PSR: How would you define the personalization of politics?
Mihail Chiru, Corentin Poyet: The literature has given various definitions of the personalization of politics, depending also on the level at which this phenomenon has been theorized. We adhere to an understanding of personalization as an increased relevance of individual politicians at the expense of parties over time, acknowledging that this can manifest itself in behavioural patterns of politicians and voters, through reforms of political institutions or at the level of the media. This phenomenon goes hand in hand with the crisis of collective representation and the decline of trust in parties, being also enabled by technological changes. In the special issue, we concentrate on understanding better one dimension of decentralized personalization, that is personalization focused on regular politicians, not party leaders. We do so by examining the institutional and contextual correlates of Members of Parliament (MPs) engagement in cultivating a personal vote, and by assessing whether such efforts are rewarded by voters in very diverse settings.
You focused on five European countries: Finland, France, Romania, Italy and Hungary. What has determined your selection?
The literature on the topic is mainly country-specific, and the few comparative works rarely include cases from Central and Eastern Europe. With our selection, we wanted to assess the correlates and electoral consequences of behavioural personalization in countries that have very different institutional designs and party systems, have achieved different levels of democratic consolidation and in which electoral system reforms went in opposite directions regarding the levels of personalization (e.g. Italy and Romania). The case selection also enabled us to show that legislators’ efforts aimed at personal vote-seeking happen sometimes even in the absence of electoral system incentives (the case of Italy), or in the context of legislatures highly controlled by parties (the case of France).
What are the key factors in the three major strategies for cultivating a personal vote: position-taking, credit claiming and advertising?
The three major strategies are not mutually exclusive but complementary. Position-taking refers to the use of parliamentary instruments (speeches, questions, legislative motions, roll-call votes etc.) by MPs to express a personal position that usually mirrors the perceived preferences of the constituents. The critical element here is that these positions can be different from or even contradict the positions of the legislator’s party and thus jeopardize the unity and goals of the party.
Credit claiming has the aim of making constituents believe that the MP is responsible for a positive outcome, i.e. an increase in the welfare of the district or the adoption of a popular policy. This can be achieved in various ways and it does not necessarily imply the presence of tangible benefits. For example, parliamentary questions – that are studied in four papers of the special issue, rarely result in immediate policy changes or allocation of funds towards districts but MPs can still claim credit for having put the issue on the agenda and contributed towards solving the problem.
Finally, advertising is about actions that MPs take to increase their name recognition and create a favourable image. Here, the content of the message is less critical, but it usually has to do with the personal characteristics of the MPs that are appealing to the constituents and facilitate name recall such as their experience, their ties with the district or their socio-economic background.
The articles in the special issue show that the adoption of these strategies depends both on the characteristics of the legislators and their districts and on features of their parties (e.g. government-opposition status, type of candidate selection).
You asked whether personal vote-seeking efforts get noticed and rewarded by voters? What do your findings show?
This is a question widely discussed in the literature, but evidence for a personal vote is rare. Two of the articles in the Special Issue are relevant for this discussion. Zsofia Papp shows that Hungarian voters from rural districts reward interpellations that deal with agriculture, when this policy area has great salience, and during times of high governmental unpopularity. Conversely, she finds that MPs can lose a significant number of votes by asking agricultural interpellations when they represent an urban area. David Arter draws on the case of Finland to show that even in institutional contexts generally perceived as conducive to intra-party competition (open list PR under a high party magnitude), candidates gain most of their votes from their home municipality, a finding which can be interpreted as evidence for voters rewarding local ties.
Have you spotted any particularly interesting country-specific trends of party decline and political personalization?
Declining rates of party membership, growing dissatisfaction with democracy and electoral volatility have become distinctive features of European political systems in the past decades, and in this respect, we see an unwelcome convergence of Western and Central and Eastern European democracies. One route politicians have followed to try to address these issues was to give voters and rank and file party members a stronger say in who gets nominated or elected for public or party office. This was done via institutional personalization reforms that have adopted more candidate-centred electoral systems or have made candidate selection and/or party leadership selection processes more inclusive through the introduction of primaries.
Interestingly, the special issue shows not only that behavioural personalization can be facilitated by institutional personalization reforms, but also that personal vote-seeking behaviours survive even when the electoral incentives for them vanish. The cases studies analyzing the determinants of constituency service in Romania and Italy following electoral reforms that have gone in opposite directions are revealing in this respect.
In Romania, the personalization of the electoral system has increased the incentives for MPs to cater to territorial interests and engage more in constituency service. Mihail Chiru’s analyses show that the 2008 electoral reform has led to a substantial increase in the share of parliamentary questions inspired by allocation responsiveness. On the other hand, in Italy, the 2005 electoral reform abolished single-member districts and introduced the most party-centred electoral system possible: closed list Proportional Representation. In his article, Federico Russo is able to illustrate that despite the absence of electoral system incentives, Italian MPs still devote considerable time to constituency service and this is driven mostly by personal motivations rooted in past local political experience and biographical ties with the constituency.
What are the key contributions your article brings to the field?
A critical contribution of the special issue is its ability to illustrate that personal vote seeking behaviors are not an exception in European legislatures but a rather common feature, regardless of the institutional settings in which the legislators operate and of the levels of democratic experience of their polities. In doing so, the articles in the collection also empahsize the relevance of factors which have been largerly disregarded by the continental legislative studies literature, such as the role of district features.
A second key contribution of the special issue is to show that, although behavioural personalization is frequently perceived as a potentially disruptive and destabilizing factor, in all the five cases analyzed, parties managed to maintain a key role in the way individual responsiveness works and in how individual voter-politician linkages are concretely established. David Arter’s article illustrates that in the Finish case, parties not only organize how personal vote-seeking and personalized campaigning is conducted, but they deliberately select local candidates to ensure proper geographical coverage and maximize personal votes. Moreover, as Corentin Poyet’s article shows, the salience parties assign to issues that matter locally can reinforce the MPs’ district responsiveness.
Article: Chiru, Michail, Corentin Poyet (2021), The Electoral Connection Revisited: Introduction to the Special Issue, Political Studies Review 19(3) 327–333.
Questions and production
Dr Eliza Kania, Brunel University London