Literature Review: Stability of voter satisfaction with democracy during the electoral cycle

PHOTO CREDIT: Tim Reckmann/

Nemčok, M., & Wass, H. (2020). As time goes by, the same sentiments apply? Stability of voter satisfaction with democracy during the electoral cycle in 31 countries. Party Politics

In their recently published article in Party Politics, Nemčok and Wass shed light on the stability of the differences in satisfaction with democracy between winners and losers of elections. Existing research consistently demonstrates that voters’ evaluation of democratic performance is conditioned by the latest election result. Those who supported the winning party are more satisfied with democracy as they believe the government will implement policies in line with their preferences. Voters belonging to the losing camp, by contrast, are less satisfied because of the prospect that the country will be lead by a government that does not – or to a limited extent – mirror their policy opinions. The authors take an innovative approach by challenging the idea that evaluations of democratic performance and thus the gap in satisfaction between supporters of winning and losing parties is stable within the electoral cycle. One of their key argument is that the predictability of electoral outcomes shapes the differences between levels of satisfaction in between elections. In political systems with less established patterns of political competition, that can bring unexpected government coalition agreements, voters should be insecure whether the party which they supported qualifies as winning or losing immedieatly after the election. As time goes by and government negotations start to reveal which parties will form a government, the differences in evaluations of democratic performance should expand with a delay. However, in these unstable political environments the status of voters remains fragile as already small tensions can lead to government reshuffles and a changing status of voters. Overall the gap in satisfaction between winners and losers should not exist directly, open after government negotiations and then fluctuate during the electoral cycle in a context of low predictability. To trace differences during the election cycle and how political and institutional factors shape the gaps in satisfaction with democracy, this article uses the data of the ESS interviews to position voters’ answers over time. The measure of predictability is based on the Party System Closure indicator which considers party systems to be open when alternations of governments tend to occur frequently, are partial and open to all relevant parties. The results based on around 199 000 responses from 199 surveys in 31 European countries confirm that in uncertain circumstances, satisfaction with democracy is indeed fluid. As neither supporters of current winners or losers can foresee political developments, their evaluations fluctuate within the electoral cycle. Yet, if the political context is predictable the level of satisfaction with democracy and with it the gap between winners and losers remain relatively stable during electoral cycles. Thus, the authors conclude that in systems with low predictability, as found in many Southern, Central and East European countries, gaps in satisfaction are more volatile than in stable West European democracies.

This article provides valuable insights into the generalizability of existing findings about the strength of the gap in the evaluation of democracy to various political contexts. Future research could use the argument of the article and analyse how other forms of low predictability affects the stability of satisfaction with democracy. If evaluation of democracy hinges on whether policies are expected to be in line with own interests, uncertainty about which policy preferences will prevail might also affect satisfaction with democracy. For example, factors such as the size of the majority, the ideological composition of coalitions or the level of detail of government agreements will influence which policy substance and agenda will be predominant and thus might blur the lines between perceptions about winning and losing. Under these circumstances, even in stable Western democracies, the gap in satisfaction with democracy might be less clear cut and thus fluid within the electoral cycle.

By Sarah C. Dingler in May 2020



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