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Do politicians keep their promises?

Submitted by on 25 Nov 2013 – 15:11

By Elin Naurin, currently visiting Professor at McGill University

Do you think politicians break their promises? Then you’re in good company. Surveys show that citizens in most countries distrust parties’ election promises. However, when scholars compare what parties pledge in election manifestos to what governments do, another picture appears. Political scientists argue that parties mostly keep their election promises. How are we to understand this pledge puzzle?

Election promises are one of representative democracy’s most natural, yet also most controversial, elements. On the one hand, politicians’ promises create hope and expectations. On the other hand, election promises are associated with feelings of disappointment and suspicion. The word “election promise” is itself loaded with mistrust. In fact, it is difficult to find any context, or any group of people, where the positive reviews of campaign promises outweigh the negative. The International Social Survey Programme have let citizens of more than 20 countries react to the statement ”People we elect as MPs try to keep the promises they have made during the election”.  The question has been included in the 1996 and 2006 surveys. In a majority of the surveys (accept for Switzerland in 2006 and the Philippines in 1996), the net values are negative, which means that more people disagree with the statement than agree.

For example, only 23 per cent of the British respondents in the survey from 2006 answer that their MPs’ try to keep their election promises. In France and Spain, the same percentage is 14, in Norway and Australian 27 and in the U.S. 22. The Swedish National Election Study Programme, which is the world’s second oldest election study programme, has asked Swedes about their views on election promises since the 1950s. These studies show that citizens of the comparably stable and non-corrupt Sweden have held negative views of election promises at least since the 1950s. Taken together, these kinds of studies give the impression that voters do not regard election promises as the tool that democratic theories want election promises to be.

However, a completely different image of the role of election promises in representative democracy is given by scholars who systematically compare the promises parties make in election manifestos with governments’ actions. From such studies, we instead get the impression that parties take their election promises seriously. Studies of parties’ election pledges have been made in several different countries and during several different time periods. Even though they employ different specific definitions of the notion election promise, the general conclusion is the same: Parties take their election promises seriously when in government.

During periods of single-party majority governments in the U.K., Canada and New Zealand, government parties have been found to fulfil at least partially between 70 and 85 per cent of the promises they make in their election manifestos. Also other majority single-party governments (in Spain, Greece and Ireland) have been found to fulfil about the same percentage of the promises they give in election manifestos.

In the American system where the President, the House of Representative and the Senate have joint control over decision-making, the percentages are lower, between 60 and 70 per cent.

The lowest levels of fulfilment are found in systems with frequent coalition governments. Parties in coalition governments in the Netherlands and in Ireland have been found to fulfil at least partially between 50 and 60 per cent of the promises they make in election manifestos.

The probability for majority single-party cabinets to fulfil promises is thus higher than the probability that coalition governments fulfil theirs. These results hold also when scholars perform their calculations based on models where other factors are taken into consideration, such as the economic situation that faced the country at the time, if the parties pledge to keep status quo, review issues or cut down on state cost rather than make costly expansions of the state. In this way, results from research on election promises follows expectations that fewer so called veto points or constitutional constraints on decision making, leads to higher pledge fulfilment by parties in government.

A less intuitive result is that minority single-party cabinets are as efficient as majority single-party cabinets when it comes to fulfilling election promises. Studies from such different contexts as Sweden, Spain, Portugal and Ireland indicate that important decision-making can be made when a party governs in minority. These studies remind us that minority single-party governments, which comprise a considerable portion of for example European governments, deserve to be given attention as the specific constitutional situation it actually is, and not only be analysed together with majority single-party governments or coalition minority governments.

Taken together, we can say that institutional factors affect how many promises are fulfilled. It also seems like some promises are more often fulfilled than others. Promises to keep the status quo or to review issues are easier to fulfil than promises to change the current state of affairs. Promises where there is political coherence, i.e. where parties agree on what should be done, are more often fulfilled than promises that create political conflict. However, status quo promises and consensus promises are considerably less common as compared to promises that pledge change and promises that have no relation to other parties’ promises.

How do we explain the difference between citizens and scholars description of election promises?

The fact that parties fulfil a clear majority of the pledges they give in their election manifestos goes against the common perception of political promises. In my book Election promises, party behaviour and voter perceptions (Palgrave Macmillan 2011), I analyse how this ”pledge puzzle” can be explained. Citizens’ ways of arguing are compared to the scholarly definitions of the notions election promise and fulfilled or broken election promises.

The conclusion is fairly simple: We talk about different things. Scholars’ strict focus on what is actually said, their interest in election campaigns and their focus on what the party as a whole agrees on, is a tight definition of election promise in the eyes of citizens. Citizens give interest also to what individual politicians promise and they take into account promises that are given also in between elections.

Furthermore, they listen to what other people think is promised and, even more important, they sometimes create their perceptions based on what should have been promised. The reasoning can go something like this: ”There should be no homeless people. Therefore, parties should have promised to put effort into helping those who are homeless. Still, everyday, I see homeless people on the streets. It is clear that promises must have been broken”. ”Election promise” is in these types of reasoning not viewed as a specific pledge written down in an election manifesto. Instead, the notion summarizes general expectations of what the political system should be able to achieve.

What is more, citizens seem to base their judgements about election promises not only on comparisons between what is (or should be) said and done by politicians. They are also affected by a narrative about the promise-breaking politician that is more or less independent of what politicians actually say and do. Illustratively in this sense, interviewees in the study have difficulties in coming up with examples of broken promises. The same, and strikingly old, examples come up in the interviews. It is also clear that the notion election promise has a negative intonation, contrary to the notion ”promise” that is a positive notion. Respondents react instinctively negatively to the notion election promise, and the positive aspects of election promises in representative democracy are less often mentioned.

The idea that there is a narrative about the promise-breaking politician lies close to the field of research that claims that individuals use stories and narratives to create order among impressions of reality. The notion narrative, or ”storytelling”, is used in psychology, anthropology, literature and law to describe the process where individuals create and sustain their cultural identities and understand ”the self”. As humans, we are brought up with stories that help us understand our surroundings and ourselves.

The courtroom is sometimes taken as an example in research on narratives. Perpetrators, victims and witnesses give their differing views about the reasons for why they are in the courtroom. A story is created that helps lawyers, prosecutors and judges to create an understanding about what actually happened. Similar reasoning can be applied to how humans create political identities and understand accountability processes. We probably become the political species that we are by telling and retelling stories about how the political world functions. And one such story is likely the story about the promise-breaking politician.

Another explanation as to why citizens and scholars describe election promises in different ways is that the notion election promise is defined more widely among citizens. Citizens want to feel the effects of decisions, and scholars focus mainly on what decisions are taken in parliament and government. A promise about shorter queues to hospital treatments is not fulfilled until the individual herself gets the knee operation that she is waiting for. A promise about increasing the number of specialist teachers for children with reading problems is not fulfilled until my child has met one.

In normative analyses, this way of defining a promise as fulfilled or broken is not problematic. Scholars motivate their empirical focus on political action with practical rather than normative arguments. In a system where we value the principle ”one person, one vote”, that person’s personal experience of the decision should obviously make its mark on how he or she evaluates the functioning of the system.

What is the lesson from this? Research shows that politicians try, and often succeed, to fulfil what they pledge in election campaigns. The harsh judgment that politicians do not even try to fulfil their promises is not fair. As voters, we do not have particularly many tools when we try to create an image of what will happen after an election. Clearly formulated election promises are one such tool that should not be thrown away.

However, we should be aware of the fact that it is not so simple that ”a promise is a promise” in the relationship between voters and representatives. The difference between scholars’ and voters’ ways of arguing illustrates that notions like mandates and accountability can be different things in different situations. If we want to understand citizens’ distrust of election promises, this is important knowledge. Hopefully, it can contribute to clarify communication between voters and representatives when it comes to what promises are made and in what way these are fulfilled and broken.

Lastly, some words about the challenges of on-going and future research on election promises. Important comparative work is presently done within the research network Comparative Party Pledges Group, with the aim of using the exact same definition in different contexts. This research will help us understand what more specific mechanisms enhance parties’ pledge fulfilment and pledge breakage.

There is less research on how election manifestos are created. Since we know that election manifestos affect how parties act when in power, we want to know more about what (and who) decides what becomes an election promise in an election manifesto. Parties discuss many different policy proposals before elections. Some of those end up in election manifestos, others do not, and election pledge research gives us reason to believe that it matters which do.

We should also dedicate more efforts to analyse how the media report on election promises. Since the public rarely reads election manifestos, the media is an actor with power to interpret and chose which promises reach the electorate. We know too little about the arguments behind these choices of journalists.

To conclude, most research on how parties make and break election promises is done on national level arenas. The important representative democratic practices on local, regional and EU-level politics have so far been given only scarce attention.

Elin Naurin is currently visiting professor at McGill University, but will be returning to Gothenburg in the summer of 2014.
Marie Curie Fellow and visiting professor at the Center for the Study of Democratic Citizenship, Department of Political Science, McGill University, Montreal.
Assistant professor at the Department of Political Science, University of Gothenburg, Sweden.
Naurin’s research centers on representative democracy, electoral politics and election promises. She is the author of Election Promises, Party Behaviour and Voter Perceptions (2011, Palgrave Macmillan).
Together with Robert Thomson, University of Strathclyde and Terry Royed, University of Alabama, Naurin has initiated and currently coordinate the international research network Comparative Party Pledge Group which presented it most recent results at the American Political Science Association Meeting in August 2013.