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Participation and Representation. A comparative study of linkage mechanisms between citizens and the political system in contemporary democracies (PartiRep)

Research project P7/46 (Research action P7)

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Description :

Democratic governance requires mechanisms and actors that link citizens to the state. Citizens should be able to voice their demands and political outputs need to be congruent with these demands. It is precisely over the manner in which this desired match between citizens’ preferences and the state’s policies can be produced that discussions about the functioning of democracy in contemporary Europe voice concern. Traditional forms of participation and traditional partisan frames giving meaning to the democratic exchange appear to be under pressure. Both the institutional environment and the societal norms and values in which political actors have to make their choices have been evolving. The democratic dialogue has become more complex and more fragmented.

Changing patterns of participation and representation was already the theme on which the PARTIREP network has focused in the course of the past five years (2007-2011). The network has set up a variety of projects on patterns of political participation, political trust, political protest, political parties, political deliberation and political representation. Our starting point was the assumption that changing patterns of participation and representation were to be analyzed and explained within a frame of decline and, therefore, increasing pressure on the good and legitimate functioning of democracy. The results of our research have however made us aware of the fact that this ‘decline’ angle is, at the least, very incomplete and probably quite biased. Results of our research seem to point at a variety of strategies by which both citizens and politicians adapt to the changing context of participation and representation.

In this application we will investigate these ideas by focusing on three broad research themes or work packages: substantive representation, personalization and democratic innovation.
Partisan and electoral political representation is at the core of democratic politics. It is the key mechanism by which citizens’ preferences enter the processes of decision making and by which policy outputs can be made to match citizens’ preferences. Whether this model still holds, and whether and to what extent it is being replaced by other frames and other channels of representation and communication is a key question to be answered. Under this first work package four research projects will be conducted:

- Media coverage: signaling the importance of issues
- The political agenda setting power of protest
- Mass-elite political congruence and responsiveness
- The substantive representation of social groups: being and feeling represented

One of the frames that is often cited as offering a possible alternative to the partisan and ideological linkage is the personalization of politics. The underlying idea is that individual politicians are becoming more important in politics at the expense of traditional social and political groups. The state of our knowledge in this respect is clearly not satisfactory for the moment. In this work package we will attempt to gain a better insight into the scope and types of personalization of democratic politics:

- The personalization of electoral systems
- The geography of personal campaigning
- Representational claims and personalization
- Candidate selection in political parties

During the past decade, various political systems have implemented reforms aimed at democratic innovation. More open consulting procedures are being tried out; deliberative assemblies are invited to discuss about major decisions; more referenda aim at involving more citizens into the decision-making process. Political parties have also been trying to reorganize themselves in a way that might restore or strengthen the linkage with voters and with activists. A crucial question is however the extent to which these democratic innovations do indeed have an effect on participation, on trust and legitimacy and – coming back to the question of policy congruence – on the degree to which citizens’ demands and policy outputs match. Here also four research projects will be carried out:

- Primaries in political parties
- The role of activists in political campaigning
- Democratic innovation and political trust
- The effectiveness of emerging political participation repertoires

The functioning of the network

By limiting the number of work packages, the network aims at functioning in a very integrated way. Bi-monthly meetings of all researchers of the network – alternately focusing on one of the work packages – will allow intensive communication and feedback on theoretical and methodological choices. It will also provide a forum for intensive training of the PhD researchers.
Building on good practices of the network during its first phase (2007-2011) we will develop a number of common data-gathering endeavors, which will produce material that can be used across a large number of projects. We will again conduct a panel voter survey on the occasion of the regional and European elections of June 2014 so that comparisons over time can be made. Next to that we plan several other important data collection activities that will involve all the partners. These include field experiments during the Belgian local elections of October 2012, a Candidate Survey in 2014, and a Voting Advice Application in 2014.

The different research projects that we plan to conduct will also deliberately try to use a wide variety of research methods. These include experimental designs, field experiments, participant observation, focus groups, surveys and elite interviews. Using a wider variety of methods does, however, require good information about the techniques and about the consequences of their use. The ‘Methodology Assistance and Support Team’ (MAST) that we will create in the network will have the task to offer methodological training, methodological and theoretical reflections, and practical advice.

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