Voter, ideology, party system and corruption voting in European democracies

In recent decades, the harmful effects of corruption on a society have been empirically established and are now considered indisputable. It is associated with less economic development, greater inequality, poorer health outcomes and environmental conditions, less generalized trust and less happy populations (Mauro 1995; Holmberg and Rothstein 2011; Welsch 2004; Gupta et al. 2002). According to democratic theory, one key mechanism through which citizens can combat corrupt elite behavior  is electoral choice. Given that corruption is pervasive among incumbents or that a corruption scandal breaks prior to an election, rational voters who understand the costs of corruption will turn against the government in favor of a ‘cleaner’ challenger and ‘throw the rascals out’. Yet the findings of the wave of recent empirical studies have shown that the accountability mechanisms are more ambiguous, as corrupt officials are in many cases re-elected or punished only marginally by voters (see for example Chang & Golden 2010; Eggers & Fisher 2011; Reed 1999; Peters & Welch 1980; Bågenholm 2013). Even though most studies find that the electorate actually punishes politicians and/or parties involved in corrupt dealings, there are still many exceptions to this rule, and many voters still stick to their preferred parties. Despite the increasing literature in the field, the puzzle of why voters are willing to vote for public officials that they know to be corrupt is still not satisfactorily resolved.

Several explanations have been suggested as to why this may be the case. Some focus on societal factors, such as political institutions and what impact they may have for voters to hold politicians accountable (see for example Rose-Ackerman 2005; Persson and Tabellini 2003; Charon 2011; Tavits 2007; Manzetti and Wilson 2007; Ferraz and Finan 2008). Other scholars have highlighted individual level factors. For some voters, it could simply be a function of rational calculation, as they personally benefit from the corrupt activity, for example in the form of clientelism (Fernández-Vázquez et al. 2013; Manzetti & Wilson 2007) or they may have strong loyalties to certain politicians or parties that cloud their vision and allow a form of ‘cognitive dissonance’ (see de Souza & Moriconi 2013: 486). It may also be the case that the government is perceived to be doing a good job in managing the economy and that voters reward them for that rather than punishing them for being corrupt (Choi & Woo 2010; Casey 2014).

This paper makes several contributions to this literature. Firstly, we put forth a novel theoretical model in which corruption voting can be understood, based on individual and system level factors, 4 highlighting a previously unexplored cross-level interaction between ideology and party systems. In a sense, we make a market like argument of supply and demand. On the individual (demand) side, we propose an alternative factor that has been overlooked by this literature – the voter’s own ideological preference, as opposed to party membership or party loyalty. On the macro (supply) side, we highlight the effects of the party system, i.e. the number of effective political parties (‘ENPs’). We argue that how voters react to a corruption scandal in their party largely depends on the ideological positions of the voters and the presence of reasonable alternatives. Our main expectation is that ideology (which we measure as self-placement on a left-right scale) has a U-shaped relationship with the propensity to continue to vote for one’s favorite party, despite the presence of corruption, given limited party alternatives – as voters’ ideological preferences verge further out toward the extreme left and right, they simply have fewer choices on average to which to change their vote that credibly align with their interests.

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