23/03/2021

When things don't go your way

Ranking topics: Most democratic

Mark Rutte is a serial winner. The Netherlands’ prime minister is about to start a fourth consecutive term. When polls closed in the Dutch parliamentary election on March 17th, his centre-right Liberal (VVD) party had accumulated about 22% of the vote—enough to finish in first place, ahead of perhaps a dozen other parties that received between 1% and 20%. In the Netherlands’ fractured political landscape, Mr Rutte will have to bargain with several parties to form a coalition. The VVD has led the past three governments and was a partner in five of the previous six. In contrast, Geert Wilders’ anti-immigration Party for Freedom (PVV) has never been a formal member of a coalition, despite regularly finishing in the top three since his party’s formation in 2006. It did so again this time, coming third with 11%.

Many of Mr Wilders’ supporters on the far right, who share his wish to shut mosques and leave the European Union, are doubtless angry that the PVV remains perennially in opposition. Two recent academic studies show that disenchantment with democracy, and much else, is common among European voters whose parties have suffered electoral defeat. This phenomenon is known by researchers as the “winner-loser gap”, whereby supporters of opposition parties are more despairing about their country’s political system than supporters of governing parties.

working paper by Dimiter Toshkov and Honorata Mazepus of Leiden University has quantified this effect across 20 countries. They used two separate editions of the European Social Survey (ESS), in 2012 and 2018, to analyse how supporters of various parties changed their attitudes over time. Each edition of the ESS asks tens of thousands of people to answer various questions on a scale from zero to ten. For example, the average respondent in both the 2012 and 2018 surveys gave a score of about five for satisfaction with how democracy works in their country. (The two editions polled different people, but because they were randomly sampled from the European population, they provide similarly representative cohorts.)

When the authors looked at people who voted for parties that had gained or lost power between 2012 and 2018, the results were clear. After adjusting for demographic differences across countries, they estimated a 7% fall in satisfaction with democracy for a typical loser and a 6% rise for a typical winner (using an employed person of middle age and average education as their baseline). Their models reckon that this effect is similar across the continent, regardless of a country’s electoral system (see chart). Strikingly, they also found signs of a winner-loser gap in the levels of trust citizens say they have in other respects—in parliament and politicians; the courts and police; and even in other people in general.

Another recent study by the ESS, published last year by Matthew Loveless of the University of Bologna, found that the gap in democratic satisfaction persists for more than four years after a vote. And among people who constantly lose elections, one would expect resentments to build. According to Pew Research Centre, a think-tank, the PVV’s supporters are more likely than the average Dutch voter to say that elected officials do not care about them.

This article is from our Graphic detail section.