Part 2: Approaches to the study of democracy

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Political Institutions

The study of political institutions starts with many of the core principles of democracy introduced above, but it involves digging deeper into the rules and procedures that make up these institutions. Even when two given countries have the same type of institution, such as a presidency, the specific rules governing this institution can still differ considerably and help explain why politicians behave differently in the two countries. It may be a hackneyed adage to say it, but when it comes to institutions the “devil is in the details”, and it is these details that actually make those institutions so consequential and important for research.

Democracies can be generally divided into two specific configurations, parliamentarism and presidentialism. Both of these are called regimes because each of them, in turn, encompasses a whole set of smaller institutions, such as electoral systems, legislative rules, and powers for specific office-holders. As a democratic regime, parliamentarism means a system where once voters have elected a legislature, it is up to these representatives to delegate decision-making authority further to a prime minister and a cabinet through a vote of confidence. By contrast, in presidential systems voters elect not only a legislature, but also a president, to whom decision-making (executive) authority goes directly. In other words, in presidential systems voters give power to two institutions, in parliamentarism only to one.

In parliamentary systems, executive power or ‘cabinet government’ needs to be formed through a majority vote of confidence in the legislature. This majority can be obtained through a single party (if it has enough seats) or more frequently through a coalition of parties.

Generally, parties seek to form minimal winning coalitions or majorities that include just enough parties to obtain control. In Western Europe since 1945, over 50% of cabinets have been formed in this way. At the same time, during periods of crises parties may agree to create oversized coalitions. In such cases, parties that are not needed numerically to achieve a majority might get included in cabinet. Additionally, some countries (such as Denmark) have a tradition of minority governments. A minority government is one in which a single party, or a coalition of parties in parliament, need not have a majority, but can still rule thanks to the tacit support of other parties. Up to a third of cabinets in Western Europe have run in this manner since 1945.

Because governments in parliamentary systems are formed by shifting majorities, their lifespan tends to be shorter than the one in presidential systems. This is often considered an advantage because it allows letting out steam at times of a crisis or discord. Nonetheless, the rules for such political change can vary considerably, thereby making politicians calculate differently.

After all, parties are always implicitly jockeying for popularity (especially when elections approach). How are they then able to cooperate in government? One answer is that coalitions in parliamentary systems have often developed formal governance mechanisms, meaning they have rules for how policy priorities are to be decided within the coalition, and how each party can monitor what the others are doing. Many scholars have begun to examine these inner workings of coalitions, and have found great variety across parliamentary democracies, which calls for further research.


Another hallmark of parliamentary government is the way in which legislation is processed. While it is often assumed that parliaments constitute the core of law-making in a democracy, it is actually the executive branch (or the cabinet) that frequently dominates the drafting and initiation of new legislation.

The other institution of high importance within a democratic regime is the electoral system. The two major types of electoral systems are majoritarian (first-past-the-post) and proportional. However, a number of more specific rules operate additionally within each of these sub-types. For example, majoritarian systems will differ depending on whether there are one or two rounds of voting. Likewise, proportional systems can vary hugely depending on the vote thresholds needed to obtain seats, or the mathematical formulas used to distribute seats among eligible parties.

Differences between the systems can have important effects not only on governance after elections, but also on how politicians and parties decide to cooperate – or not – before a poll. Generally, electoral studies show that majoritarian systems tend to foster two dominant parties, while proportional systems encourage multi-party systems, as in the case of South Africa.

Some scholars (such as Rein Taagepera) have attempted to take these regularities further, and have sought to outline a multi-stage sequence of relationships stemming from electoral institutions. They argue that electoral systems have consequences for the number of parties in parliament, which in turn determines the likely size of government coalitions, and finally the duration of cabinet government. In this respect, research on electoral systems comes closest to developing true institutional engineering, where scholars attempt to see, which institutions produce the clearest rules that politicians can follow in order to create stable working relationships and, by doing so, optimize democratic governance.

This has also led to research in the area of electoral reform, which focuses on understanding the conditions under which countries (and their politicians) agree to significant change in their electoral systems, such as moving from majoritarianism to proportionality.

While electoral systems may help steer politicians into either more concentrated or more dispersed party systems, the way in which individual parties are organized and the types of political ideologies (for example, social democracy)  or styles they represent can also differ within such configurations.

One avenue of research is to look at how some democracies have tried to regulate these issues through party laws by requiring a degree of democracy within party statutes, or even by mandating representational quotas for women or other minority groups.

Lastly, a budding field of research concerning parties relates to their financing and the regulation of that finance. This domain includes studying the sources of finance that parties can have (public funding? corporate funding? private donations? membership dues?), the rules for reporting such activity to relevant authorities (reports on income and expenditure? formal audits?), as well as the types of monitoring bodies that may exist (the electoral commission? the courts? special boards?).

The judicial system in any country comprises the third key branch of government and is responsible for adjudicating disputes and criminal charges. In democracies, a very important political role is played by constitutional courts, especially when they are called upon to decide policy disputes or instances of alleged abuses of power. Much research has been conducted into how constitutional courts sometimes upend policy decisions made by duly elected government majorities because such policies would endanger the interests of significant minorities in society. Likewise, scholars have looked into how constitutional courts can best play the role of arbiter, when the other two branches of government are in conflict. These examples show that the functioning of democracy is far from being limited to just the legislative and executive branches.

Next up:
Political Culture

Part 2:
Approaches to the study of democracy