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Berz, Jan. (2020). All the prime minister’s glory? Leader effects and accountability of prime ministers in parliamentary elections. Politics. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/0263395720907054
Do electorates punish or reward prime ministers (PMs) for the government performance of their parties? While previous research examined leader effects and evaluation of government as separate determinants of voting decisions, Jan Berz demonstrates in his recently published study in Politics that the impact of voters’ perception of party leaders only partly explains electoral behavior. He argues that voters do not only hold parties in power but also PMs directly accountable in parliamentary elections. Therefore, they punish or reward the governing party and the PM at the ballot box for their perceived performance. As party leaders and agenda-setters, PMs articulate their policy preferences to the public and promote their implementation as heads of government. They have considerable decision-making power within the executive, which is why voters should hold them personally accountable if the government performs poorly. In sum, the evaluation of PMs and thus the leader effects should be confounded by the perceived government performance. To test this suggested confounding effect, the author analyzes survey data from national elections in Great Britain, Denmark and Germany between 1983 to 2017 and uses a natural experiment on German state level to enhance the robustness of his results. The comparison of models with and without government’s performance demonstrates that, while leader effects explain choices at the ballot box, this effect is indeed conditioned by the approval of government activities. For 11 out of 13 candidates running for re-election, the impact of PMs’ evaluation on voting decision was between 10% and 50% smaller when the assessed government performance was considered. Moreover, the subsequent natural experiment shows that likeability of a PM does not skew the assessment of governments. By contrast, actual government performance instead of likeability of PMs continues to determine vote choices and good performance positively affects the evaluation of candidates.
Through convincing argumentation and strong research design, this study deepens the understanding of electoral behavior, especially the direct and indirect impact of government performance on vote choices. I would be interested whether this effect varies between regions. As Jan Berz (2019) has demonstrated in his article and a blog contribution in September 2019, PMs have a stronger personal impact on voting behavior in Central Eastern Europe (CEE) compared to Western Europe (WE). Consequently, I would expect different patterns in the assignment of responsibility for government activities between the two regions. The comparison of WE and CEE indicated that stronger leader effects in CEE are caused by less stable party systems and lower degree of media freedom. With this in mind, leader effects should be less confounded by government performance in CEE compared to WE, as voters’ evaluation of government or, even more so, the direct impact of PMs on performance can be easily distracted and manipulated. If this is the case, it would have far-reaching consequences for the accountability of parliamentary elections in these countries, since it is no longer the performance of governments that counts, but rather the strength and autonomy of leaders.
By Dzaneta Kaunaite in April 2020
Dzaneta Kaunaite is a graduate student and research assistant at the Chair of Comparative Politics at the University of Greifswald. Her research interests include the analysis of political parties, party politics and political processes.
Berz, Jan. (2019). Potent executives: the electoral strength of prime ministers in Central Eastern Europe. East European Politics 35(4): 517-537.