Democracy in Europe's regions: Party competition, government accountability, and citizen satisfaction
Decentralization of power to the regional level has been a trend across Europe over the past several decades. This transfer of political and administrative competencies is motivated by a multitude of often contradictory goals, but is most frequently presented as a means of bringing government “closer to the people” and thus enhancing democracy. Yet the claim that regional units are somehow more democratic than national units is assumed, not demonstrated.
In this dissertation, I examine the quality of regional democracy in Europe by evaluating how effectively elections let people control the actions of regional governments. For this purpose, I develop a model of electoral accountability linking electoral competitiveness with government responsiveness. This model states that when the re-election probabilities of incumbents are about even—that is, when the two main parties competing for office are equally strong—governments will be more responsive to their citizens. Conversely, when the opposition is weak, incumbents are free to ignore the wishes of voters.
To test the predictions of the model, I postulate that citizen satisfaction constitutes a good proxy for government responsiveness. This enables me to hypothesize a positive empirical relationship between electoral competitiveness and citizen satisfaction, mediated through accountability. Statistical tests using German and Spanish electoral and survey data confirm this hypothesis. The analysis also shows that incumbents cushioned by wide vote margins are better able to survive in office even if satisfaction with their performance is low. The results are maintained or even reinforced when comparing one-party and coalition governments. Finally, I demonstrate that a lack of electoral competitiveness can be found in numerous regions of several European countries, and that regions are on average far less competitive than national party systems. Paradoxically, competition tends to be weaker in regions where one may expect a stronger desire for autonomy.
Accountability is a useful frame for understanding the effectiveness of democracy. Further, electoral competitiveness constitutes a significant problem for sub-national democratic accountability. More attention should be geared toward this issue before devolving more power to regional units in the future.