The geographical strategy of parties in the candidate selection process: the Belgian political parties in the election of the Belgian Chamber (1987-2010)
When Belgian voters go to the polling booth on election day, they are presented with a set of candidate lists of different political parties. Voters know that they can either cast a list vote, which implies that they endorse the party list in its entirety, or they can cast an individual preferential vote for one or several candidates from the same list. What most voters are unaware of, however, is the amount of effort and preparation that political parties have invested in drafting those candidate lists and selecting candidates, long before election day.
In list proportional systems such as Belgium, party selectorates are inclined to carefully balance their lists in terms of various candidate characteristics, in order to include candidates from all social groups. There are both electoral and organizational incentives to balance the ticket. From the electoral perspective, the exclusion of any major social group could signal discrimination, which discourages voters and could result into an electoral setback. From the organizational perspective, balancing the ticket decreases the chances of internal conflicts between the various party factions.
While previous research has traditionally focused on the gender and ethnic dimensions of the candidate selection process, this dissertation examines the geographical aspect of ticket-balancing. In Belgium, but also in other list proportional systems worldwide, parties go out of their way to select candidates from all regions, municipalities or other localities within the electoral district. This is an intriguing observation, as empirical research shows that elections are becoming increasingly nationalized and homogenized and the role of the local seems to have diminished over time.
Based on the case of the Belgian Lower House elections between 1987 and 2010, this dissertation aims to tackle this research problem and examines how and why political parties geographically balance their ticket. How important are local and geographical candidate characteristics for parties, vis-à-vis other candidate characteristics? Which intraparty mechanism are at work to realize geographical representation on party lists? What impact does geographical representation have on the electoral result? And do political parties develop a clear strategy with regard to geographical representation, for instance in response to electoral losses in some districts or local areas?
Chapter 2 presents a descriptive analysis of the place of residence of Belgian parliamentary candidates, and shows that the share of small municipality candidates has systematically decreased over the years. The analysis also shows that the number of represented municipalities on party lists decreased, possibly as a result of the consecutive electoral district reforms that took place in Belgium during the period of investigation.
Chapter 3 and 4 focus on the importance of local candidate characteristics as candidate nomination criteria and electoral assets. The results suggest that political parties especially nominate local mayors, incumbents and party employees for realistic list positions, and that candidates from larger municipalities and cities are more often assigned to these attractive positions. Moreover, for marginal positions party selectorates look for local office holders from larger municipalities. With regard to election results, a multilevel analysis shows that municipality size in itself does not have a significant effect on the number of preferential votes, but the expected interaction between local office and municipality size (which was also found in Chapter 3) was confirmed. This implies that the electoral advantage of holding a local office increases with one’s municipality size in the district. These findings show that local office holders, and especially local-office holders in large cities, dominate intra-party competition (both in terms of candidate selection as election results).
With regard to the determinants of geographical representation, the empirical analysis in Chapter 5 has shown that especially the level of decentralization in candidate selection processes plays the decisive role. If local party branches are allowed to participate, a more balanced representation of municipalities within the district is reached. Although the analysis in Chapter 6 suggests that geographical dispersion in itself does not lead to electoral victories, geographical representation on candidate lists can be an important antidote for intraparty turmoil.
From the individual politician’s perspective, this dissertation demonstrates the added value of combining parliamentary office with local office, as a ‘cumul des mandats’ provides a career insurance for national politicians and gives them a head start in intraparty candidate selection and electoral competition. From the political party perspective, it seems that investing in local elections and local party branches still pays off as both the aggregate list result as the individual results of party candidates are strongly determined by local roots.