Why Government Parties Change more than Opposition Parties

The forthcoming article “How Aspiration to Office Conditions the Impact of Government Participation on Party Platform Change” by Gijs Schumacher, Marc van de Wardt, Barbara Vis and Michael Baggesen Klitgaard is summarized here:

Do government parties or opposition parties change their election platform more? It has long been assumed that opposition parties change more than government parties. After all, opposition parties have been the losers of the past years. They had no or little influence on policy, no ministerial portfolios or access to interesting perks. Our article – How Aspiration to Office Conditions the Impact of Government Participation on Party Platform Change – demonstrates the opposite: government parties change their election platforms more than opposition parties do. Why is this? And what are the consequences hereof?

How did we measure party platform change?

Parties dedicate attention to a large number of issues in their electoral programs and on many of these issues they take a position. The Manifesto Research Group has coded 3749 electoral programs of European, North American and Antipodean parties in de period 1945-now. They distinguish between 56 different categories in this coding and indicate per category the percentage of attention dedicated to it in the respective election program. Many researchers have used this dataset to construct left-right positions. To measure the change between a party’s current and previous electoral program, we have analyzed the change in attention per category (such as position on multiculturalism and attention to law and order). To get more meaningful categories, we reduced the 56 categories to 19 ones. On average, parties change on about 4 categories. Government parties almost change on average on one category more than opposition parties do (3.8 categories versus 4.6). This difference becomes stronger if we control for alternative explanations of party platform change such as electoral results, public opinion shifts and fluctuations in economic performance. We also find this difference if we construct party platform change differently or if we use another dataset (the Chapel Hill Expert Survey). These conclusions are based on a sample of 1686 election programs of 214 parties in 21 democracies in the period 1950-2013.

Why do government parties change more?

Some theories that claim that opposition parties change more than government parties use loss aversion as an explanation. This mechanism – part of Tversky and Kahneman’s Prospect Theory – claims that individuals take more risks when confronted with losses and become risk-averse when confronted with gains. According to this logic, parties that have lost (elections or government participation) should change more. We employ a different interpretation. Loss aversion is about prospects and thus future – not past – performance. Ample research demonstrates that on average government parties lose votes. Due to this so-called ‘cost of governing’, government parties expect losses at the next elections. Negative opinion polls can awaken or reinforce these expectations. Confronted with these future losses, government parties change their electoral program. One or more opposition parties expect electoral gains, which makes them risk-averse and less likely to adapt their electoral platform.

It depends on your aspirations

But not every opposition party is the same. Some parties have never been in government (for example various Green, Radical Right or Radical Left parties). Other parties switch frequently between being a government or an opposition party. And other parties are almost always in government (Dutch Christian Democrats until 1994, Swedish Social Democrats between 1936 to 1976). Because of these differences in historical success parties have different aspirations to office. For one party opposition is a disaster; for the other party opposition is the norm.  Aspiration to office should therefore condition the effect of government participation on election platform change.

The results demonstrate that government parties who govern for the first time are the most likely parties to change their platform in the next elections. For example, the pacifists from the German Greens in the red-green Schröder I coalition gave the green light for German participation in a NATO-intervention in Kosovo. The Dutch Christian Union (a small orthodox protestant party) became considerably less homophobic during its first and only term in office (2006-2010). More recently (2011-2014) we have seen the Danish Socialist People’s Party shifted towards the center on economic issues during its first spell in government. The reason that these parties change considerably is that they are most at risk of electoral punishment or they have very little faith in continued success because of their lack of experience.

In contrast, some parties are more likely to suffer from an overdose of confidence because they have almost always been in government. The Dutch Christian Democrats and its predecessors have been part of every Dutch government until 1994. The Swedish Social Democrats were in office from 1936 to 1976. The Swedish People’s Party (in Finland!) has been in government since 1966. Of course this type of party is rather rare. Still, we found that these parties change drastically once they end up in opposition for the first time. For example, the Dutch Christian Democrats changed on 16 categories in 1998 after their first spell in opposition, one of our most extreme observations. In sum, how you respond to government participation or opposition status really depends on your aspirations vis-à-vis government.

What does this mean?

Our results suggest that opposition parties who are winning in the polls are likely to take less-and-less risks. Government parties on the other hand are likely to take more-and-more risks with elections approaching.

Of course this article also raises some new questions. Do parties indeed respond to polls? And which levels of the party push for party platform change? Who initiates the changes? These questions we hope to address in future research.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.