WP 2: Personalization

Coordination : Université Libre de Bruxelles

Political scientists and commentators have discussed a putative personalization of politics for some years. The underlying idea is that individual politicians occupy an increasingly central position in politics at the expense of traditional social and political groups. The individualization of society has weakened traditional ties and cleavages, accompanied by a growing distrust of political parties among citizens. Another major change has been the growing importance of the media in politics. All these changes have contributed to a deep political transformation in Western democracies (Bauman, 2001). As a result individual politicians have grown more important in the eyes of voters and the media and within the institutional architecture.

These changes have led to a growing interest in research about the personalization of politics (McAllister, 2007). In an extensive review, Karvonen (2010) identifies three major aspects of the personalization of politics. First, several scholars have explored the empowerment of political leaders in contemporary democracies, as exemplified by Poguntke and Webb’s (2005) work on the presidentialization of parliamentary democracies. Following the earlier works of Mughan (2000) and Foley (2000), they argue that party leaders, and, even more, prime ministers in parliamentary systems have gained much power and autonomy in recent years. They dominate more than ever before their government, their party, and the media landscape. Describing also the empowerment of party leaders Blondel and Thiébault (2010) talk of the emergence of personalized leaders in European democracies and beyond (Japan, Thailand).

The second aspect focuses on the growing importance of candidates and party leaders in electoral politics. The general assumption is that voters choose on the basis of their judgment of individual politicians rather than parties. Many scholars have sought to measure the so-called party leaders’ effect on the vote (Aarts, Blais and Schmitt, 2011; Curtice and Holmberg, 2005, Wattenberg, 1991). Others have tried to evaluate how all candidates, not just party leaders, loom larger in voters’ minds (Blais et al., 2003, Marsh, 2007).

The third aspect looks at media coverage of politics in order to verify whether individual politicians are becoming the central actors. Most research here concentrates on party leaders (Kaase, 1994, Langer, 2007), though a few others explore media coverage of all individual candidates more broadly (van Aelst and van Mierlo, 2003).

Each of the work packages of PARTIREP 2007-11 has already hinted at a personalization of politics in contemporary democracies. In their work on new forms of citizens’ participation Hooghe and Marien (2011) have confirmed the proliferation of non-institutionalized forms of participation that originate more in individual mobilizations than in collective institutionalized organizations. Walgrave et al. (2010) have shown how ICT are playing a key role to shift the burden of mobilization and activism from organizations towards individuals. Within parties as well reforms have been adopted towards more personalization (van Haute, 2011). The most obvious example is to be found in the growing use of party primaries, and even sometimes of open primaries, to select party leaders (Sandri and Pala, 2010). But it is in the electoral arena that evidence of personalization has been most visible (Deschouwer et al., 2010). Lefevere has underlined the growing importance of candidates and leaders as a decision rule for voting behavior (Lefevere, 2010) while André and others have insisted on the need for candidates to cultivate their personal reputation in order to get elected across a wide variety of electoral systems (including semi-open list systems allowing for preferential voting like in Belgium) (André, Depauw, and Deschouwer 2009; André, Wauters, and Pilet, 2010).

On the basis of these first elements but also considering recent developments in the international literature (Colomer, 2011) the issue of the personalization of politics will be one of the work packages of the second phase of PARTIREP. As admitted by the key scholars who have worked on this topic the state of our knowledge is clearly not satisfactory for the moment (Karvonen, 2010). In particular there is a need for a more systematic and coherent study of the phenomenon but projects having the critical mass to achieve it are still lacking. PARTIREP clearly has the scale and the resources to provide a landmark contribution to this issue.

In this work package four aspects of personalization will be analyzed. The first is the evolution of electoral systems, in which we want to see to what extent candidates have become more central in the way in which elections are organized. The second focuses on how candidates conduct their campaign, and in particular on the degree to which candidates favor a personal as opposed to a partisan campaign. The third also takes the individual politicians as units of analysis, but investigates the representational claims that candidates and members of parliament make. We want to know how they define their constituency, and here again analyze – between countries and over time – whether personal claims rather than partisan claims are on the rise. The fourth project turns to intra-party politics and analyzes the processes of candidate selection to assess which criteria the selectorates use to nominate and monitor the candidates on the lists.

  • Project 2.1. The personalization of electoral systems
  • Project 2.2. The geography of personal campaigning
  • Project 2.3. Representational claims and personalization
  • Project 2.4. Candidate selection in political parties