Intra-government conflict and electoral accountability

by Carolina Plescia and Sylvia Kritzinger (Department of Government, University of Vienna)

Competitive elections offer citizens the opportunity to reward or punish elected officials for their performance while in office. Keeping elected official accountable is a keystone of democracy. The most direct evidence that elected officials are subordinate to voters in democracies is the retrospective economic voting: that is, voters punishing incumbent governments that preside over a poorly performing economy (Lewis-Beck and Stegmaier 2000). For the retrospective voting mechanism to work however, voters need to be able to identify parties’ responsibilities for achievements or failures while in office. If lines of responsibility are not clear, the ability of voters to evaluate and punish politicians declines (Tavits 2007). The assignment of responsibility is particularly problematic when governments are formed by more than one party (Powell and Whitten 1993). Under these circumstances, the assignment of responsibility is obscured because voters are unsure about who is responsible for economic policy-making. In fact, the existing literature shows that, all other things being equal, voters are more likely to hold single-party governments to account for their performance compared to coalition governments, as responsibility attribution is less obvious in the latter case (Fisher and Hobolt 2010).

However, coalition governments vary considerably in their configuration (Strøm et al. 2008): some are composed of parties who largely share policy priorities and agree on common goals; others are more heterogeneous, often time formed by litigious parties. Conflict within the government has been found to have enormous consequences on policy outputs and government stability (Warwick 1996; Müller and Strøm 2000). As of today however, the effect of the type of coalition government on the working of electoral accountability has not been studied.

Our paper investigates whether conflict among government parties have consequences on responsibility attribution. We argue that conflict among coalition partners, when visible to the public, can help clarify to voters the government responsibilities for poor performance. Specifically, through repeated conflict, parties in government can provide voters with important information on parties’ policy actions that voters can use to assign responsibility for policy outcomes. To test this claim, we couple data from the European Election Study 2009 with a novel measure of government conflict. Our novel measure of intra-government conflict is based on an integrated dataset that on an almost continuous basis collects data from media reports of press releases, parliamentary speeches and politicians’ statements using machine learning in all countries in Europe. This data document cooperative and conflictual public interactions among politicians of the government parties and we rely on this data to create a novel measure of intra-government conflict.

The findings from our paper show that conflict between government parties has a substantial negative effect in interaction with retrospective evaluations, which indeed suggest that conflict among coalition partners helps voters gathering important information on government actions. In addition, the results indicate that the degree of retrospective voting due to government conflict is similar for the prime minister party and its junior coalition partners. In particular, the paper shows that the junior coalition partner, which is usually the less visible party in the government, gets punished as much as the prime minister party when government conflict is high. This finding speaks to recent election events in UK, Ireland and Germany, where the junior coalition partners of conflictual governments – the Liberal Democrats, the Labour party and the FDP respectively – have been harshly punished by voters.

The current study contributes to the existing literature in several important ways. First, this study improves our understanding of the accountability mechanism by investigating the impact that the type of government has on responsibility attribution. Second, the findings improve our understanding of one of the most salient empirical regularities in comparative politics, the observation that incumbent parties do not always suffer losses when economic conditions have not improved. In this paper, we show that while parties may have strategic incentives to diffuse political responsibility when policy outcomes are suboptimal, certain types of governments and the conflict they experience make it harder for them to escape punishment. Third, this study sheds light on an important forgotten aspect of retrospective voting that is, how do voters gather information on parties’ actions while in government. Our results indicate that the visibility emerging from conflict plays an essential role in keeping voters informed on who is responsible for policy outcomes.


SPIRe Seminar Series

This blog was written to accompany a seminar in the SPIRe seminar series.  The author’s seminar  “Intra-government conflict and electoral accountability” will take place on  Wednesday January 31st, 14:00-15:15, in G316 Newman Building. Discussant Dr James Cross. Full schedule.


Carolina Plescia is Assistant Professor at the Department of Government at the University of Vienna since 2014. Her work has been published in journal outlets such as Electoral Studies, West European Politics, Party Politics, and International Journal of Public Opinion Research. She is currently a member of the Austrian National Election Study (AUTNES) and part of the H2020 project RECONNECT. Twitter: @carolinaplescia

Sylvia Kritzinger is Professor for Methods in the Social Sciences at the Department of Government and she is currently Member of the Senate at the University of Vienna and Deputy Director of the Research Centre “Vienna Centre for Electoral Research – VieCER”. She is one of the principle investigator of the Austrian National Election Study and part of several EU-commissioned projects. She has authored more than 40 international journal articles and several books on issues spanning from public opinion research, political communication and extreme-right voting.

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