Planning Committee Final Report on Module 2

Planning: Summary Statement of the Theoretical Focus of Round Two

The Comparative Study of Electoral Systems project is a collaborative project between
national election studies across the world. By asking a common module of questions
immediately after a general election in each participating country and at the same time
collecting information about the electoral systems and institutional structures of those
countries, it facilitates the analysis of the impact of electoral and political
institutions on voters’ behaviour and attitudes. It is particularly interested in
explaining two phenomena:

  • vote choice: how are voters’ choices affected by the institutional context within
    which those choices are made?
  • satisfaction with the performance of democracy: how do citizens respond to varying
    institutional forms of democracy?

Its research design enables us to examine three important types of question:

  1. What is the impact of institutional structures on vote choice and satisfaction with
    democracy? For example, does satisfaction with democracy vary systematically between
    presidential and parliamentary systems?
  2. What is the impact of the characteristics of individuals on vote choice and
    satisfaction with democracy? For example, how far is vote choice a reflection of
    social class position or religious identity?
  3. To what extent and in what ways is the impact of the characteristics of individuals
    on vote choice and satisfaction with democracy contingent upon institutional structures.
    For example, the relationship between party preference and vote may be weaker under
    electoral systems that provide incentives to vote strategically; or voters may be more
    likely to judge the government on the basis of its past performance in office under
    presidential or single party systems.

These questions are laid out schematically in Figure 1:

Fieldwork for the first module of the study began in 1996 and will have been completed at
the end of 1999. It is envisaged that the second module will be administered between 2000 and
2003. This second module will consist of a mixture of new items designed to fulfil the
theoretical aims outlined in this document together with some items that also appeared in the
first module. As further modules are conducted in future this latter feature will permit the
comparative analysis of change over time.

The key theoretical question to be addressed by the second module is the contrast between
the view that elections are a mechanism to hold government accountable and the view that they
are a means to ensure that citizens’ views and interests are properly represented in the
democratic process. It is intended to explore how far this contrast and its embodiment in
institutional structures influences vote choice and satisfaction with democracy. Further
details are provided below:

  1. Competitive elections are essential to the existence of a modem liberal democracy.
    Political parties and candidates compete with each other both by stressing different
    conceptions of what the policy priorities of government should be and by arguing for
    different solutions to particular problems. The proper functioning of that competitive
    process is essential if voters’ dissatisfaction with the policies of the government of
    the day is not to become distrust and alienation from the democratic system itself.
  2. However, there is serious disagreement amongst scholars about what form of competitive
    process is most desirable in a democracy. One approach suggests that the most important
    function of an election is to allow voters to determine the political colour of their
    government. The other argues that elections should produce a legislature that is a
    representative microcosm of the division of political opinion amongst the electorate.
  3. According to the first view voters are most likely to feel integrated into their
    democracy if they can vote to replace the incumbent government with an alternative
    administration in the event that they feel dissatisfied with the current government’s
    performance. In short, the key requirement of an election is that it should hold the
    government accountable, thereby giving a justification for the disproportionalities
    commonly generated by plurality electoral systems.
  4. According to the alternative view voters are more likely to feel integrated into their
    democracy if they feel their particular views are properly represented in the legislature.
    This, it is suggested, gives them a feeling that they have a stake in their democracy
    because their interests are represented. According to this view it is desirable for
    election outcomes to be largely proportional to votes cast.
  5. There is considerable evidence that in some democracies at least, there has been a decline
    in the degree to which voters feel integrated into their political system. Party
    identification has declined. It is often argued that the processes of modernisation and
    globalisation both undermine loyalty to the state and makes it appear less capable of
    providing citizens with what they want. In particular, it is suggested that voters’
    expectations of government are rising at a time when the capacity of national governments
    to deliver policy outcomes is in decline. Some theorists suggest this means that there need
    to be radical changes in the way in which democracies ascertain and reflect the views of
    their citizens, moving away from traditional models of representative democracy.
  6. This suggests a need to examine the conditions under which citizens are more or less
    likely to feel engaged with their political system. In particular, is there any evidence
    that citizens living in countries with single party governments, typically elected under
    plurality rule, or those living in presidential systems, are any more or less likely to
    feel satisfied with the workings of their political system than those living in countries
    with coalition governments responsible to legislatures elected by some form of proportional
    representation. Does the pattern of satisfaction vary? If so, under what conditions?
  7. One important question is whether voters’ perceptions of elections do or do not fit the
    expectations of theory. Is it the case that voters who live in countries with single party
    majoritarian governments are more likely to believe than those living under multi-party
    proportional systems that elections in their country either should or do hold their governments
    accountable? Does the opposite pattern hold so far as representation is concerned?
  8. A second important question is then how voters’ perceptions of the degree of accountability and
    representation afforded by their political system are linked to their levels of satisfaction
    with democracy. Clearly if a high proportion of voters believe that that their system does
    provide both a high degree of representation and accountability, we can anticipate that they
    will be satisfied with their democracy. But the implication of the above discussion is that in
    practice there is a trade-off between the two – and that there is no agreement about which
    should have the higher priority. The module will explore whether there is any systematic
    evidence that levels of satisfaction with democracy are systematically higher or lower in
    countries that either may objectively be classified as or subjectively are thought to have
    political systems that emphasise representation rather than accountability.
  9. In practice there are a variety of reasons to believe that the answer to this question will be
    contingent on a variety of other factors. One possibility is that voters’ expectations, that is
    the relative priority they give to accountability or representation may matter. These expectations
    may in turn be shaped by the cleavage structure of a society. A society with two evenly sized
    groups organised around a single cleavage may be satisfied by a high degree of accountability and
    low representation. The opposite pattern may be felt desirable in societies with many highly
    divisive cleavages. Equally, those citizens whose party is nearly always in office may have very
    different views from those whose party is rarely of ever in government.
  10. Equally, we might anticipate that voters’ degree of satisfaction may be influenced by how long
    their country has been democratic, by how far it is believed to have been capable of delivering
    desirable policy outcomes, and by voters’ own characteristics such as their educational background.
    We may find that in some circumstances voters feel that their political system delivers neither
    accountability nor representation. Indeed we might discover that all forms of democracy are unable
    to deliver what their citizens want in the face of the process of globalisation.
  11. Dissatisfaction with the working of a political system may take a variety of forms. At one level it
    may simply take the form of unhappiness at the apparent inability of a political system to solve
    some of the country’s policy problems. At another, it may take the form of discontent with the
    political system itself.
  12. The consequences of dissatisfaction with democracy may vary. For example, voters may decide not to
    vote. If they do vote, they may decide to vote for anti-system, nationalist or new parties. Or they
    may decide to engage in unconventional protest. On the other hand dissatisfaction may lead voters to
    call for improvements to their political system, such as referendums or constitutional reform; rather
    then becoming disengaged from the political system or democracy they become more involved in an
    attempt to improve it.
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