Strmiska, M. (2002). A Study on Conceptualisation of (Ethno)regional Parties. Středoevropské politické studie, 4(2–3). Získáno z
S ohledem na zamìøení této stati lze etnicko-regionální strany – alespoò prozatímnì - vymezit jako politické strany,

 Středoevropské politické studie – Central European Political Studies Review

ČÍSLO 2–3, ROČNÍK IV., JARO–LÉTO 2002, ISSN 1212–7817 – PART 2–3, VOLUME 4, SPRING & SUMMER 2002, ISSN 1212–7817




Maxmilián Strmiska


This article forms part of the output of the research project "European Regional Parties and Party Systems” (GA 407/02/1491) and "Minorities, Ethnic and Marginalized Groups in the Czech Republic" (MSM 142300001).






The paper deals with the complex issue of (ethno)regional parties conceptualisation. Notions and schematics elaborated and promoted by Lieven de Winter, Klaus von Beyme, Donald L. Horowitz, Francisco Letamendía, Huri Türsan, Ferdinand Müller–Rommel Derek Urwin, John T. Ishiyama etc. are briefly discussed. Ethno–regional parties can be conceived of as political parties whose electoral and legitimation potential is primarily based on identitary mobilisation of an ethno–territorial community of sub–national (sub–state) nature. However, ethnic and territorial aspects may assume different relevance within the different approaches to the study of ethno–regional parties. It should be emphasized, that regional parties are not necessarily ethnic parties – and vice versa. Regional parties could be defined as formations with region–based electorate and mobilisation resources, or as formations representing sub–national (regional) interest communities exercising party functions to the full extent in a regionally defined operating space. Ethno–regional (ethno–regionalist) parties may thus be defined as a sort of regional (regionalist) parties. Finally, some issues of classification and typology of regional party arrangements are assessed. A lot of work is still to be done in this field. More attention should be paid to the heterogeneous nature of compounded territorial–political arrangements, which allows for the coexistence of different types of actors – political parties on the national (nation–wide) and regional level, as well as for simultaneous existence of diverse party and political scenes. To make a comprehensive typology of regional party (sub)systems is not an easy task at all. This is due to the persisting lack of suitable conceptual frameworks and to the fact that an effective reconciliation of the approach to nation–forming identitary and regionalist mobilisations used by regional parties with the traditional platform applied in research into European party systems has proved very difficult.

Key words

regional parties; party systems; conceptualisation; typology; Europe






Regional and/or ethno–regional party phenomena represent a specific field in the broad area of research into political parties and party systems. For diverse reasons, it was a marginal and underdeveloped field of study still some time ago. This was to a large extent due to limited nation–wide party system relevance of regional and ethnic sub–national parties, and to methodological difficulty related to the study of the respective phenomena resulting – apart from other reasons – from lack of suitable conceptual frameworks. Nevertheless, the situation began to change in the course of the last decade when this branch of research in party systems began to develop on a systematic basis, faced by new challenges. The article is a contribution to current thought on the principal issues related to conceptualisation of (ethno)regional parties in the European (and prevailingly west–European) context.


For the purpose of the study, ethno–regional parties can at this stage be defined as political parties whose electoral and legitimation potential is primarily based on identitary mobilisation of an ethno–territorial community of sub–national (and mostly peripheral) nature. Let us note that a generally accepted definition of ethnic and/or regional parties does not exist and that different scholars writing on the subject have used different definitions of the above party and political actors. For instance, Horowitz defines the ethnic party as a political formation oscillating between a classic political party and an interest group that gains support from a specific ethnic group(s) and serves their interests (Horowitz 1985: 291). Ishiyama and Breuning speak about ethno–political parties representing particular ethnic groups and striving for political power in order to change its distribution and the executive political potential and position of the groups they represent (Ishiyama, Breuining 1998: s. 3–4). Urwin, on the other hand, leaves aside the ethnic aspect and affirms that the only thing such parties have in common is their territorial identity (Urwin 1985: 232–250). According to Türsan, ethno–regional (or ethno–regionalist) parties are characterised by their nationalism based on ethnic differentiation (or on an exclusive ethnic identity) and territorial claims within existing states, and can be defined as "ethnic entrepreneurs") (Türsan 1998: 5–6). Müller–Rommel conceives of ethno–regional parties as parties of geographically concentrated peripheral minorities striving for a change within the existing nation–state arrangements through assertion and recognition of their cultural identity (Müller–Rommel 1998: 19). Similarly, Lieven de Winter considers the claim for political reorganisation of the existing nation–state power structures to be the principal feature distinguishing this type of parties from other party families (de Winter 1998: 204–205; cf. de Winter 2002: 131).


Apparently, ethnic and territorial aspects may assume different relevance within the different approaches to the study of regional and ethno–regional parties, and the analysis of such phenomena may also vary accordingly. From this point of view, insisting on strict differentiation between ethnic and territorial aspects of ethno–regional party identity does not seem to be of much use. Interestingly enough, regional parties are not necessarily ethnic parties sensu stricto – and vice versa. For instance, regional parties defined as formations with region–based electorate and mobilisation resources, or as formations representing sub–national (regional) interest communities exercising party functions to the full extent in a regionally defined operating space, are not necessarily ethnic parties. As a result, ethno–regional parties may be defined as a sort of regional parties.1


Diverse definitions and approaches have been applied also in the sphere of (ethno)regional party typology. Among the scholars who have done systematic research in this field in recent years, Francisco Letamendía (inspired mainly by D.–L. Seiler) considers useful to define several categories of peripheral nationalist (ethno–regional) parties according to their ideological profile and strategic orientation. His approach is mainly based on differentiation between the system (pro–system) and anti–system parties, the system parties being further subdivided into governmental formations and "tribune parties" according to their share in executive power. Another classification is based on the presence and share of elements of populism and neo–centralism and on the type of nationalism in the platforms of the different regional–peripheral party formations. This approach allows for classifying, say, PNV and CiU as governmental ”neo–centralistic” parties, SNP as a populist "tribune party", HB as an anti–system nationalist party, etc (Letamendía 1998: 121–122). Ishiyama and Breuning have gone even further in differentiation based on anti–system action and orientation of ethno–political parties, which has resulted in the proliferation of concepts like "anti–regime" and "anti–community" party (Ishiyama, Breuning 1998: 5–6).2


However, it was Lieven de Winter who proposed a relatively most refined and up–to–date classification. Like most other scholars, he laid stress on differentiation between ethno–regional parties according to the degree of radicalism of their claims for territorial and political change. The most moderate, protectionist parties strive for protection and valorisation of the "unique character" of the respective ethno–territorial segments and claim institutional measures to be taken by the central executive establishment (including positive discrimination) capable of ensuring efficient protection. According to de Winter, the Swiss LdT (Ticino League; Lega dei Ticinesi) or the Finnish SFP (Swedish People’s Party) represents this category. Autonomist parties claim autonomy for their regions and put forward the consociation model of power shared with central elites accordingly. Typical autonomist formations in these terms are SVP and UV in Italy, some moderate Corsican parties and, to an extent, also PNV and CDC (leading party of the CiU federation) which do not exclude independence of the Basque Country or Catalonia as the best option for the future, but whose main focus at present is maximum autonomy for their regions. National–federalist parties strive for self–government through a thorough transformation of the respective unitary arrangements into federal. The best example of such formations prior to 1995 was the Northern League in Italy, while other typical examples may be found in Belgium prior to the late 1980s (de Winter 1998: 205). The transition zone to openly separatist, independence parties is formed by a group of pro–European federalist parties which claim autonomy or independence for their ethno–territorial communities within a "Europe of regions". However, the amount of independence claimed, as well as the concepts of arrangement of a wider European framework proposed by such parties often vary or even diverge. Some of the parties defending the project of a "Europe of regions" (e.g. the Scottish National Party; SNP) view their regions as future independent states which will preserve their independence within a Europe of states. The above approach therefore fails to be strictly that of a "federal Europe" in the proper sense of the expression. Other ethno–regional parties (e.g. the Brussels FDF) subscribe to a clearly federalist arrangement while not excluding the preservation of national states as a sort of "interconnecting” and/or ”meso–government” structure. On the other hand, parties with federalist orientation (ERC, VU, LN) consider such "interconnecting structure" useless. As a result, the project of a "Europe of regions" has repeatedly proved compatible with elements of both autonomist and separatist orientation. It is for this reason why pro–European federalist political formations cannot be considered as an independent, clearly defined category of ethno–regional parties. Therefore it is both possible and necessary to classify them as either federalist or separatist parties (de Winter 1998: 206–207; cf. Winter 2002).3


Lieven de Winter distinguishes two types of separatist parties – independence and separatist (irredentist) parties. Independence parties work for total independence of the regions they represent both within the federalist "Europe of regions" and outside the framework of any supranational formation. In this case, we have to do with a diverse mixture of political parties, such as VB, LN, ERC, EA, as well as radical nationalist formations with links to paramilitary organisations (Herri Batasuna; radical Corsican groups, etc.). Separatist-irredentist parties strive for separation of their regions from the respective states and for their annexation to another nation state with similar ethno–cultural identity. Such policy can naturally be practiced only by political parties of borderline minorities. According to de Winter, Sinn Féin (SF) and SDLP in British Ulster are the main representatives of the group of separatist (irredentist) political formations.4


As has been said above, ethno–regional parties are primarily characterised by their links with the process of identitary mobilisation of an ethno–territorial community (but for exceptions which make the rule). These links and their political expression naturally play a key role in the classification and typology of ethno–regional parties. This does not mean, however, that all such parties are monothematic (single–issue) formations. Strictly speaking, a single–issue party (and a relevant one in the respective arrangement) is, except a very few cases, something quite chimerical. The logic of expansion and, after all, of mere reproduction of legitimation and mobilisation potential of political parties requires that a more or less diversified message gets across to the target population, and this rule equally applies to ethno–regional formations. That is the reason why the platform of ethno–regional parties involves different ideological moments, without the need of any direct link being established between the issue of self–government and territorial and political reorganisation. From the point of view of typological definition of the above political formations, we have to do with a sort of secondary features, which, in spite of a certain interest, do not play a key role. 5 Representatives of this type of political parties can be found in the whole right–left spectrum but this fact in itself does not allow for any major conclusions; it can only be noted that the claim for territorial and political change is basically reconcilable with any ideological orientation and position in the party spectrum. This also explains why changing ideological orientation, even repeatedly in some cases, has been relatively easy for some of the European ethno–regional parties, as well as for nation–forming movements linked with them, in the course of their development. The issue of ideological orientation of ethno–regional parties assumed greater importance only in cases of apparent pluralism in the political representation of nation–forming movements where the different political groups of leaders began to consciously identify themselves as radical or moderate both in terms of their approach towards the claim for self–government or independence, and of social–economic criteria. Yet the hierarchy of "profile forming issues" is preserved also in most of such cases, with no substantial change being recorded in the secondary nature of ideological orientation and right–left positioning of ethno–regional parties. 6 Classification and typology based on primary characteristics of such formations is therefore justifiable, irrespective of the importance attributed to other aspects.


Similarly to all other parties and/or quasi–party political movements, ethno–regional parties do not operate in a vacuum but form part of an institutionalised arrangement and interact with other operational units of the given system. Their activities form part of the functioning of the respective party and political arrangement and contribute to the formation and reproduction of prevailing interaction patterns, which are typical of the arrangement as a system, or rather as a certain type of system. Apart from different institutional contexts, party systems apparently differ from each other in the number and type of operation units, the number and nature of interaction fields or streams, the implemented governmental or opposition models and, to a lesser extent, in other aspects related to their functioning mechanisms. Of great interest and importance, from the point of view of assessment of the position and role of ethno–regional parties, is the issue of monolithic or compounded character of such systems. Monolithic arrangement is typical for the existence of one strong and unifying national and political identity, which determines the existence of one "non–compounded" homogeneous political space and facilitates to a large extent the reproduction of the respective cultural and territorial delimitation. Any significant ethnic–territorial identitary mobilisation is practically excluded in this case, and this equally applies to all relevant ethno–regional, sub–national parties. It is quite irrelevant whether the respective arrangement provides or not a complete institutional background for regional party policies; what matters is that regional (or quasi–regional) party and political scenes merely copy the respective state party arrangement. The situation is quite different in compounded territorial–political systems, though. In these systems, we cannot speak neither of a "natural" system–forming and unifying national identity, nor of a homogeneous political space. These intrinsically heterogeneous arrangements provide space and opportunity for the assertion and institutionalisation of identitary ethno–territorial mobilisation. This is apparently reflected in the character of the respective party and political arrangements, which applies both to the state–wide (supra–regional) political party system and often to the individual regional party systems and sub–systems in the first place. The heterogeneous nature of such arrangements allows for the coexistence of different types of actors – political parties on the national and regional political level, as well as for simultaneous existence of diverse party and political scenes. Traditional typology of party systems – except for Rokkan's models – does not count on system–forming action of identitary mobilisation linked with any other than the unifying national identity, nor does it provide the necessary conceptual tools for the analysis of the internal configuration of regional party arrangements or the degree of their diversity from the nation-wide party arrangement. This helps us understand why there were so few attempts at elaborating new original conceptual models allowing for adequate analysis and assessment of the process of "ethnisation" and "regionalisation" of political parties prior to the second half of the 1990s, as well as the reason why efforts concentrated on more or less successful partial and to some extent eclectic modification of traditional typologies prevailed.


In the 1980s, Klaus von Beyme outlined trends in the formation of regional party system typology with his model of four basic patterns or situations, based on an analysis of the role of ethnic and regional parties (von Beyme 1987: 109).

1. existence of a differentiated regional party system;

2. hegemony of one (regional, ethnic) "catch–all" party;

3. dominance of (state-wide)national parties competing with national minority parties;

4. regional parties with a low degree of organisation as opposed to a behaviour of their electorate diverging from the nation–wide average.


Seen from the point of view of the different phases of identitary ethno–territorial mobilisation or of the development of a nation–forming peripheral movement, the above patterns show that the existence of a differentiated regional party system and of one hegemonic "catch–all" ethnic and regional party is a symptom of advanced institutionalisation of a nation–forming movement, while the other two situations rather correspond to a lower or minimum degree of institutionalisation.8 Von Beyme's model reflecting the dominant situation in the Western Europe in the 1970s and early 1980s does not include all theoretically feasible models of political space structuring related to the expansion of regional party and political actors, but the principal coordinates of his model are correct. The model provides a descriptive distinction between regional party systems and subsystems extremely important from the heuristic point of view and based on the key moment of presence or absence of relevant regional (ethno–regional) political formations, stressing the importance of regional system differentiation and of plurality of relevant sub–state political parties. However, von Beyme does not consider the fact that differentiated regional party arrangements may develop quite a unique arrangement where competition between different nation–wide and regional parties does not exist simply because there are no relevant branches of nation–wide parties. In such cases it should be assessed whether we have to do with a consequence of a general (and in a way symmetric) fragmentation and/or segmentation of an originally homogeneous state–wide party system (e.g. in Belgium) – and adapt the use of the concepts "regional" and "nation–wide" or "state–wide" accordingly, or whether it is a result of a process of separation or isolation of the given party arrangement due to specific reasons (e.g. the Northern Ireland case).


As for the issue of regional party arrangement typology, classic party system typology is apparently sufficient for the definition of such political party subsystems in cases where peripheral identity mobilisation has not yet reached a higher level of institutionalisation and where the relevance of the respective peripheral political parties and movements is only limited. On the other hand, the number and position of relevant regional parties operating in the respective regional system, the issue of existence or non–existence of interactions (competition, cooperation) between relevant regional formations, as well as the issue of relevance of such interactions must be taken into consideration in the case of compounded, heterogeneous systems with differentiated regional party arrangements (Strmiska 1998).


The above task becomes relatively easier in systems with "single colour", single party governments, i.e. in systems using the mechanism of classic bipartism or that of predominant party. Leaving aside the possibility of total regionalisation of such arrangements which would require absence of any political formations of extra–regional (extra–ethnic) obedience, what needs to be taken into consideration is just the position and role of the (ethno)regional party or parties, as well as the general prerequisites for the functioning of a bipartism or a predominant party system. If we focus on multiparty arrangements resulting from necessary coalitions, the typology shall become extremely complex due to the need to define a number of sub–types of the respective multi–party arrangements. In the first place, it is necessary to distinguish whether we have to do with a moderate or a polarised system, and subsequently answer the question of who possesses the coalition, eventually "blackmailing" potential. Yet it is not enough, as we also have to consider the character of governmental coalitions, i.e. whether they are "mixed" coalitions consisting of both ethno–regional and nation–wide parties, or whether they are exclusively formed by ethno–regional or nation–wide parties or their branches operating in the given regional political scenes. All this may result in a model which is complex and difficult to apply (cf. Strmiska 1998).


We can conclude that beginning with the 1990s it became clear that research in "new" peripheral nationalist and/or regionalist movements both inside and outside the Western Europe must include the process of transformation of party systems resulting from a boom of this kind of movements. At the same time, reconciliation of the approach to nation–forming identitary mobilisations with the traditional platform applied in research in European party systems proved extremely difficult. This was the reason of a slow down in the elaboration of new suitable theoretical and methodological platforms and conceptual models, and of some persisting limits imposed on heuristic potential of case studies.






 The question in this context is whether there is or not a family of regional and/or ethno–regional parties comparable with "traditional" party families. The answer will most likely be negative as long as the main stress is laid on territorial aspects in defining regional parties (Strmiska 1998: 11). In my opinion, conceiving of ethno–regional (or ethnic) parties as part of one specific party family is problematic.

2 Ishiyama and Breuning were mainly inspired by works of J. Rudolph and R. Thompson. However, their preferred model using four categories (output oriented parties; anti–authority parties, anti–regime parties; anti–community parties) appears to be highly contentious.

3 To avoid misunderstanding, it should be stressed that regardless the natural effort for maximum precision in defining ethno–regional parties, the (would be strict) distinction between federalist and separatist parties proposed by de Winter is just of limited descriptive value which should not be overestimated. One of the points is that the platforms of the different ethno–regional parties may – and often actually do – include both federalist and separatist elements. The Italian sociologists Alberto Melucci and Mario Diani pointed out in this context that the option between the federalist and separatist alternatives is not a distinctive feature between the different national movements, as they usually include both the strategies of which one or the other may become predominant in different movements and in different historical periods (Melucci, Diani 1992: 119). In my opinion, this statement basically applies to both broader national movements and to formations representing such movements on political scene. Apparently the level or sphere of expression of political claims, as well as the respective context, should also be taken into consideration. Even a party which is federalist by its nature may exploit quasi–separatist provocation, which in itself does not make it separatist to the full extent of the expression.

4 Some trends within UV and SVP in the past favoured such orientation, which also applied to some of the predecessors of VB (de Winter 1998).<0}

5 Such secondary nature is less apparent in cases where the claim for political and territorial reorganisation does not primarily consist in stressing ethno–regional difference and where the dynamics of identitary mobilisation is determined by social and territorial aspects in the first place – e.g. due to questionable cultural delimitation of the respective "ethnicity". LL and later LN provided an interesting example of this.

6 Francisco Letamendía pointed out quite rightly in this context that diversification of peripheral national movements resulting in the establishment of a subsystem of "national" peripheral parties widens the legitimation/delegitimation range of state power and centralistic establishment, which is an inward rather than outward oriented process from the point of view of the given subsystem, as the principal distinctive feature of different peripheral parties is their (self)identification within the range (Letamendía 1998: 121).

7 One of the scholars who tried to elaborate such new conceptual model was Donald L. Horowitz. However, his model was primarily designed for ethnically heterogeneous countries of the Third World whose party systems are extremely difficult to compare with party systems existing in west European liberal democracies. Horowitz also laid much more stress on ethnic or ethno–cultural aspects than on

territorial aspects of identitary mobilisation in most cases (Horowitz : 302).

8 The trouble spot in von Beyme's model is the implicitly weak interconnection between the territorial and ethno–cultural aspect of delimitation in the context of identitary mobilisation promoted by ethno–regional parties. Hegemonic "catch–all" parties of this type may gain effective control of an ethnically defined and "delimited" electorate, but unless the electorate is well defined in territorial terms, the systemforming impact of such hegemony is necessarily limited (an exception making the rule may only occur in a situation where the controlled part of the electorate forms a substantial portion of the population of a state, which results in the need for a territorially non–differentiated reorganisation of political competition space within the given (territorial) framework, for instance by implementing the model of consociational democracy). Such ethnic parties can control their electorate but they cannot very well raise claims for an effective territorial and political control linked with the vision of creation of their own, separate territorial and political system or subsystem (von Beyme 1987).







CDC (Convergència Democrática de Catalunya)

CiU (Convergència i Unió)

EA (Eusko Alkartasuna)

ERC (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya)

FDF (Front Démocratique des Francophones)

HB (Herri Batasuna)

LdT (Lega dei Ticinesi)

LL (Lega Lombarda)

LN (Lega Nord)

PC (Plaid Cymru)

PNV/EAJ (Partido Nacionalista Vasco

Eusko Alderdi Jeltzalea)

SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party)

SF (Sinn Féin)

SFP (Svenska Volkpartiet)

SNP (Scottish National Party)

SVP (Südtiroler Volkspartei)

UV (Union Valdôtaine)

VB (Vlaams Blok)

VU (Volksunie)





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