Is social class or religion the prime determinant in the voting behaviour of electors in Western Europe?

Essay 2007 11 Pages

Politics - International Politics - Region: Western Europe



1. Introduction

2. Traditional influence of religion of voting behaviour in Germany and France
2.1 Religious belief in Germany and France today
2.2 Influence of religion on electoral behaviour nowadays

3. Traditional influence of class on voting behaviour
3.1 Changes of social class in Germany and France
3.2 Social Class and the far-right

4. Electoral behaviour of Muslims in Germany and France

5. Which is the main determinant, class or religion?

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Conventionally, social cleavages have been widely accepted as the prime determinant in the voting behaviour of electors in the western world. In largely religious countries Christianity was seen as main factor of people’s voting pattern, whereas in secular western countries social class was regarded as the strongest influence. However, in recent decades the prediction of electoral behaviour has become more and more problematic, as religious faith has declined and the traditional contrast of social classes began to be more difficult to distinguish. This essay will examine the impact of religion and social class as well as the increasing influx of ultra-right parties and influence of the growing number of ethnic minorities on voting behaviour in Germany and France, and will attempt to demonstrate that despite the former importance of religion and the changes of society during the post-war period, the fundamental influence on voting behaviour is social class in both countries.

In 1967 Seymour Martin Lipset and Stein Rokkan published Party Systems and Voter Alignments a book in which they introduced an idea on voting behaviour which is now known as ‘The Social Cleavage Model’. Lipset and Rokkan explained that the party preferences of most voters were determined by the two main social cleavages - social class and religion - referring to the fact that people from the working class tended to vote for leftist parties much more frequently than electors from the middle- or upper-class and that the electoral choice of religious people predominantly fell to either Christian democrats or conservatives rather than other parties.

2. Traditional influence of religion of voting behaviour in Germany and France

Religion has a strong history of influence over voting pattern. Traditionally the vast majority of Catholics in Germany was located in the south and in the west, whereas the Protestant part of the population lived in the north and east of the country. However, the division of Germany after World War Two turned the Federal Republic into a mainly Catholic country. France as well, was predominantly Catholic and the Church had strong influence on the health, social and educational sectors until the 1950s.[1] During the post-war period religious parties were popular throughout Europe and Germany and France both had Christian democratic parties. In France it was the MRP (Popular Republican Movement) which was successful and in West-Germany it was the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) that was in power for 20 years from 1949 – 1969. Both parties emphasized Christian principles, reinforced support of the Church

by the state and were particularly concerned about issues connected to the Church such as support of Church schools and strict laws on divorce and abortion.[2]

2.1 Religious belief in Germany and France today

Nevertheless, religious belief has declined steadily in western democracies and in Germany the re-unification has played a major part in forming the religious landscape as we know it today. Before the division of Germany approximately 90 per cent of East Germans were Protestants. Nevertheless, from 1945 the Communist regime tried to undermine the influence of the Church, and as Conradt points out these measures showed major success in the sense that after the re-unification just 15 per cent of East Germans had religious affiliations compared to 55 per cent of people in West Germany.[3] According to recent studies, nowadays around 41 per cent of Germans regard themselves as agnostic.[4] Nevertheless, in France the situation is even more pronounced as 45 per cent of the population claim not to believe in God.[5] It seems that as a result of the decline of faith, nowadays many voters regard factors such as individualism and tolerance as more important than traditional Christian values.[6]

2.2 Influence of religion on electoral behaviour nowadays

However, it is interesting that electorates who live in regions that were strongly influenced by religious values in the past are still much more likely to vote for centre right. This is especially the case in Bavaria, Germany and in Alsace and Paris in France, which all continue to be dominated by conservative parties.[7]

Conradt and Bale support this by pointing towards the facts, that practising Catholics in Germany in 1990 were just as likely to vote for the CDU-CSU as they were in the 1950s[8] and that very religious Catholics in France still tend to vote for right-wing parties[9], which suggests that although Christianity in France and Germany has declined persistently, the voting pattern of those who are still actively practising their religion have remained the same. Mény explains the characteristics of religious voting behaviour by referring to the fact that common religious faith can function as ‘an element which overrides all social differences and ignores economic disparities’ and thus overcomes class distinction ‘in the name of common membership of the same religion’.[10] This is why very religious electorates with a working-class background are more likely to vote for Christian or conservative parties rather than for others, even though the chosen parties are usually more beneficial for middle- or upper-middle-class individuals.


[1] Mény, 1991:27.

[2] Conradt, 1993:203.

[3] Conradt, 1993:203.

[4] Zuckerman, 2005 cited by Adherents, 2005:1 screen

[5] Zuckerman, 2005 cited by Adherents, 2005:1 screen

[6] Mény, 1990:28.

[7] Mény, 1990:29.

[8] Conradt, 1993:256.

[9] Bale, 2005:147.

[10] Mény, 1990:26-27.


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Title: Is social class or religion the prime determinant in the voting behaviour of electors in Western Europe?