can be more pronounced than others – or not existent at all. They can be salient over a certain period and later disappear. Some are cross-cutting each other, further splitting up the public and leading to a multitude of parties, others are superimposed, thereby aggravating each other.

II.2.2 The Left-Right Continuum

Ever since on May 5, 1789 the King of France met with representatives of the nobility (sitting on his right) and representatives of the Third Estate (sitting on his left), the terms Left and Right are carrying a political meaning. The Centre is a phenomenon that developed later, usually bearing a positive, consensual connotation.

The left-right continuum is originally identified with the socio-economic cleavage, even though the social and the economic cleavage are not always superimposed on each other, and even though one can argue that today in most countries the continuum is based on (or at least includes) other cleavages as well.

II.2.2.1 “Left” and “Right” – Label or Ideology?

Placing political parties on a left-right continuum – hence calling them “left,” “right,” “centre,” “centre-right” etc. – is a very common practice, usually people are able to assign themselves as well as the major parties to either one of those terms: "While the left-right dimension really exists only in the imagination […], it has the advantage for these purposes that it exists, at least in some form or another, in the imaginations of politicians and voters as well as in those of political scientists” (Laver / Hunt 1992: 44).

Party positioning is usually done in order to provide a short summary of the party’s ideological position, absolutely as well as relatively to the other parties (see Ben-Sira 1978: 260), but hardly ever does it come with a clear definition of the concepts of Left and Right, “their meaning […] is multi-faceted at best, elusive at worst and over time and across polities, quite divergent” (Arian / Shamir 1982: 259).

Depending on the most salient cleavage (or a combination of superimposed cleavages) in the country, the terms left and right can apply to different policies: “socialist” and “capitalist” would be the two extremes on the economic cleavage, “orthodox” and “anti-religious” those of the religious cleavage, and “doves” and “hawks” are commonly used in connection with the foreign policy cleavage. The regime support cleavage could be depicted in two different ways: in a democracy, “democratic” could be on one, “communist” or “fascist” on the other end of the cleavage, or “democratic” could be set between “communist” on one side and “fascist” on the other (whereas those two are by no means the only options: theocracy and monarchy would also be alternatives to a democracy).

Sometimes, the terms are used based on two different, cross-cutting cleavages: for example, while it is quite common to speak of “left” and “right” in economic terms, the truth is that while “left-wing” is usually equated with “socialist” (or a variety thereof), an extremist “right-wing” party in reality is a fascist party which does not seek free markets, but government control over the economy, just like a “left-wing” party (see Downs: 1957: 116). Even though left and right “did enter politics heavily loaded with cultural and religious meaning, […] these labels are easily ‘unloaded’ and ‘reloaded’ – for they lack any semantic substratum” (Sartori 1976: 335).

An ideology, on the other hand, is a rather distinctive set of “normative and factual assumptions about the world, relatively resistant to change, which produces plausible reasons for action of one sort or another” (Budge 1994: 445f.). Certain political ideologies, such as Conservatism, Liberalism and Socialism can be found in most of the modern democracies, but when it comes to political parties, the terms left and right are defined in the context of each country: what is considered a “left-wing” party in one country may be on the right fringes of the continuum in another country, the terms might be identified with different notions and policies (see Laponce 1981: 53) and based on varying cleavages, overlapping the main cleavage in one country, cross-cutting it or being nonexistent in another. Left and right are thus labels that are used to simplify the political system for voters and politicians within a country.

II.2.2.2 Country-Specific or Universal Continuum?

Exactly because of the diffuse nature of those terms, and because their inherent meaning is very political (Arian / Shamir 1982: 262ff.) and country-specific – there are “left-wing” parties, “right-wing parties” and maybe even “centre parties” which can be (rightly or wrongly) identified as such by experts and voters in all modern democracies – it is difficult to develop a universally valid continuum.

Von Beyme, who identified nine different ideological familles spirituelles (not along a left-right continuum, but according to their ideological base), found it “difficult […] to generalize on programmatic principles for more than one country,” especially in the case of conservative parties (von Beyme 1985: 49), even though he claimed that most of the European political parties at that time could be fitted into one of his categories. The ideology of political parties is influenced by the circumstances of their origin and the context in which they operate (see Ware 1996: 48). It can be argued that at least in European countries the political parties came into being in a very similar context and along very similar cleavages, but there are exceptions as well. To apply ideological categories to political parties outside of Europe is even more difficult.

Castles and Mair (1984) have used the information provided by country experts to place the political parties of 17 western democracies on a scale of 1 to 10, distinguishing between Ultra Left, Moderate Left, Centre, Moderate Right and Ultra-Right (without stating in the article, on the basis of what the decision should be reached). Even though they were aware of the idiosyncrasies that country-specific circumstances create, they alleged the similarity of the party systems as well as the extensive knowledge of the experts on more than just one party system, and came to the conclusion, that even though “any conclusions which may be derived from such a comparison must be tentative, they are interesting in relation to continuing efforts to categorize party ideologies” (Castles / Mair 1984: 83).

It can be argued that it is possible to place all (or at least most) of the relevant political parties on a universal left-right continuum based on the cleavage concerning the involvement of government in the economy, with full government control as the extreme on the left and a completely free market as the extreme on the right. But the moment other cleavages – such as social, moral and religious values, immigration, law and order, attitudes towards other countries and alliances, the military

budget, agricultural subsidies or privacy protection – are taken into consideration, the universal left-right continuum runs the risk of being simply an attempt to lump several country-specific cleavages together, artificially pressing them into one.

Laver and Hunt (1992) developed two-dimensional plots to position the parties of 24 different countries: the first plot sets the cleavage social policy (e.g. government involvement in social and moral matters) against the cleavage taxes vs. spending (e.g. government involvement in the economy), in order to generate cross-national comparability. The second plot sets the cleavage taxes vs. spending against whatever cleavage is the most salient one in that specific country.

Even though there are some rather successful examples of the usage of universal left-right continuums, they should be handled with care (see Benoit / Laver 2006: 143), especially when the continuum on which they are positioned is not based on one single cleavage but rather a number of cleavages mixed together, as did Laponce, who defined the left-right continuum to include “the religious, the economic, the political and the social” cleavage (Laponce 1981: 201).

Laver and Budge (1992) constructed a continuum by combining the parties’ positions on economic, military and social policy issues, thus creating the impression that a liberal party is positioned in between a socialdemocratic party and a conservative party (see also Budge 1994: 459), simply because its rightist stand on economy and its leftist stand on moral issues balance each other.

Since there is a lack of consensus on how exactly to define the terms Left and Right (let alone Centre), as well as on which policies to base the decision, party positioning along a continuum is useful first and foremost in single-country studies. And even then one should try to keep the cleavages separated whenever reasonable.

II.2.2.3 Shifts and Changes in the Continuum

It has to be taken into consideration that the country-specific left-right continuum (as well as the political parties on it) can be subject to change over a longer period of time: one or more parties could move either to the right or to the left, others might converge to the centre or move apart from each other, creating a space between them that might be filled by a new party. Political parties are by no means static, they do move along the cleavage, adapting their positions to changing basic parameters or internal pressures, thereby moving to the left or to the right on certain issues.

Yet, if political parties do change their position, they do so within a confined space, they are usually not “leapfrogging” over other parties (see Pennings 2002: 112f.), they hardly ever change their positions radically - a party has commitments to its members and its voters in large. Since voters base their decisions not only on prospective considerations but also on retrospective experiences, they “prefer reliable and responsible parties […] whose policy positions are consistent over time and whose behavior in office matches their programmatic promises” (Strøm 1990: 573 – emphases by the author). Therefore, political parties are known to be “owning” certain issues (see Budge / Farlie 1983: 25), giving the voters certitude to some degree on what it will do or not do when in office.

But also, as society changes, so does its perception of Left, Right and Centre. Shifts occur when the spirit of the time changes, either as a slowly developing process, for example because of the natural voter turnover (some dying, others coming of age), or due to major events (such as war and terror attacks, a peace treaty or global developments, etc.) and drastic voter turnover (for example big waves of immigration). Then, for example, the “leftist” policy of today might become middle-ofthe-road tomorrow and in the end may even be adopted by the Right.

It also can be argued that there has been a process of de-ideologization of the voters as well as of the parties – and therefore a weakening of the bonds between those two – which caused a diffusion of the meaning of the terms Left and Right, and led from so-called “cleavage politics,” which were defined by electorates and political parties clearly divided according to stable conflict dimensions, to “issue politics,” which assume generally floating voters who position themselves anew on each and every issue, not bound to any special ideology, and the political parties acting accordingly (see Pennings / Lane 1998: 16).

II.2.3 Party Positioning

In order to reach more precise conclusions on a party’s position than a mere “left,” “right” or “centre,” the continuums are usually converted into scales which are then evenly graded, the intervals being numbered 0 to 10 (for example Castles / Mair 1984), -30 to +30 (see Hazan 1997a) or -100 to +100 (for example Budge et al. 2001) – there is no consensus on the length of the scale or that of its intervals.

There have been many attempts to position political parties along scales, using different kinds of methods, either the analysis of party programmes (for example Klingemann et al. 1994) or the placing by experts (for example Castles and Mair 1984, Laver / Hunt 1992). Other studies work with the self-placement by voters (for example Ben-Sira 1978) in order to determine their ideological position, which might or might not allow for conclusions to be drawn about the position of the parties they voted for.

II.2.3.1 Analysis of Party Platforms

Political parties running for elections generally come up with an (explicit or rather vague) party platform (programme, manifesto), which contains

the party’s position on a number of issues. The document itself is hardly ever read by the voters in its entirety, but extracts are published by the parties – in speeches delivered by the candidates, in form of ads and interviews in newspapers and on television, on pamphlets, and (for the last decade at least) on the party’s website – so that the public is usually familiar with the content of a party’s platform.

After studying the platforms of parties in ten established democracies over a period of forty years,[6] Klingemann, Hofferbert and Ian Budge come to the conclusion that “party election programs do matter in the policy processes of democracies” (Klingemann et al. 1994: 20) and that they indeed are a good indication for how a party will act when it is in government, despite institutional and coalitional constraints.

II.2.3.2 Expert Placement

Another very common way to assess the positions of political parties is to rely on the judgement of experts. This approach has been very popular, not least because it is a rather easy and comfortable way to obtain information (see Budge 2000: 103), the cooperation of the experts provided.

It should not be ignored that even though the respondents are experts on political parties in the country they’ve been consulted on, this does not mean their judgement is devoid of any kind of bias, since they are human nonetheless. Thus, experts sometimes let their judgement of contemporary parties be influenced by the parties’ actions and positions in the past. Indeed, “between the expert-scales are more differences in the scaling of parties than is generally assumed” (Pennings 1999: 241). Also, it is not clear according to which criteria the experts come to their decision, if they look at the leaders, the members or the voters of a party when assessing its position and if they consider proclamations or actual behaviour (see Budge 2000: 104).

II.2.3.3 Self-Placement by Voters

Party positioning that is based on the self-placement of voters assumes that voters vote for the party that is ideologically closest to them. Thus, the position of the parties is determined by the position of their voters.

But this procedure is rather simplistic: it assumes that the voters cast their vote after rational considerations, that their perception of the scale and that of the party are identical when it comes to the significance of and the positions on issues. Also, it ignores the fact that voters might not exercise their right to vote as a form of protest against the establishment (see Sjöblom 1968: 162) and it does not consider the possibility of protest voters, who vote for a party not because they agree with its position, but to teach the party they have voted for before a lesson, as it has disappointed them. It also does not consider the possibility that voters do not decide which party to vote for according to what its position is on certain issues, but rather according to other factors, such as the personality of the leader of the party, or the influence of their social environment.

II.2.3.4 Some Problems When Dealing With Party Positioning

While there is a broad consensus on the usage of a left-right continuum, voters and politicians as well as scholars usually do not have the same idea of Left and Right. In particular when it comes to their own position: independent of the position assigned to them by others, they see themselves as in the centre (or “centre-right,” “centre-left”), defining others as “extremes” (see Daalder 1984: 95) Also, different people consider different cleavages as salient, thus basing their position on completely different premises (see Laver / Hunt 1992: 44).

The coding of party platforms poses two severe problems: for one, it is lumping several cleavages together, leading – among other things – to the assumption that a liberal party is a centrist party. Also, statements that can be coded neither left nor right move the party to the centre (see: Budge / Klingemann 2001: 23).

Party positioning that is based on surveys has the problem that data usually is not available for the time before the 1970s. And even the data available is not always useful for long-time and/or cross-national analyses, since there is hardly any continuity in the formulation of the questions to ensure comparability. This is especially the case when it comes to cross-national comparisons (see Kim / Fording 1998: 74f.).

Positioning political parties in a unior multi-dimensional plot, assigning them exact coordinates, assessing their distance to each other, especially when using mathematical equations, gives one the impression that those positions can be calculated and identified in an objective way. But political science is not an exact science, as it deals (among others) with human beings, their perceptions and decisions, and, well, politics. Therefore, every placement, especially the self-placement of voters and politicians, but also that of experts and even the placement according to findings of coded platform analyses, should not be treated without scepticism. The best they can do is to give us an indication of where the parties could be located and how they might have changed over time or could be compared to similar parties in other countries. One should not forget that when it comes to the concept of policy space, “the process of operationalization […] has not progressed far enough in relation to theories of party competition” (Laver / Hunt 1992: 26).

II.2.4 Party Positioning along Multiple Cleavages

When positioning parties along a single left-right continuum, scholars usually do this along the socio-economic cleavage. But even if one would ignore the distortion caused by the pressing of two cross-cutting cleavages into one – analysing a political system on the basis of just one single cleavage “is obviously a gross oversimplification” (Laver / Hunt 1992: 15).

Every country is multi-dimensional. By no means is the economic (or even the socio-economic) cleavage the only one in any given country, and while the existence of other superimposed cleavages might not have any further relevance for party positioning, the existence of any relevant cross-cutting cleavages does have to be taken into consideration.

II.2.4.1 Two Cross-Cutting Cleavages

A party system which is split on two issues (e.g. economy and religion), would therefore produce four arrays in which a party can be positioned: for an economy controlled by government and religious, for an economy controlled by government and secular, for free enterprise and religious, for free enterprise and secular – with all the degrees and graduations imaginable.

In addition to the parties’ positions on two cleavages at the same time, a two-dimensional plot can also account for the relative size of each party.

Figure1: Parties Positioned Along Two Cross-Cutting Cleavages

illustration not visible in this excerpt

II.2.4.2 Three Cross-Cutting Cleavages

A party system that is split on three issues (e.g. economy, religion and foreign policy), is a little bit more complicated to portray, since it is now a three-dimensional plot. Due to the three-dimensional perspective it is also hardly possible to account for the different size of the parties.

Figure2: Parties Positioned Along Three Cross-Cutting Cleavages

illustration not visible in this excerpt

II.2.4.3 Cleavages of Different Lengths

Sartori notes that the space in which the parties are positioned is not rigid, but elastic (Sartori 1976: 343). This means that the length of the cleavage is determined by its end points – and those end points can be closer together or further apart from each other. While in some countries the economic cleavage might range from extreme socialist parties on the left to very economically liberal parties on the right, in others the extreme left might consist of a more moderate social-democratic party. Or there is a general consensus among the parties on state intervention into the economy, with differences only as to which degree the state should intervene.

The end points (and hence the length of the cleavage) can change over time, always depending on the existence of relevant parties at the extremes: while in a certain period of time there could be a relevant antireligious party, some time later it could have vanished, leaving a secular (but not anti-religious) party on the extreme. Especially in the times of war against another country, society (and therefore also the political parties) tends to converge at a national consensus, thus considerably shortening the cleavage.

Figure 3: Parties Positioned Along Three Cross-Cutting Cleavages of Different Lengths

illustration not visible in this excerpt

II.2.5 What is the Centre?

After naming the two ends of the continuum (“left – right,” “dove – hawk,” “government-controlled economy – free markets” etc.), the definition of the centre seems even more difficult, as “the term […] has been stretched so far that it can no longer serve any analytical purpose” (Hazan 1997a: 5).

Downs observed, that if the established parties in a two party system were polarized without a similar trend noticeable in the electorate, they would create an opening for a third party to establish itself in the centre (see Downs 1957: 127ff.).

According to Duverger, who championed dualism, there is no genuine centre, since the centre is nothing more but a watered-down version of leftist and rightist ideologies, just the geometrical middle between left and right, “the artificial grouping of the right wing of the left and the left wing of the right” (Duverger 1969: 215). Even though there might be a centre party (e.g. a party that is positioned in the centre), “there exists no centre opinion, no centre tendency, no centre doctrine” (Duverger 1969: 230).

Sartori contradicts Duverger by saying that indeed “a center ‘tendency’ [i.e. centripetal competition – F.L.] always exists; what may not exist is a center party” (Sartori 1976: 202): parties are normally competing for the floating votes in the centre, but if a relevant party is occupying the centre, these tendencies are obstructed, encouraging centrifugal competition. It is important to note, that he denies the existence of a centre doctrine or a centre ideology and is solely interested in the physical occupancy of the centre (see Sartori 1976: 134f.).

Even though today there seems to be a general consensus on the existence, there is none on the definition of neither the Centre nor centre parties.

According to Daalder, who analyzed different concepts of the Centre – such as the geometrical location in the middle of a political space, the mechanism that balances the scales of power, the middle position on certain cleavages, and the simple label used by a multitude of parties – laments “the many unspecified value judgements associated with the treatment of notions like center and center parties” (Daalder 1984: 108).

II.2.5.1 “Centre” as a Label

The label “centre” has a distinct positive connotation (see, for example, Daalder 1984: 92f.; Hazan 1997a: 3), suggesting moderation, balance and consensus. Thus, it has been used by a number of very different parties in different countries (see von Beyme 1985: 259) in order to communicate a certain image. While some of those parties do indeed qualify as a centre party (according to one of the many varying definitions known in political science), others surely do not, such as the “extreme right” (e.g. nationalist) CENTRUM DEMOCRATEN in the Netherlands.

But not only has there been an inflationary use of the label “centre” among politicians and voters – since there is no unanimous consent even among political scientists on how exactly to define the terms centre and centre party, there has also been “a tendency [in scholarly literature] to attach the center label all too quickly and superficially, thereby emptying it of any apparent meaning” (Hazan 1997a: 21).

II.2.5.2 Centre Parties, Moderation and Consensus

A centre party is usually said to be moderating and restraining (see Sartori 1976: 135, 347), balancing between the left and the right and trying to unite them instead of siding with either one of them (see Torgovnik 2001: 139).


[1] Arab. struggle – Palestinian armed uprising against Israel. The First Intifada lasted from 1987 until the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, the Second Intifada broke out in 2000 and continues until today.

[2] Her article cited here is based on her PhD thesis in 2000: Lo Yemin veLo Smol: Tzmichatan veHe’elmutan shel Miflagot Merkaz beYisrael, 1965-1999 (Not Right and Not Left. The Development and Disappearance of Centre Parties in Israel, 1965- 1999), Bar Ilan University.

[3] There are political parties which, on principle, refuse to enter any government coalition. This thesis, however, is based on parties that do seek to participate in the government.

[4] The inclusion of the new party factor is relevant at this point, because all the cases covered here are new parties in that they are comprised mainly of members who (for different reasons) split from one (or more) of the established parties, forming a new party in order to achieve certain (political, ideological and/or personal) ends.

[5] The conflict about the degree to which the economy should be regulated, the extent of the welfare state and social redistribution, as well as moral issues such as gay marriage and abortion.

[6] An impressive amount of data has been collected from the platforms of political parties in many countries since World War II, starting with the research of the Manifesto Research Group, which was later continued by the Comparative Manifestos Project (see Volkens 2001: 95).

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Forward (Kadima) to the Centre? - The Rise and Fall of Israeli Centre Parties
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