Why We Can Better Control Politicians in a Bipolar Party SystemWHEN TWO DISTINCT BLOCKS ARE IDENTIFIABLE, INCUMBENTS CAN BE EASILY SANCTIONED WITH THE VOTE. WHEN STRONG CENTRIST PARTIES EXIST, ON THE CONTRARY, THEY CAN CREATE MULTIPLE COALITIONS AND REMAIN IN GOVERNMENT DESPITE ELECTORAL DEFEATS, ESPECIALLY IN PROPORTIONAL ELECTORAL SYSTEMS, ANTHONY BERTELLI EXPLAINS IN A NEW PAPER
Accountability is considered to be one of the foundational values of democratic systems. Yet, not only it is often loosely defined, there is still little clarity about how different political systems allow citizens to keep governments accountable. Bocconi professor Anthony Bertelli and co-authors contribute to both points, arguing that bipolarity allows for greater control over elected representatives, especially in countries with highly fragmented party systems. This finding should encourage political elites to position their parties around two ideologically distinct blocks. In cases where party leaders adopt a more mobile and centrist approach, accountability failures become more frequent.
In this regard, the paper defines the correspondence between changes in votes and changes in the number of portfolios any party holds while in government as “accountability identity”. If this identity is satisfied, a decrease in the number of votes should translate in a decrease in the number of portfolios (or ministries) that a given party controls. However, different constitutional architectures translate votes to portfolios in various ways. For this reason, Prof. Bertelli brings in the important distinction between the “Electoral System” and the “Party System” where the first regulates how votes are translated into seats in Parliament and the latter refers to how political parties form governments and distribute portfolios among each other conditional on their share of seats.
Majoritarian electoral systems are commonly associated with uninomial districts or “winner-takes-all” rules where whoever wins a given race (either by relative majority, double round or others) takes control of all the seats available. These systems are thought to disincentivize smaller parties to join and therefore contribute to a less fragmented chamber. On the other hand, proportional systems aim to give representation (with some adjustments) to the actual distribution of forces on the ground, allowing for a higher number of parties to be represented in Parliament. Regarding the electoral system, both formulas allow for pretty good sanctioning of the incumbent, with the only minor difference that majoritarian systems tends to deliver sanctions more severely.
Thus, the authors suggest that changes in accountability across countries cannot be explained only on the basis of the electoral system. We have to look at how electoral formulas interact with the party system. Professor Bertelli argues that one of the most important variables at the party level is bipolarity, which does not necessarily mean only two parties exist, but rather that the electoral competition revolves around two distinct blocks. When bipolarity is strong, both proportional and majoritarian democracies display a high capacity to sanction the incumbent. On the other hand, when bipolarity is low, proportional systems allow the incumbent to protect itself from electoral defeat.
The reasons behind this are several. The paper shows that proportional systems are more likely to have strong centrist parties (such as the Democrazia Cristiana in the Italian First Republic or the CDU in Germany). Their centrality in the political spectrum allows them to create multiple coalitions and to remain in government despite recent electoral defeats. In addition, bipolarity counteracts the negative effect that political fragmentation has on accountability by organising parties around two identifiable blocks. This not only prevents more parties to enter alternative coalitions but also makes them easier to reject by unhappy voters.
To conclude, accountability failures rely on the interaction between the party system and the electoral system. We also know that party elites are ultimately responsible for the ideological positioning of their own parties. By aggregating around two identifiable blocks, they can contribute to increasing accountability, especially under electoral proportionality. However, party leaders may contribute to accountability failures when they find centrist positions optimal.
Cristopher Kam, Anthony M. Bertelli, Alexander Held, “The Electoral System, the Party System and Accountability in Parliamentary Government”, in American Political Science Review, Vol. 114, issue 3, DOI: 10.1017/S0003055420000143.
by Umberto Platini