Liberal democracies are in crisis. So are many traditional political parties across Europe. This opens up opportunities for political startups: new parties founded with the goal of entering parliament.
Recently, some of the most successful political startups have been of the populist ones, like the Five Star Movement (M5S) in Italy, AfD in Germany, or PiS in Poland. But there are also successful centrist political startups, like En Marche in France, Ciudadanos in Spain or NEOS in Austria. If the political center must transform itself to prevail against populists old and new, centrist political startups will have an important role to play as innovators.
Based on research and interviews with more than 40 political entrepreneurs from seven centrist political startups, I have developed a 10-stage roadmap on how to build successful centrist political startups from scratch:
Political entrepreneurs need to acquire an intimacy with the political system. It can take years, even decades of studying, to develop a deep understanding of the political system. Often, you will find them in the political periphery, working in the corridors of power, or running for student councils at school or university. This also forges bonds: many of the core group of 40 citizens that founded NEOS in Austria in 2012 had known each other from student councils in the 1990s.
Once you have a deep understanding of the current political system, how do you construct a vision of a new one? One common response that emerged: start writing. Emmanuel Macron published his book “Revolution” ahead of the election in 2016. If political entrepreneurs have not published books, they have written blogs, op-eds, and other shorter pieces. Or they have others who publish the vision for them: the political manifesto of Spanish Ciudadanos was first formulated by 15 well-known Catalan intellectuals, journalists and lawyers, and distributed through ads in the media.
Once political entrepreneurs have formulated their vision, they need to recruit for some key roles to get the operation started, like sparring partners, mentors, professional advisors, matrons/patrons, and first followers. To recruit first followers, Emmanuel Macron informed his private office at the French Ministry for Finance in Bercy about his plans one month ahead of the launch of En Marche.
Next, political entrepreneurs need to assemble their wider circle of supporters and sympathizers. Beginnings matter in more ways than one; first assemblies that do not live up to expectations may be fatal. Polish Nowoczesna communicated their first informal assembly in 2015 only via the internet, and 8,000 citizens showed up. After the election of right-wing President Andrzej Duda, they did not have to mobilize—people were already mobilized.
One of the huge competitive advantages political entrepreneurs have compared to their counterparts in traditional parties are the degrees of freedom they have when designing the organization. 21st century political startups can be co-designed with citizens, in a more agile, participatory, open, and transparent way. For example, NEOS publishes all its revenues and expenses online as open data, almost in real time—the only party to do so in Austria.
6. Reach out, road-test & iterate
Political entrepreneurs need to be with as many citizens as possible as soon as possible. Once En Marche had a draft manifesto, it organized thousands of local events across France. The party provided a tool on the internet to ask citizens questions and collect information. It was a structured process of iterative feedback loops between citizens and En Marche members. In this way, the political enterprise validated and crowd-sourced its early policy platform and, at the same time, used the process to build up momentum, by continuously recruiting members and mobilizing activists.
7. Build up critical mass
Political startups need to build critical mass quickly. Hungarian Momentum used the opportunity of a government plan to hold the Olympic Games in Budapest in 2024, a divisive issue, to start campaigning for a referendum on it. They had 30 days for the collection of signatures. Instead of the required 138,000 signatures, they collected 266,000 and successfully killed the application of Viktor Orban’s FIDESZ government. Suddenly, they were seen as serious contenders for parliamentary representation.
Launching the movement publicly, often the first time citizens will learn about it, is an opportunity to demonstrate how different it is to traditional parties. En Marche, for example, used its launch to kick off “La Grande Marche”, a large-scale, nationwide door-to-door campaign.
9. Build competitive capacity
Fundraising is something political entrepreneurs often underestimate the most. Austrian NEOS came up with a creative solution to crowdfund its way into Parliament: risk-carrying loans that would be converted into donations, should the party not be successful at the voting booth. It was successful, however, and paid back the loans out of the public funding it received.
In order to be successful at the voting booth, political startups need to transform themselves from a group of friends into a highly professional campaigning machine. They need to prioritize fieldwork over program work, make sure they stay internally aligned, know their target groups, and communicate accordingly. Most political startups fail, but the successful ones have all mastered those challenges.
The emergence of centrist political startups is a new phenomenon in Europe and the language for describing them is not yet fully developed. But I have no doubt that centrist political startups are here to stay.
While it will take people of good will in centrist political parties old and new to bring about a true transformation of our ailing democratic systems in the 21st century, the role of political startups in this process is that of pioneers, catalysts, and increasingly, of leaders.
Josef Lentsch is Director of NEOS Lab, the think and do tank of NEOS, the liberal political party in Austria. In December 2018, Springer will publish his book “Political Entrepreneurship: How to Build Successful Centrist Political Startups”. The international manager and entrepreneur holds an MSc in Psychology from the University of Vienna, and an MPA from Harvard University.