The effects of early elections on satisfaction with democracy

As the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill makes its way through parliament, Edward Morgan-Jones and Matthew Loveless report on the results of their recently published comparative study, which explores the impact of the rules surrounding the dissolution of parliament and early election calling on citizen satisfaction with democracy.  

The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill seeks to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 and returns to the UK Prime Minister the right to call early elections at any time, without the approval of parliament. This is a return to the to the UK’s traditional constitutional practice for dissolving parliament. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act changed this practice by limiting early election calling to occasions when either two-thirds of MPs vote for a parliamentary dissolution or the government fails a confidence vote and no alternative government can be found.

Returning to the prime minister the ability to call early elections whenever they wish increases the likelihood that early elections will be called for partisan and strategic reasons, that these elections will be called in conditions that favour the incumbent, and also makes it more likely that the prime ministers’ party will win such elections.

Our comparative analysis of constitutional rules governing early election calling in 26 European countries sheds light on the extent that we might be able to expect returning prime ministerial discretion to call elections to be associated with higher or lower degrees of democratic satisfaction.

The UK case fits into a broader pattern of rules governing pre-term parliamentary dissolutions and elections. Parliaments in European countries are typically elected for four or five-year terms of office. These can be truncated by pre-term dissolution, triggering an early election.  

Constitutional rules can place the ability to trigger such dissolution solely in the hands of the prime minister (such as Denmark or the UK before 2011), require the cabinet as a whole to agree (for example, The Netherlands), give this power to a directly or indirectly elected president (France or Italy), require a parliamentary super-majority, or require additional veto players, such as an upper house of parliament or a constitutional court to agree (Germany). We analysed whether this variation has an impact on citizens’ democratic evaluation of democracy.

These questions arise in the light of an extensive debate about the extent that giving the government the opportunity to call early elections when they wish undermines democratic accountability. Our motivation was to better understand if there was a link between the rules governing early election calling and citizens’ subjective evaluation of democracy. Most of the work on the link between election calling and accountability has focused on objective measures such as the likelihood that incumbents will win elections and the frequency with which prime ministers are removed without a popular vote.

Substantially less work has examined citizen subjective evaluations of the democratic quality of these experiences. Even if incumbents are more likely to be re-elected if they call early elections opportunistically, does that actually matter to the way citizens perceive democracy? In so far as it does matter – how does it matter?

In the paper we examine this question by looking at the association between a) constitutional rules governing early elections calling with citizen self-reports of their satisfaction with democracy and b) the association between actual occurrences of early election calling and these evaluations. The paper draws on data from the European Social Survey (ESS) from 2002 to 2016. The ESS is conducted every two years in a majority of European states.

We test a range of different arguments about the way that the links we are interested in examining may be configured. One set of tests focuses on arguments about the system-wide effects of these constitutions’ rules. For instance, because incumbents are more likely to win early elections this might enable them to evade accountability, leading to lower levels of democratic satisfaction.  

A further set of tests focuses less on the system-level differences and more on the act of calling early elections. Calling an early election can indicate that the government considers their prospects for re-election will decline if they wait for the normal parliamentary term to expire. Relatedly, economic circumstances often worsen after an early election. Early elections can therefore send a negative signal about the incumbents’ quality to voters. We test if this act of calling early elections also means that citizens view democracy as working less well.

Our study uses multi-level statistical models which allow us to account for variation in national political systems as well as differences at the level of individuals. We use survey responses from 161,694 individuals and control for a large number of factors that might confound the links between constitutional rules, early elections and democratic satisfaction.  

We find little evidence that constitutional rules alone correlate either negatively or positively with democratic satisfaction. However, we do find that the act of calling early elections is associated with a drop in democratic satisfaction in the period after the election is called. Additionally, this drop is higher the nearer to scheduled elections that early elections are called. This is important as the earlier in a parliamentary term an election is called, the less likely it is that the incumbents will win.

Some research suggests that voters are still likely to vote for governments even if they are perceived as opportunistic, because other factors such as economic performance at the time of the election are more important.

If it is the case that prime ministers calling early elections late in the term are perceived as opportunistic, but win elections nevertheless, this might explain our finding of lower levels of democratic satisfaction after early elections later in the parliamentary term. Voters can observe incumbent prime ministers violating norms of procedural fairness by calling elections when it suits them, but benefiting from that behaviour by winning.

What might this mean for citizen responses to the return of prime ministerial discretion to call early elections in the UK? On the one hand our results do not suggest that we might see citizens systematically downgrade their evaluation of democratic quality as a result of the fact that prime ministers can and will call elections for opportunistic purposes. On the other hand, our results suggest that citizens do downgrade their democratic satisfaction in the immediate aftermath of prime ministers using this power. So, democratic satisfaction does not suffer from the power existing, but from the power being used.

While newly re-elected incumbent governments pay little in the way of short-term costs, these citizen evaluations are nevertheless an important extra dimension that we can use to evaluate the consequences of the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill and the balance of costs and benefits that may flow from returning to the prime minister the power to call early elections when it suits them.

This blogpost summarises the findings of research conducted by the authors. An open access journal article, entitled Early Election Calling and Satisfaction with Democracy. discusses the themes of this blog in more detail.

About the authors

Dr Edward Morgan-Jones is Reader in Comparative Politics at the University of Kent.

Dr Matthew Loveless is an Associate Professor at the University of Bologna and Co-Director of the Center for Research and Social Progress.