Home

Erik Moberg ã:
A Theory of Democratic Politics
 
 

12 - PARLIAMENTARY CONSTITUTIONS WITH PROPORTIONAL ELECTIONS: THE MAIN ACTORS AND THE VOTERS

In part 9 I concluded tentatively that instructions are likely to be important in the parties' electoral strategies in the constitutional setting at issue here, and in part 11 I furthermore argued that if so, the instructions, at least to a large extent, are likely to be specific rather than general. Now I will consider these matters in somewhat more detail.

Let us consider the following scenario. A party A tries, in an election campaign, to attract a particular group of voters by offering them some advantages at the expense of other voters. This offer, or proposal, which we can call P, is thus a specific instruction. Then some members of the target group, who appreciate the proposal, vote for A, which thereby becomes somewhat bigger than it otherwise would be. After the election A will be considered a possible executive member and, in the negotiations preceding the formation of the executive, A promises to support important points in the other prospective member parties' programs in return for their support of P. The parties reach an agreement along these lines and form an executive. P thus becomes part of the executive's program and will, accordingly, become implemented. Is this kind of scenario, we may ask, likely, or even typical, of a parliamentary democracy with proportionalism? My answer is in the affirmative.

A first prerequisite for this answer is that the parties are able to deliver in the way described, and this condition, as we have seen, is fulfilled. This, however, does not settle the issue. It is obviously not sufficient for the parties to be able to act in the way described - they must also find it expedient to do so, it must pay in terms of votes. More exactly, the behavior must be expected to result in a net gain in votes - the number of voters attracted from other parties must be greater than the number of voters repelled.

In principle this is quite possible. The negative effects may for example be spread out so thinly, and over so many people, that those hit hardly notice. With some shrewd maneuvering it may even be possible to allocate the negative effects mainly on voters who would not have voted for the party anyway. This is so since the campaigning politicians, in a setting in which specific interests are important, are likely to be able to recognize "their own people" to a considerable extent. In a presidential setting with plurality, on the contrary, and as I will later argue, such a behavior is hardly imaginable. There, as we will see, it is imperative for all campaigners not to hurt anybody.

In addition to these problems about the management of the negative effects it is, however, also necessary to consider the reactions of those favored by the proposal. Are they really likely to feel attracted and thus to change their minds in favor of the proposing party? Some may perhaps do so immediately, but there may also be those in the target group who, although favored by the particular proposal, generally dislike the system of politically distributed goods and clientelism, and therefore want to change the system rather than to use it.

Such a voter, according to the terminology used here, favors some general instruction rather than the specific instruction at issue. But perhaps there is no party committed to the general instruction which the voter endorses, or if there is such a party its chances of becoming big enough for getting the instruction into a governmental program may be slim. Such dilemmas are, in fact, as we saw in part 11, quite likely. Our voter may thus find it best to play safe and vote for the party offering the favors. Voting for the second best may, after all, seem more prudent since it may give a payoff even if the favored party, after the election, still is quite small.

From a methodological point of view it is, I think, important to note that I have not assumed any kind of rational ignorance among the voters in order to reach this conclusion. Rational ignorance, we remember, is the kind of ignorance that ordinary citizens have about public matters, since it does not pay to keep informed. The likelihood that a particular citizen voter will become pivotal in a general election is infinitesimal, and therefore the efforts needed for finding out about the campaigners programs are not worthwhile. The idea put forward here, that small target groups of voters may be favored at the expense of others, may thus be supported by the assumption that these others are rationally ignorant, and that, in fact, is often done. That assumption is however not necessary. The redistribution can, in fact, as I have shown, be explained as a consequence of perfectly enlightened and rational voter behavior within the institutional structures present. Such an explanation tells as much more about the situation than one relying on rational ignorance, and is therefore much more interesting. It is therfore, I would say, a good research strategy to avoid assumptions about rational ignorance as long as possible. In addition to this I would like to argue that ignorance, in the situation described, with several parties and a lot of interests involved, is more limited than usually assumed. People, in particular since they are not only voters but often also rent-seekers, are likely to know quite a lot about the favors offered by the political system.

Another interesting point is that relations between voters and campaigners in the particular setting discussed here have important similarities with a market type contract relation. This comparison is done in further detail in part 12.1.

Having said this it is however also important to emphasize, since we are dealing with compound voting (see part 9), that other approaches to the voters than the one illustrated are by no means excluded. The campaigning parties may, for instance, try to attract ideologically committed voters with various ideological arguments, they may support various general instructions, or they may just refer to their achievements in the past hoping to get the voters confidence. But even if various strategies thus may be useful, they can usually not be used without due regards. A party may for example be hurt if its various messages and promises do not form a reasonably coherent totality. If, for instance, some promise given to a group of marginal voters is to strikingly at odds with the party's ideology, some voters belonging to the party's core may leave the party. This importance of coherence has been emphasized by, among others, Downs (1957, pp 109 ff).