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Party Mobilisation and Voter Turnout Decline in Sweden

Party Mobilisation and Voter Turnout Decline in Sweden

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While voter turnout is but one measure of the 'health' of a democracy it is an extremely important one. Sweden's much trumpeted 'strong democracy' has in recent years been experiencing a date of turnout decline which matches that of other Western democracies. This essay sets out to examine the causal relationship that exists between party mobilisation and turnout in Sweden.
While voter turnout is but one measure of the 'health' of a democracy it is an extremely important one. Sweden's much trumpeted 'strong democracy' has in recent years been experiencing a date of turnout decline which matches that of other Western democracies. This essay sets out to examine the causal relationship that exists between party mobilisation and turnout in Sweden.

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Sep 01, 2012
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08/20/2014

 
Party Mobilisation and Turnout Decline in Sweden
 
This essay will explore the relationship between the Swedish party system and votingturnout by the electorate, in national parliamentary elections. It will begin with a brief discussion of the importance of electoral participation in representative democracies, andmore specifically, why a declining rate of voter turnout is potentially destructive of democracy. I will then move on to the task of justifying my focus on political variables aheadof structural variables (such as demography), and in particular why I belief the party systemhas the status of an intervening variable in explaining cross-national and temporaldifferences in turnout. However this essay will not focus too much attention on acomparative perspective but will instead focus its attention on the role of the Swedish Partysystem in determining voting patterns in Sweden. My main task will be to analysis thecurrent voting turnout in Sweden, and then to account for changes within this rate,especially over the last 13 or so years.It is always precarious to try to set out definitional criteria of so diffuse a term as
‘democracy’. To say that democracy necessarily requires
certain criteria within a state is inmany ways to enter into a heated normative theoretical debate. Nevertheless, and despiteits diffusiveness,
democracy isn’t everything. It does have clearly
demarcated boundaries,
and whether one takes a ‘minimalistic’ or more
substantive view of what constitutesdemocracy, the holding of regular and contested elections in a representative democracy isan inescapable feature of its constitution (Whitehead, 2003, 242). In a democracy the
‘supreme power’
of the people has to express their wishes, expectations, demands andinterests to their representatives; and this requires a minimum level of engagement. This, atleast,
is a point upon which ‘populist’ democratic theorists, such as Benjamin Barber, and
more elitist democratic theorists such as Joseph Schumpeter could agree on. However this iswhere the agreement ends. As Van Deth and Elff succinctly put it, the need for a minimumlevel of involvement is accepted; however the debate in democratic theory is about the
“degree of involvement in a democratic system”
(Van Deth and Elff, 2004, 478).Some contemporary authors following on in the Schumpeterian tradition, such as Rosema,argue that in the least low-
turnout doesn’t matter, and at the most it is a pos
itive attributeof modern democracy. He argues that a low-turnout, in which most voters rationallyconsider their electoral choice, is preferable to a high-turnout where the majority of votesare made on the basis of some politically arbitrary judgement or preference (Rosema, 2006,3). The problem with this argument is that there is certainly no guarantee that those whoshow at the polls will cast a more quality vote. Just because they are the less inert, andpossibly more motivated citizens does not automatically imply that their political judgementis more beneficial for the so-called common
good. Rosema’s argument
is in many waysbased on the judgement that those who do not bother to vote do so not just out of inertiaand disinterest. While standing accused of fence-sitting, it is perhaps more empirically tothe point
to cite D’Art and T
urne
r who contend that in ‘real terms’;
for those who favourgreater income equality a high participation rate can be said to be beneficial; while thosewho favour small, limited government, greater participation can involve greater cost (2007,105).
 
However this does not answer as to whether low and decreasing turnout can be seen as asymptom of dissatisfaction with the political system. While not attempting to beat myMarxist drums too loudly, low and decreasing turnout, can also be a symptom of alienationfrom the political system at large. Again this comes back to the debate about whetherapathy can be considered a political good or as destructive of the democratic politicalsystem. It is perhaps prudent to concede that one hundred percent turnout is notsomething which is likely to be achieved (without that is, compulsory voting laws) in
anything resembling Dahl’s polyarchy. However, disregarding any aforementionedconception of the ‘good life’, such as the belief that a particular economic system is
- a priori-inherently better, and looking towards democracy primarily as a dispute resolutionmechanism, it is perhaps more prudent to have the greatest possible number of citizens in a
society playing the ‘democratic game', rather than having a very substantial
percentage of the citizenry being passive receivers of governmental output, to which they had no input.
Party Systems Approach
There are indeed many variables which go towards explaining temporal, spatial and cross-national differences in turnout rates. Wattenberg neatly sums up the methodological and
conceptual question confronting any research into voting patterns, “whi
ch is moreimportant in causing more or fewer people to go to the polls, partisan or demographic
changes?”; to which his reply is ‘partisan’ (Wattenberg, 2000, 71). His main argument is that
in spite of the prevalence of supposed countervailing demographic pressures, turnout hasbeen declining almost uniformly throughout the OECD (Wattenberg, 2000, 71). For instance,if one takes the demographic factors proposed by Lipset in the 1950s: that men vote morethan women, the educated more than the less educated and the old more than the young; asocio-demographic analysis alone would not be able to explain the current downward trendin voter d
ecline. However these ‘push’ theories of voting patterns still warrant much
attention (Van Deth and Elff, 2004, 478). While education, for instance, has increased in allOECD countries to a scale that was almost unimaginable in the 1960s, voting turnout hasdeclined, even among the young more educated generations. Despite this, authors have stillfound a strong correlation between certain types of education and high turnout (Hillygus2005).Perhaps it is unwise to consider in any more than nominal terms, the party system to be anindependent variable. However its status as an intervening variable is not as doubtful. Whilewe cannot, of course separate political parties from the character of the citizens that vote ordo not vote for them or from their social circumstances, it is naive to assert that politicalparties themselves do not have a reciprocal affect upon
voters’
orientations to the politicalsystem as a whole. As Gronlund asserts,
“it is assumed t
hat voter turnout is dependent, not only on social structure, but also on
individual voters’ rational evaluation. Basically,
this individual rationality interferes with the
‘‘pure’’ effects of the social
 
environment” (Gronlund, 2004, 504)
 According to Goldstein and Ridout, there are also clear normative implications of such anapproach,
If propensities to vote are not only determined by immutable demographicfactors but by environmental and strategic factors as well, then reducing the structural
 
barriers to voting and strengthening the amount or quality of mobilization may bring morepeople to the polls
(Goldstein and Ridout, 2004, 4).Schattschneider once asserted that modern democracy is unthinkable without politicalparties. He referred not only to political
party’s’
historical role in many countries in
expanding citizen participation, but to party’s various functional roles as organisations in
sustaining democracy (Dalton and Wattenberg, 2000, 1). This view attributes manyfunctions to political parties that- even if not constitutionally enshrined- are fundamental tothe successful functioning of a parliamentary democracy. Most importantly to consider in
my current discussion is V.O. Key’s classification of 
party
functions ‘in the electorate’ (Dalton
and Wattenberg, 2000, 5). Briefly, these amount to: simplifying and aggregating choices forvoters; as democratic teachers
educating the citizenry in ‘civic virtue’
and everyday issues;generating symbols of identification and loyalty which stabilise the democratic system(because people are less likely to be swayed by demagogic personalities); and mobilising theelectorate both directly (through personal contact with a party member for instance) andindirectly (through reducing the informational costs of voting, for instance) (Dalton andWattenberg, 2000, 6-7).As my point of departure I take the premise: that support for a particular political party orgroup of political parties- or more importantly lack thereof- can colour an individual citizen
sorientation towards the entire political system. The main theme I will be pressingthroughout my investigation into the relationship between the party system and voting
patterns in Sweden, is Dalton and Wattenberg’s ‘defreezing’ of party systems hypothe
sis;and its consequences on voter turnout. This hypothesis suggests that party systems acrossEurope, and even further afield, are losing their post-war structure. Essentially this is aresult of a shift from the traditional religious, urban-rural, and classed-based cleavage votingstructure of modernity to a freer floating, post-materialist voting pattern that characteriseslate modernity. This results in the emergence of new categories of voters, whom the oldpolitical parties and rigid party models are unable to accommodate.Furthermore, parties are rapidly losing their traditional grass-roots grounding, as the
electoral market forces them to become ‘catch
-
all’ parties pandering to the demands of a
heterogeneous middle-class. With the erosion of their societal base, people are less likelyto display long-term pa
rtisan commitments, nor to retain “enduring feelings of partyidentification” (Sundberg, 1999, 232).
 Dalton and Wattenberg suggest that there are several trends that point towards thedeclining influence of political parties. For instance most established parties have seen theirmembership wane, and contemporary publics seem to exhibit declining trust in partisanpolitics (especially among key groups such as the young or immigrant communities). Theyassert that this amounts to at least a transformation in the role played by political parties inthe electorate; and at most a pattern of partisan decline (Dalton and Wattenberg, 2000, 3).
Sundberg applies the ‘defreezing’ hypothesis
to the Scandinavian party system. He confirmsthat the post-materialist argument of Dalton and others, is supported in as far as there is anerosion of the ability of the traditional class and agrarian cleavages to explain party choice.However, the outcome expected by the post-materialist argument does not hold in theScandinavian case. Sundberg maintains that the expected electoral instability and

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