Media and the Presidentialization of Parliamentary Elections

Media and the Presidentialization of Parliamentary Elections

Media and the Presidentialization of Parliamentary Elections

Media and the Presidentialization of Parliamentary Elections

Synopsis

In theory, parliamentary elections are a contest between political parties whose leaders do not have a separate identity from their party in the public eye. This case study of Britain shows that this theory no longer holds; the dynamics of parliamentary elections have become more 'presidential' in the sense that the leaders of the major parties now figure more prominently on both media coverage of the campaign and in the party that voters choose at the polls. The implications for our understanding of parliamentary democracy are discussed.

Excerpt

This project was begun in the late 1980s when, on leave from University College, Cardiff, I had the great good fortune to spend a little over three years as a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Political Science in the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University. I had left a Britain where the Conservative leader, Margaret Thatcher, had been prime minister for some six years and arrived in an Australia where her Labor counterpart, Bob Hawke, seemed the same dominant political figure both within his party and in the country at large. The prevailing orthodoxy that these two leaders, like prime ministers before them, were no larger than their party because both operated in a parliamentary system of government with strong parties just did not tally with my, and many others', perception of the distribution of electoral and governmental influence and power in the two countries at the time. My first effort to untangle this puzzle was a newspaper article asking how two leaders, one of the right and one of the left and so different in personality and style, could each lead their party to its third successive election victory in 1987. Ian McAllister and I then included in the 1987 Australian Election Study that we organized a battery of leader character trait questions that had been part of the 1983 British Election Study. These two sets of questions were then used by Clive Bean and myself to publish an article in the December issue of the 1989 American Political Science Review entitled 'Leadership Effects in Parliamentary Elections in Australia and Great Britain'. I am most grateful to my co-author for his generous advice, encouragement and comments, as well as for the insights from his own further work on the topic of party leader effects, in the intervening period.

Once I determind to pursue the study of the presidentialization of parliamentary elections, a number of analytical obstacles soon became clear to me. First, to continue with comparative analysis would be difficult since the wealth of opinion polling, election survey and media content data over time that was available in Britain was rare, if not unique. Second, the longitudinal element of the study was crucial and could not be sacrificed to a more cross-sectional and comparative perspective. Third, in the mid-1980s presidentialization was no more than an emerging force in British electoral politics, which meant that I had to wait for more time points, or elections, to determine whether it was . . .

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