The Congruence Between Voters and MPs: Trends and Comparative Perspectives
The impact of the crises on substantive representation in Southern Europe and Latin America appears somewhat complex and without a clear overall pattern. Congruence between voters and MPs seems to follow different patterns on different aspects of policy. In Portugal, for example, the movement of the parties of the centre-right government (and especially the PSD [Social Democratic Party]) to the right on economic matters increased the incongruence of parties and voters, which had the unintended consequence of the pact between the PS (Socialist Party) and the two smaller parties of the radical left (CDU [Unitary Democratic Coalition], i.e. the PCP [Communists] and the PEV [Greens]; the BE [Left Bloc]). In other Southern European countries, the incongruence between mainstream governing parties and the electorate was addressed via the emergence of challenger parties such as SYR1ZA (Coalition of the Radical Left), Podemos and M5S (Five Star Movement), which appeared more congruent with the electorate on matters related to austerity and economic policy. Political discontent in Southern Europe was without doubt fuelled by a growing incongruence between mainstream ruling parties and their (former) voters on these issues. Substantive representation appears to have improved as a result of the electoral response to the crisis in these countries, at least in terms of the congruence of views and stated preferences between voters and their MPs. However, the real test remains the ability of new political actors to deliver policy outputs that are closer to the preferences of the electorate. Here, the record of parties such as SYR1ZA and M5S appears to be less convincing.
The case studies of Latin American countries show that an overall verdict concerning the direction of substantive representation in that region is perhaps even more difficult to deliver. For example, in Chile, images of steady congruence on some ideological or policy dimensions (e.g. left-right placement, identification of main social problems and acceptance of democracy) are contrasted with the growing divergence on the diagnoses and proposed solutions of social ills, differences in the role of the state and other things that reflect a growing distance between the public and political elites. The case of Venezuela also shows that congruence between political elites and the electorate within a heavily polarised society and political system does not necessarily and automatically translate into an improvement in the quality of political representation.
Economic Crises and Descriptive Representation: The Evolution of Representativeness
Descriptive representation has been analysed in this book in the chapters covering the countries of Southern Europe. In all four of them the conclusion is clear: with the exception of Portugal, the crisis has transformed the party system and/or has opened avenues through which new political actors can enter parliament. Even in the case of Portugal (and to a limited extent in the case of traditional Spanish parties, Jaime-Castillo, Coller and Cordero 2018), parties have somehow incorporated social discontent by opening their electoral lists to civic leaders (Lisi 2018). This case of 'environment absorption’ helps put Portugal on the same trend as the other Southern European countries, albeit with different intensity: parliaments seem to be more socially diverse after the crisis than before.
Greece is a case in which the crisis had devastating effects with political derivations: the party system changed with the emergence of new parties and the growth and consolidation of new ones that entered parliament. The Greek parliament changed its social profile slightly, as has been shown elsewhere (Kakepaki 2018; Kakepaki, Kountouri, Verzichelli and Coller 2018). Compared to the period before the crisis, there are more women, the proportion of the older MPs has been reduced, there are proportionally fewer university- trained MPs, while the structure of professions remains more or less the same. The authors report, however, that family ties are less common among MPs and that the proportion of new, inexperienced MPs grows.
Italy is another example of party system transformation that took place long before the crisis. It opened the way for political entrepreneurs and new parties to channel the discontent of broad segments of the electorate, with new parties being well represented in parliament. The effect has been the addition of social diversity: more women in parliament, fewer university graduates (more variety in terms of educational levels), more young MPs - especially among the newcomers - and a modification of the professional structure of parliament, insofar as traditional professions like civil servants and teachers (especially among leftist parties) declined, which basically means other professionals entered parliament. In large part, the authors contend, supporting Seddone and Rombi’s (2018) findings, that the M5S is largely responsible for the introduction of this social diversity, although the Northern League (NL) and the parties of the left, respectively, are responsible for bringing younger MPs and more women to parliament.
There has been no major change to the Portuguese party system, and the level of social diversity introduced to parliament seems to be lower than in other countries. The authors report that there are more women, the younger cohort (18-35) has fallen and the proportion of MPs with university degrees has grown. Overall, however, social diversity brings parliament slightly closer to Portuguese society, as is shown by the synthetic index of social disproportion (Freire and Coller 2019). Analysis by party indicates that the PCP (Portuguese Communist Party) and the CDS-PP (Popular Party) are partially responsible for these changes (Lisi 2018). However, Portugal is an exception in the context of Southern Europe.
Spain is another case of party system transformation, although unlike Portugal and Ireland in the EU, it is a country in which a new extremely populist party of the far-right entered parliament in the 2019 elections. The authors of chapter 6 report the changes these new parties (Podemos, Ciuda- danos and Vox) have incorporated into the social profile of parliament. Certainly, although more social diversity is a historical trend, comparing pre- and post-crises legislatures shows there is a renewal of MPs above the historical trend (average of 50 per cent), a slilght growth in the presence of women, younger MPs (except after the 2019 elections), more professional diversity to the detriment of the teaching and legal professionals, and stagnation in the number of university graduates and natives. All in all, it seems to confirm the findings of Coller. Dominguez, Portillo-Perez and Escobar (2018), who concluded that more diversity means, overall, that parliaments tend to socially resemble societies that elect MPs, a claim that needs to be sustained empirically in other countries.
Finally, although no data have been gathered for the Latin American part of the book, previous research concludes that while the dominant profile in parliaments has persisted lately (middle-age men with university qualifications), recent changes associated with the crisis and social protests ‘allow the entry into politics of traditionally marginalised groups, such as women and young people, and promote more social diversity’ (Barragan and Bohigues 2018: 182).
The literature on political representation points to the importance of the political environment for providing citizens with effective information cues that enable them to make reasoned choices when selecting their preferred politicians and to form opinions about the performance of representative institutions. One of the lessons we can draw from our study, based on the comparison between Latin America and Southern Europe, is that the functioning of political representation is not only a matter of the institutionalisation of political or party systems. Economic crises, historical legacies and democratic trajectories are also key factors that help explain the differences across regions and countries. Apart from extending the geographical and temporal scope of studies on political representation, the research would probably be most fruitful were it pursued along several lines. The remaining part of the chapter is devoted to identifying ways that might improve the field of political representation studies.
From a theoretical point of view, it is highly desirable to strengthen the link between political theory and empirical studies, trying to benefit from theoretical and philosophical insights to draw testable arguments and hypotheses. This is certainly a new avenue worth exploring if we want to be innovative in this field of study. For example, the transformation of the state or of identity politics are issues that may usefully foster dialogue across these distinct subfields.
The contributions to this volume show there are important national variations in institutional configurations, both across and within each region. Although there are already some works that have systematically examined the impact of institutions on political representation (Reman 2002b; Ezrow 2010; Dalton. Farrell and McAllister 2011), there is yet more work to be done. The general assumption is that the formal institutional structures of representative democracies matter less than the characteristics of parties and party systems. Yet, the growing ease of scholars in connecting micro- and macro-levels of analysis holds significant promise for integrating the study of attitudinal and behavioural politics with the performance of representative institutions. This area of enquiry is particularly promising for integrating the study of established democracies with research on newer democratic regimes.
Another important strand of research is to connect the literature on the personalisation of politics to the transformations of political representation. As a number of authors have noted (Poguntke and Webb 2005; Musella 2018; Rahat and Kenig 2018), we have entered an era in which collective actors have been increasingly replaced by the figure of individual politicians to fulfil traditional representational functions. This phenomenon has important implications for the links between political representatives, parties and citizens, thus affecting the overall quality and functioning of political representation. An example of this new research agenda is the volume edited by Colomer (2011a), which examines the link between electoral systems and ‘personal representation’, intended as the MPs’ ‘reliability and ability to fulfil electoral promises and respond to voter demands’ (Colomer 2011b: 7).
Another topic that deserves more attention in the future, from both a theoretical and empirical point of view, is the importance of multilevel politics in understanding the multiple facets of political representation. The interaction between local politics and national MPs may provide new perspectives that will allow us to better evaluate both the input and output side of representative institutions. Sometimes the ties that link citizens to local and national politicians or political organisations point to different conclusions and do not always evolve in the same direction. Moreover, there can be a contagion effect from one arena to another. It is thus imperative to tackle political representation from multiple angles. In the European region, this also means incorporating into the analysis the way the European integration process has shaped the linkages between voters and their representatives.
Finally, our research also highlights the need to advance, methodologically, the study of political representation. First, it would be useful to use panel data to disentangle the complex relationship between distinct phenomena and to identify causal links between relevant variables. Second, in some cases, data limitations in terms of the subjects to be surveyed or the years covered limit the scope of comparison, making generalisations more difficult to achieve. Expert surveys may complement mass or elite surveys, thus strengthening the empirical evidence and the robustness of the findings. These are just some strategies that can advance our knowledge of political representation. focusing not only on Southern Europe and Latin America but extending our examination to other regions of the world.
Despite these unexplored aspects and the diversity presented by the two regions analysed here, we believe it is possible to reach a tentative conclusion, at least in a negative form. There is, as yet, no sign that other subjects are replacing political parties in their institutional functions. Mainstream parties have certainly become weaker in terms of their societal bonds, and they have been challenged by the rise of new political forces and actors of intermediation. However, political parties remain the key gatekeepers, at least as far as the selection of candidates is concerned, and they still perform a crucial function with respect to the elaboration of programmes and policy orientations. Finally, political parties also shape government efficacy and the ability to enact policy decisions. While parties may be in decline - at least in terms of their traditional societal functions - they remain an important side of the equation between the represented and representatives, and it is imperative that we examine how their role in the political system is changing and how they
interact with other potential actors of representation.