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Reforming DemocracyInstitutional Engineering in Western Europe$

Camille Bedock

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780198779582

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: June 2017

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198779582.001.0001

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Introduction

Introduction

Chapter:
(p.1) Introduction
Source:
Reforming Democracy
Author(s):

Camille Bedock

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/oso/9780198779582.003.0001

Abstract and Keywords

Based on where a painter places her easel, the same landscape will be represented differently. Some objects will appear distant and blurred, others close up and colourful. The sun will light up the sky in a particular and unique way at any given time, so that the very same object may seem different on another day or from another perspective. For an impressionist painter, reality would be represented as a series of broken brush strokes, whereas a Renaissance Florentine painter would emphasize lines and devote time to the geometric construction of the painting. This can be applied as a metaphor for change and stability: according to a researcher’s chosen perspective, she may place greater emphasis on elements that vary, or on those that remain the same, she may pay greater attention to particular details, or focus more on general impressions, so that what she sees as reality is, in fact, only a particular perspective. To understand how conceptions of reality become crystallized within particular research perspectives, it is useful to draw a parallel between party system change and institutional change before presenting the topic of this book: institutional engineering in Western Europe during the last two decades....

Based on where a painter places her easel, the same landscape will be represented differently. Some objects will appear distant and blurred, others close up and colourful. The sun will light up the sky in a particular and unique way at any given time, so that the very same object may seem different on another day or from another perspective. For an impressionist painter, reality would be represented as a series of broken brush strokes, whereas a Renaissance Florentine painter would emphasize lines and devote time to the geometric construction of the painting. This can be applied as a metaphor for change and stability: according to a researcher’s chosen perspective, she may place greater emphasis on elements that vary, or on those that remain the same, she may pay greater attention to particular details, or focus more on general impressions, so that what she sees as reality is, in fact, only a particular perspective. To understand how conceptions of reality become crystallized within particular research perspectives, it is useful to draw a parallel between party system change and institutional change before presenting the topic of this book: institutional engineering in Western Europe during the last two decades.

Mair is keen to deconstruct the common assumptions about change and stability in the field of party systems, and has shown that parties and party systems in Western Europe are very stable, despite the fact that they have faced great challenges. Whereas most authors have emphasized the changes within Western European party systems, Mair has shown that the cores of most of these party systems have remained untouched. This stability has been made possible by the fact that parties and party systems generate their own momentum through their capacities to limit choice and change by way of constant adaptation and control strategies (Mair 1987; 1997). In a changing environment, a great deal has to change in order for things to remain the same. Therefore, shifting the usual focus away from the changes in party systems has enabled us to illuminate the high degree of stability at their cores. In the same vein, authors who have looked into institutional reform in established democracies have overwhelmingly emphasized the stable elements, using a perspective from which change, in order to be detected in the picture, must be massive and disruptive. Other authors adopt a more impressionistic approach, observing changes in electoral systems, for example, but are less inclined to focus on the ways in which these changes interact within a (p.2) wider institutional system. Authors who are interested in institutional reforms in established democracies mainly show evidence that, apart from in exceptional cases and circumstances, the institutional systems of Western Europe are very stable. This focus on stability has resulted in the absence of documentation on cross-national, longitudinal, and multidimensional institutional reforms in Western European democracies. So far, we have made assumptions regarding the degree of stability, rather than actually measuring it. One of the central claims of this book is that, just like the stability of the core of the party systems, the stability of the core democratic institutions in Western European democracies could hinder the ability to make necessary institutional adaptations in an ever-changing environment. This is all the more relevant in relation to the context in which political parties have competed over the last two decades: policy constraints have never been so high, the capacity to respond to citizens’ demands has never been so low and, as a result, Western European political elites face an unprecedented ‘erosion of political support’ (Dalton 2004). If, in a changing environment, a lot must change in order for things to remain the same, then one might expect that in a context of democratic challenges, institutions will change. To refer once more to the theoretical debate on party system change, party systems may have been stable because political elites have been able to alter their environment, and in particular their institutional environment.

This book aims to provide a different perspective on institutional engineering in Western European democracies over the last two decades. By developing a new analytical tool to account for the multidimensional and systemic nature of institutional change (bundles of reforms), I aim to put into perspective, and to revise, the common understanding of institutional change up until now. I focus on reforms of the formal rules regulating the functioning of democracy, which I call the core democratic rules. These rules are essential in shaping the environment in which parties compete and cooperate, but also in defining and redefining what is meant by representation in a modern democracy. They are not written in stone. They are the product of conscious social choices made by political elites and other actors. They constitute strategic responses to challenges and incentives. I start from the assumption that elites do what is necessary to reinforce their position in favourable environments, and to survive in hostile environments, and that they understand institutions as ‘mechanisms that must “work”’ (Sartori 1994, ix). Consequently, my initial hunch is that the conjunction of political uncertainty and political delegitimation should be a strong incentive for institutional change, and that institutional engineering could be one of the solutions chosen by the elites to address these challenges. It might prove to be wrong. The elites might use institutional engineering for completely different reasons, unrelated to any kind of external incentives. They might also be faced with strong incentives and choose not to address them, or not to address them through institutional engineering. (p.3) They may also attempt to adopt institutional reforms, and prove incapable of managing to provide positive outcomes. The question guiding the whole book is the following: what explains the occurrence of reform of the core democratic rules in Western European democracies in the last two decades? This research deals with the context, the motives, and the mechanisms explaining the incidence of institutional engineering.

Therefore, two different questions about institutional change are crucial here: first, how much change to the core democratic rules in Western European democracies can be observed over the course of the two last decades, where did this change take place, and at what point in time? Second, why are some attempts to reform successful, while others are not? This book aims to test the general hypothesis that institutional reforms constitute a response from political elites to challenges to their legitimacy and to growing uncertainty in established democracies, and also, that the final outcome of reforms depends on the type of reform taking place, and on the process of reform that is used. These two hypotheses are not the first that come to mind when considering the occurrence of change. The more obvious explanation is that change occurs less frequently and with greater difficulty when rules are rigid and veto points are numerous. One of the main results of this book is to challenge this general explanation, because it does not hold empirically. I will first abandon the narrow view of institutional change, based only on major reforms or on single dimensions of reform. The multidimensional nature of institutional systems, which has long been theoretically and empirically established (Lijphart 1984; 1999), implies that one should also account for the clustering of institutions when studying change. This also means that I will take into account both successful and unsuccessful institutional reforms. The empirical problem consists of a descriptive question:

  • What has the scope of institutional engineering in Western Europe been in the last two decades? What types of reforms have been adopted, in what circumstances, and at what time?

The analytical problem is composed of two separate questions:

  • A question about reform triggers: what particular circumstances bring about institutional reforms?

  • A question about the processes of reforms: what mechanisms can explain why a reform which is on the agenda is eventually adopted, or rejected? What can be learned about the processes of institutional change when reforms are analysed in bundles rather than separately?

Answering these questions necessitates the development of a research strategy based on mixed methods. The notion of mixed methods is not considered here as a buzzword or slogan, but as a consequence of the different methodological challenges posed by the questions above. As Newman and Benz have (p.4) argued, qualitative and quantitative methods are best understood as part of a single ‘continuum’ (1998). The use of mixed methods is here the result of a pragmatic approach, based on the belief that no single method can adequately answer all of the research questions this book seeks to tackle. As a consequence, the book will proceed in two steps: first, a preliminary large-N longitudinal and cross-sectional analysis aiming to test the theories developed in the literature concerning electoral and regime change, and second, a series of case studies of bundles of reforms with the aim of building theories to investigate the mechanisms behind the processes of institutional reform. Therefore, the first part of the book focuses on describing the changes which have been made to the core democratic rules, and on identifying their determinants. The second part, on the other hand, attempts to link these determinants to actual mechanisms. It also centres the analysis on the importance of the processes (the politics of reform) in gaining a full understanding of their final outcome. The two methods are informed by one another on the topic of the determinants of change, and complement each other because they provide insight into different issues: the issue of the description of change for the quantitative analysis, and of the mechanisms which lead to positive or negative outcomes for the qualitative analysis. The use of a nested analysis using mixed methods therefore appears to be particularly appropriate (Lieberman 2005).

This mixed method strategy leads us on to the development of the concept of bundles of institutional reforms, that is, reforms affecting several dimensions of the institutional system at once (Chapter 1), which can be mobilized both in large-N and in more focused, qualitative analyses. Western European democracies are currently facing particular challenges in relation to the progressive erosion of political support during the last few decades. The first chapter also focuses on the crucial matter of identifying and defining which reforms are to be investigated: reforms of core democratic rules. A distinction is made between those which affect the representative and the participative functions of democracies, leading to the delineation of six dimensions of reform. Although political science has made considerable progress in addressing the matter of institutional change in the last twenty years, the current explanations about the determinants and processes of change fall short when the aim is to expand the dependent variable to include several dimensions of change and minor reforms. The existing literature overlooks the frequency of change, overestimates the self-interested nature of institutional reforms, and finally, insufficiently acknowledges the fact that reforms do not take place as isolated events, but often as parts of a bigger picture (Chapter 2). The third chapter will present the unique database on which the empirical analysis in this book is based: the SIEPOL (Seclusion and Inclusion in the European Polity: Institutional Change and Democratic Practices) project ‘Institutional change in advanced European democracies’ accounts for six dimensions of (p.5) change in eighteen Western European democracies, and is directed by Peter Mair and Adrienne Héritier. It will provide an overview of the scope, the direction, and the nature of institutional engineering during the last twenty years in Western Europe. I will show that institutional reforms have been relatively frequent, mostly inclusive, and have been ‘packaged’ in bundles in the majority of cases. Then the central claim that reforms of core democratic rules are triggered by political instability and democratic delegitimation will be tested and refined through the use of this database. In order to do this, I distinguish the long-term factors that provide fertile ground for reforms of core democratic rules, and the short-term factors that explain why more reforms happen at particular moments. The importance of the level of political support in the long term, and of political alternation in power and rising volatility, will be demonstrated (Chapter 4).

The second part of the book moves the reflection on institutional change forward by focusing on the mechanisms of reform. The first part of the book describes and analyses only those reforms that have actually happened. The reality is that many of the reforms of core democratic rules which make their way on to national agendas never actually manage to reach the stage of final adoption. The three case studies undertaken aim to provide greater understanding of why and in what circumstances some reforms are passed. This involves distinguishing between the different types of reform at stake, and between the processes used to conduct these reforms. The fifth chapter argues that the crucial element in distinguishing between reforms of core democratic rules is whether they are of a divisive or a consensual nature, according to the level of public support they enjoy. These two types of reform lead elites to focus on claiming credit or on self-interest, respectively. This in turn explains why the factors accounting for the final fate of divisive and consensual reforms are different, and imply distinctive mechanisms. The impact of veto players, the number of dimensions of reform at stake, and the type of process of reform (majoritarian, supermajoritarian, or externalized) will be discussed. The three remaining chapters provide empirical evidence about the mechanisms of bundles of reforms. The bundle of reforms undertaken in Ireland in 2011, serves first, to illustrate the conditions necessary for alternation, volatility, and a lack of political support to be translated into concrete pressure on elites to reform institutions. Second, it enables us to understand why the consensual reforms which went to a referendum failed, while other consensual reforms which were adopted in parliament succeeded. Finally, it shows the way in which the Irish government got rid of the most divisive reforms through an externalized body, the Constitutional Convention (Chapter 6). For France, two reforms are studied: the reduction of the presidential term from seven to five years, and the reordering of the electoral calendar in order to hold the presidential elections before the legislative ones. Despite the fact that these reforms were intrinsically linked, the reformers used distinctive (p.6) processes leading up to their successful adoptions, because the reforms were of different natures. The first (the quinquennat) illustrates the dynamics of collaboration as well as the credit-claiming characteristic of consensual reforms adopted through a supermajoritarian process. The second (reform of the electoral calendar), on the other hand, exemplifies the prevalence of self-interest in a majoritarian process with a divisive reform (Chapter 7). Chapter 8 is dedicated to the study of two reforms debated in Italy between 2003 and 2005: reform of the second part of the constitution, and electoral reform. These two contentious and divisive reforms illustrate the importance of close examination of coalition dynamics in understanding the politics of reform. Led by a centre-right coalition composed of parties with hugely diverse interests, these processes illustrate how, by bundling reforms into a package deal with mutual trade-offs and concessions, the reformers managed to reach an agreement in parliament. The constitutional reform was eventually defeated at referendum, providing insights into the importance of the timing of reforms. The concluding chapter (Chapter 9) discusses the contribution of the book on four issues: the description of the reforms of core democratic rules that occurred in Western Europe from 1990 to 2010, the short- and long-term determinants influencing the occurrence of reform, the dynamics of emergence of bundles of reforms, and finally, the link between the nature of the reform at stake, the process of reform, and the final outcome of a given proposal. Drawing from the three case studies, the Conclusion will present a typology of six configurations of reform, according to their divisive or consensual character and the type of process (majoritarian, supermajoritarian, and externalized).