In representative democracies, elections are the basic link between the population and government. First, this is the means by which voters choose their representatives. Second, the election results form the basis on which the government is formed. Third, parliament is of fundamental importance in lawmaking and the control and legitimation of the government. Finally, outside elections, parliament is a key channel for citizens and pressure groups to influence political decisions. For all these reasons, in order to understand political representation it is crucial to study the electoral process and the formation of parliaments.
Different indicators reveal problems with representation in Portugal and various other democracies. Many of these indicators are thought to have been aggravated by the brutal economic crisis since 2008. Furthermore, with globalisation and the transfers of sovereignty to supranational (EU) bodies, parliaments, and thus national elections, have lost some of their importance in determining policy. The 2008 crisis and its consequences very probably reinforced the perception of such a situation.
What impact did all of this have on the process of political representation? And do the factors mentioned above have different consequences for representation depending on each country’s institutional and political conditions?
Moreover, we know that the economic crisis has changed the political agents’ discourses and practices in Portugal and various other countries. But, in fact, are there changes in the attitudes and behaviour of Portuguese political figures, in particular MPs, with regard to the main topics of political debate? If so, can the same changes be seen among voters? In other words, can a leadership effect be detected in the representation process? Or, to the contrary, has the crisis led to a greater discrepancy between the representatives and represented, accentuating the signs of a crisis in representation?
In a pioneering study on political representation in Portugal, coordinated by the present team ("Portuguese Deputies in Comparative Perspective: Elections, Leadership and Political Representation”, 2008-2010), we used various kinds of data. We were able to compare the attitudes and behaviour of the representatives and represented and study the pattern of the prospective MPs’ action in election campaigns. However, these studies were distinctly synchronic and centred on the Portuguese case.
Accordingly, though there is also continuity in relation to the earlier project, we wish to innovate in the present study; namely, with a simultaneously longitudinal and comparative perspective in the study of political representation.
First, benefiting from the integration of this project in three international networks, we will now be able to make a systematic study of the attitudes and behaviour of Portuguese MPs in 2008 and 2010 (PARENEL and PARTIREP, respectively) and candidate MPs (CCS, 2009), on different topics of political conflict (public policies, left-right split, ties with voters, institutional reform, European integration, deliberative democracy, pattern of election campaigns, etc.). We can then compare them with the attitudes and behaviour of MPs and candidate MPs in different Western democracies (PARENEL: 3 countries; PARTIREP: 15 European democracies, 70 parliaments; CCS: over 20 Western democracies). The analysis will allow us to study not only the impact of each political system’s institutional and political conditions on the representation process but also on the profile of electoral campaigns.
Second, the surveys of MPs and voters (2008), from the earlier project, and the surveys of MPs and voters (2012), to be carried out in this project, will serve as a point of longitudinal comparison. We plan to use these to introduce a longitudinal element into our analysis and, thereby, expect to see whether or not there is a leadership effect in the political representation process (representation from above).
The elements of continuity in relation to the earlier project involve, notably, updating the databases (MPs’ and prospective MPs’ biographies; surveys of MPs, candidate MPs and voters) and the associated longitudinal analysis. Thus, combining innovation and continuity in relation to an earlier project on the same topic, we now hope, in particular, to carry out a comparative and longitudinal study of electoral campaigns and the function of political representation in Portugal and Europe.
At a time when the signs of indifference to and discontentment with politics are increasing (greater abstention, sharp criticism of politicians, political disaffection, more scepticism about the EU etc.), it seems relevant for us to carry out an in-depth study of the issues relating to the relationship among voters, politicians and institutions. This may be of use in drafting a roadmap for institutional reform.
Major dimensions of analysis