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Changing Patterns of Participation and Representation in Contemporary Democracies. A Comparative Research on the Relation between Citizens and State

Research project P6/37 (Research action P6)

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Participation and representation are concepts that have been at the centre of political debates and of political theory for a few decades. This debate refers to (still ongoing) deep changes in the way citizens are linked to the process of political decision-making and in the procedures and principles that organize the democratic dialogue between state and society.

This pressure on democracy has multiple dimensions and multiple origins:

Sociological change: Erosion of traditional communities (like class and religion) has made citizens more independent and autonomous. The offer and search for information and meaning is scattered over different sources that allow for creative combinations, but that also offer less clear clues for (political) choices.

Value change: This dissociation between citizens and social groups goes hand in hand with a process of deep value change among western publics. New values, new sensitivities, new issues – some say even new cleavages – have put pressure on the traditional patterns of intermediation. Among these new values is the importance of critical political participation.

Institutional change: European integration and processes of intra-state regionalization have blurred the relationship between a territorially defined population and the production of binding political outputs for that same political community.

Party change: Political parties are less able to function as the major intermediaries between citizens and politics. Electoral turnout declines and party membership declines ever further. Citizens do not trust political parties.

Party system change: The competition between parties seems to move in most countries towards a bipolar logic, where the selection of the leader of the next government is more important than the representation of the values and interests of the voters.
Administrative culture change: The implementation but also the production of political rules involves a wide range of so-called non-majoritarian institutions like expert committees and quasi-independent agencies.

These developments raise a large number of (also normative) questions that are extremely relevant for modern political science. The main research question for this project is how the processes of participation and representation are being affected by these social changes, and in turn, what effect participation and representation patterns have on the legitimacy of democratic government. We want to look at citizens (participation, attitudes), at political parties (organization, strategies), at other intermediary organizations (media, social movements) and at political decision-makers (role perception, links with society). This multi-facetted research will be broken down in several smaller projects or work packages. What all these packages have in common, however, is the fact that they investigate aspects of the same central research question.
There will be two major common research instruments that will take on board questions from most of the work packages and that will deeply integrate the whole project: a pre- and post-electoral (population) survey (panel) for the regional elections in Belgium (2009) and an international survey of members of national and regional parliaments.


Changing Patterns of Citizen Participation. In all Western societies, political parties and other traditional intermediary organizations are losing members. New intermediary structures, however, seem to be on the rise. A question that has not been tackled successfully thus far, however, is whether these new structures are just as effective in enabling the interaction between citizens and political decision makers. This question will be central in an analysis of the European Social Survey and our own panel study (2009). The survey of MP’s also allows investigating through which channels MP’s receive information and requests from voters.

The Transformation of Political Trust. Traditionally it is assumed that political systems are dependent on the presence of institutional or political trust within the population. Various authors, however, have argued that younger age groups tend to evolve toward ‘critical citzens’, rather than toward ‘trusting citizens’. The dynamics of political trust will be investigated, using a) the European Social Survey (2002-2004-2006) and b) our own panel survey we will conduct in 2009.

Media, parties and voters. This project will analyze the role of the media in the 2009 regional elections campaign, with special attention to the relations between voters and parties during pre-election times. To what extent do the mass media determine the electoral campaign taking up functions previously fulfilled by parties and civil society? The project will draw upon a pre-electoral panel survey in Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels and upon content analysis of mass media. International research on the media’s role during elections yielded mixed results so far. Hypotheses about agenda-setting, framing, issue-ownership… have sometimes been rejected and sometimes confirmed. In Belgium, research on media and elections has only been starting but the (pre-electoral) panel design and the institutional set-up of Belgium with two separated media systems and party systems within the same constitutional and legislative framework produces a powerful research design that will allow to enhance our knowledge about the mass media’s political impact.

Protest and transitory engagements. People increasingly flow in and out of protest events, protest cycles, and social movements. Protesters’ commitment is not enduring or constant but wavering and conditional. Depending on the specific context in terms of issue, emotional charging, stage in the protest cycle, mobilizing networks, media attention, political configuration, etc. people decide to engage in protest or not. Protesters seem to be less than before mobilized via enduring and formal networks. These are being replaced by open and more ephemeral mobilization patterns. The transitory character of these protest mobilizations challenges the common idea that, to be influential, popular preferences must be conveyed to political elites in a structured, durable, and organized manner. In a nutshell: what do transitory protest events imply for citizenship, for the social movements, and for political elites? To tackle these questions we mainly rely on large-scale protest-surveys.

Party members and representation in multi-layered systems. Parties are the classical vectors of political representation. To what extent are they evolving in the light of shifts of power downwards - regionalization - and upwards - Europeanization and internationalization - and of substantial transformations linked to the introduction and exploitation of new communication media? Our approach will be centred on two levels of political parties: their leadership and their members. The relation of these two strata to the aforementioned problems will be considered from a double perspective: the dependence or independence of each of the variables with respect to the action and the motivation of joining and being activist from the point of view of the members and in exercising and developing different forms of leadership from the point of view of the leaders at each level of power.

Representation in (and of) multiple territories. Research on representational roles has been set so far in the context of the national state, with variations between the formal national institutions of these states explaining the variations in these roles and the possible ‘agency loss’. In this project we want to conceptualize principal-agent relations explicitly in a context where the control over policy making has been in varying and non-symmetrical ways pooled at the European level and devolved to regions. That also means that policy making, participation and delegation chains vary between sectors and between territories. We analyze representational roles of office holders and party strategies in multi-layered systems. We draw upon a comparative survey of MPs.

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