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It is often argued that prime ministers (PMs) in Central Eastern Europe (CEE) are weaker/perform worse than PMs in Western Europe (WE) (Baylis, 2007; Elgie, 2012). CEE PMs remain in office for relatively short durations and therefore are expected to achieve fewer policy goals than PMs in WE; who on average hold office for longer periods. This argument reaches back to Baylis (2007, p. 83f) who identifies policy performance as the most desirable indicator to evaluate the strength of a PM. While Balyis acknowledges that a PMs duration in office provides only a rough approximation of their policy performance he argues that it should approximate performance reasonably well. First, PMs need time to formulate policy goals and get legislation through parliament. Second, PMs can not remain in office without political support, therefore, PMs with a long duration are likely to also retain the necessary support to enact their preferred agenda.
In my recent article in East European Politics, I contest Baylis’ conclusion that PMs in CEE are weaker than PMs in WE. While I concur that policy performance is a characteristic of strong PMs, I propose to use the personal influence of PMs on citizen’s vote choice in parliamentary elections (leader effect) as an alternative measure of strength. My choice is motivated by the fact that dealignment, weakening cleavages and the advent of television as main medium of political communication have contributed to electoral presidentialisation (Bittner, 2018; Garzia, 2014; Lobo & Curtice, 2014). Due to increasing attachments between leaders and the electorate (Garzia, 2011), voters’ decisions at the ballot box are more and more influenced by their feelings towards PMs and other leading candidates. In addition, previous non-voters are more likely to turn out in the subsequent if they hold a positive feeling towards one of the competing leading candidates (Ferreira da Silva, 2018). Therefore, PMs and other leaders have become the “chief means of engaging the political interest of publics” (Poguntke & Webb 2005, p. 21). Such a connection with the electorate, which is usually associated with presidents who enter office via direct election, becomes an essential function on which PMs have to perform.
Furthermore, as a second consequence of this presidentialisation political parties progressively rely on PMs to secure electoral results and maintain a connection to their voters. Poguntke and Webb (2005) argue that PMs will use their new presidential role to secure more autonomy within their party and their cabinet. After all, political parties depend on the PM to engage the electorate and if faced with intra-party opposition PMs may always choose to agitate their followers among the public against such opposition. As a result, ‘presidential’ PMs should be more likely to secure their own policy goals. In summary, beyond policy enactment, leader effects and PMs electoral strength thus constitute an additional performance dimension of PMs that has become more important over time.
Like duration in office, electoral strength can be easily observed empirically, but why should the electoral influence of PMs differ between CEE and WE? In short, party systems in CEE are characterised by lower degrees of institutionalisation, as well as voter alignment (Bértoa & Mair, 2012), and elites control media institutions to a greater extent than elites in WE (Örnebring, 2012). Therefore, countries in CEE differ on two important dimensions that amplify the influence of PMs and other leaders in elections (Poguntke & Webb 2005). When parties are less established and fewer voters hold stable alignments, voters’ choices are more likely to be guided by election-specific factors like their perception of the current PM. Another moderating factor, leaders can shape the amount of information voters receive via television – a medium that frequently focuses on personalities (Garzia, 2017). PMs in CEE stronger influence media reporting (especially of state funded public broadcasters) in their favour compared to PMs in WE due to the post-communist legacy of the region (Örnebring, 2012). In particular after the financial crisis, many countries further increased their control over the media by means of conditional funding (Dragomir, 2018). In short, I hypothesise that leader effects of PMs will be larger in CEE than in WE. And that leader effects of PMs will be smaller in countries with greater media freedom and more institutionalised party systems.
In order to test my hypotheses, I combine several waves of Comparative Study of Electoral Systems data to study the leader effect of prime ministers across 22 European countries, encompassing 44 PMs between 1996 and 2015. I employ a logistic multilevel model to examine whether the leader effects of PMs vary across countries and if this variance can be attributed to a systematic difference between countries in CEE and WE.
Figure 1. Interaction effect of prime minister evaluation and Central Eastern Europe on vote choice for the prime minister’s party (95% confidence intervals).
I find that PMs in CEE are electorally stronger than PMs in WE. Figure 1 shows that the more positively voters evaluate the PM, the more likely they are to vote for the party of the PM. However, this relationship is stronger in CEE than in WE. A near one standard deviation increase in voters’ evaluation of the PM from the mean (a move from 0 to about 1 in Figure 1) increases the probability to vote for the party of the PM by approx. 55% in WE, while in CEE the probability increases by approx. 65%.
Figure 2. Estimated median effects on vote choice for the prime minister’s party. Interaction with party system closure score (95% confidence intervals).
In further models, I test whether the influence of PMs differs not only between the two European regions, but also between individual countries – conditional on their degree of party system institutionalisation and media freedom. To obtain information about the institutionalisation of party systems I use the concept of party system closure as calculated by Bértoa and Enyedi (2016). This indicator operationalises party system institutionalisation by observing the degree to which government formation is stable, or whether countries are frequently governed by new parties and coalitions. In order to gain information about media freedom, I make use of the freedom of the press index by Freedom House. For both measures the average is lower in CEE than in WE. Figures 2 & 3 show that the results substantiate the previous conclusion from Figure 1. In countries with closed party systems and in countries with higher press freedom PMs’ leader effects are lower. Worryingly, in countries with lower press freedom voters tend to favour the party of the PM – however, the effect is not statistically significant on the 5% level.
Figure 3. Estimated median effects on vote choice for the prime minister’s party. Interaction with press freedom score (95% confidence intervals).
In conclusion, PMs in CEE may spent comparatively short periods in office, but they are quite strong in the electoral arena compared to their counterparts in WE. However, the fact that PMs perform somewhat better in countries with reduced freedom of the press is concerning. Especially in light of most recent developments in Hungary and Poland where public broadcasters appear to be under even greater control of government elites.
Want to read more on prime ministers and differences in presidentialised voting behaviour across Europe? You can find the article here.
By Jan Berz in September 2019
Jan Berz is a researcher and doctoral candidate at the Leuphana University of Lüneburg, where he currently completes his doctoral thesis on the accountability of prime ministers in democratic elections and contributes to a German Science Foundation project on prime-ministerial careers and performance. He previously studied at the University of Mannheim, the European University Institute in Florence and the Jagiellonian University in Krakow.
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