CHARVÁT, Jakub a kol. Temptation of the Governing: The Politics of Electoral Reform in Central Europe

1st ed. Prague: Metropolitan University Prague Press, 2015. ISBN 978-80-87956-30-4

It is generally believed among political scientists that insti­tutions “matter”, and elections lie at the very heart of modern democ­racy. As Sartori noted electoral systems are “the most specific ma­nipulative instrument of politics” which means, inter alia, that varia­tion in electoral institutions affects how other institutions and actors of political process behave, and it determines the identity of those who will govern, and how governing power is exercised. Given the importance of electoral systems and their political consequences, especially on the number of parties and political composition of parliaments and governments, it is essential that we understand where these rules come from and why and how they are changed.

Despite the politics of electoral reform being quite a new per­spective in electoral systems research there is a number of studies on electoral reform processes in established democracies. While research on Central European cases seem to be still underdeveloped. More­over, Central European cases of electoral reform often do not match expectations from the literature analyzing changes in electoral sys­tems in established democracies. This book therefore seeks to under­stand how the electoral systems in selected Central European coun­tries (Czechoslovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and Slovenia) were chosen and how they have changed over the past 25 years. Electoral systems are hence seen as a dependent variable in this analysis.

The book analyses processes of electoral reforms and it focuses on the nature of these changes by concentrating on post-1989 devel­opments. The qualitative analysis focuses “only” on the enacted changes in electoral systems, regardless of whether it is a minor or a major electoral reform (according to Katz). Its purpose is therefore not to evaluate the impact and political consequences of individual changes but rather to concentrate, through a theoretically-informed detailed contextual analysis, on the electoral reform process itself. The concern is hence very much with the process rather than the substance of change; it is concerned with contextual factors affecting, underlying, initiating and/or con­trolling these changes, and it seeks to identify the main actors, their motivations and other circumstances of each electoral reform proc­ess.

Although the ability of the public to pressure for change seems to be growing in old democracies, the Central European electoral re­form processes are controlled and electoral systems decided by politicians (however, this book is not concerned with the rational choice perspective). Politicians may be influenced by conceptions of the public interest (the reform is introduced in order to promote general values, e.g. political pluralism during democratic transition), as well as by partisan power interests (the system is reformed to advantage politicians initiating the reform process). Individual reform processes hence differ in details (in addition to the nature of politicians' moti­vations for changes also the extent of agreement among political elites for changing the system, and so on).

Situations when politicians seeking electoral re­form to advance their partisan interests, could be seen in the cases of the 1998 and 1999 electoral reforms in Slovakia, the 2000 and 2002 reforms in the Czech Re­public, as well as the 2011 Hungarian electoral reform process. Most of these cases were controlled by elite majority – these reform proc­esses occured because the elite majority had both the will to change the system and the power to impose its wishes. Only the 2002 reform in the Czech Republic and the 2000 reform in Slovenia took more or less place under the influence of intervention by external actor (Constitutional Court). Furthermore, given the specific political constellations, the latter two processes were specific cases with a high degree of inclusiveness of political elite.

Due to bargaining of explicit nature between political actors, the high degree of inclusiveness of political elites was also common for the Central European electoral reform processes of the early 1990s that took place under specific conditions of democratic transition, especially under uncertainty and the lack of shared information modifying the original seat-maximizning strategy to the so-called maximin rule based on a risk minimizing argument. These circum­stances support electoral reform processes based on wide con­sensus and resulting in a “messy compromise”. In addition, the electoral reform processes during democratic transition are also specific because (at least) part of the political elite sees the electoral systems as efficient institutions, which means the electoral reform may bring general benefits (more specifically, political and party pluralism).