Academic journal article Romanian Journal of Political Science

Voter Characteristics and Leader Effects in a Post-Communist Context: The Case of the 2012 Legislative Elections in Romania

Academic journal article Romanian Journal of Political Science

Voter Characteristics and Leader Effects in a Post-Communist Context: The Case of the 2012 Legislative Elections in Romania

Article excerpt

Introduction

In the contemporary political environment, the added value brought by leaders to the electoral performance of their parties appears to be significant and growing. Although the degree to which such a contribution is decisive for the results of elections is unclear, the increased public attention to leaders instead of issues is a finding hard to contest. This phenomenon is largely referred to in the literature as 'personalization of (electoral) politics' (Kaase, 1994; Karvonen, 2010; McAllister, 2007), 'electoral face of presidentialization' (Mughan, 2000; Poguntke and Webb, 2005), 'candidate-centred politics' (Wattenberg, 1991) or simply as 'leader effects on voting' (Aarts et al., 2011; Barisione, 2009). Most of the research on leader effects focuses on enduring Western democracies and regards the phenomenon as an aggregate effect of a sequence of transformations: changes in the patterns of mass communication in the age of electronic media (Bean and Mughan, 1989; King, 2002; McAllister, 2007, 1996; Poguntke and Webb, 2005), a significant erosion of traditional electoral alignments (McAllister, 2007, 1996; Schmitt and Ohr, 2000; Wattenberg, 1991), an increase in the complexity of political issues correlated with a shift of interest from local to national politics (McAllister, 1996), and the internationalization of politics (Poguntke and Webb, 2005).

Although extensively studied for the case of Western polities, the scenario of a similar shift from parties to leaders as main actors of the electoral scene occurring in the Eastern post-communist bloc is largely ignored in the literature. The exceptions are rather few (Colton, 2000, 2002; Flacco, 2014; Gheorghita, 2014; Grbesa, 2004; Rudi, 2014; Stefuriuc, 2003). Still, it is very likely that many CEE countries have reached the same outcome of electoral personalization following an alternative pathway, as a consequence of several local-specific evolutions: an accelerated development of media systems, with fast-growing audiences of privately-owned, commercially-targeted TV stations (Hallin and Mancini, 2013), a lack of solid party alignments, reflected in rather fluid structures of political cleavages and high volatility rates (Evans and Whitefield, 1993), inexperienced electorates, unprepared to deal with the complexity of political issues after the fall of communism (Lewis, 2002), and a rapid internationalization of politics due to NATO or EU accession issues. Added to the historical tradition of almighty leaders in the region, all these developments may have facilitated a 'fast track' towards leader-centred electoral politics in post-communist CEE countries, in contrast to the traditional evolutions in Western democracies.

The personalization literature is rather discordant in assessing the magnitude of leader effects on the vote (3): while some studies discuss big and growing effects across recent elections (Costa Lobo, 2006; Mughan, 2000; Stewart and Clarke, 1992), others identify small effects or inconsistent evolutions (Dinas, 2008; Holmberg and Oscarsson, 2011; Schoen, 2007). At least up to a certain point, such variations in results might rely on differences in the conceptual definitions and methodological strategies employed (Barisione, 2009). But an increasing number of voices in the literature suggest that, in order to understand better the variations in the magnitude of personalization, a closer look at the 'conditionality' of leader effects is needed (Barisione, 2009). In other words, the research on personalization should give more consideration to the conditions mediating the manifestation of leader effects, acting as stimuli or inhibitors. In a theoretical article, Barisione (2009) discusses four categories of such conditions: structural constraints (institutional, political, territorial and media contexts in which elections take place), political opportunities (opinion climate, economic situation, systemic crisis and campaign environment), individual moderators (availability of leader-oriented segments of voters) and image variables (features of the leader). …

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