Electoral systems and economic policy
Torsten Persson and Guido Tabellini
Torsten Persson is Professor of Economics and Director of the Institute for International Economic
Studies, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden, and Centennial Professor at the London School
of Economics, London, U.K. Guido Tabellini is Professor of Economics and President of the
Innocenzo Gasparini Institute for Economic Research, Bocconi University, Milan, Italy.
We are grateful to the editors of this Handbook, Barry Weingast and Don Wittman, for helpful
comments and to the Canadian Institute of Advanced Research for financial support.
What is the effect of the constitution on economic policy choices? This issue is often at the
heart of debates on constitutional reform. Recently, Italy replaced its system of
proportional representation, where legislators were elected according to the proportions of
the popular national vote received by their parties, with one that includes ingredients of
plurality rule, where legislators are elected in each district according to who receives the
highest number of votes. Italian political leaders are now considering proposals to replace
the current parliamentary regime with elements of presidentialism, where the head of
government is elected by direct popular vote. An important motivation for these reforms
was the idea that they would reduce political corruption and the propensity of Italian
governments to run budget deficits.
In recent years, a number of other countries have implemented related reforms.
For instance, New Zealand altered its system of plurality rule in single-member districts to
a system mixing elements of proportional representation. Japan moved to a system that
mixes elements of proportional and plurality representation from its special form of plurality
rule (the so-called single non-transferable vote. The UK has debated similar proposals.
What are the effects of these reforms on economic policy outcomes and economic
It is only recently that this question has been addressed by social scientists.
Political scientists specializing in comparative politics have described the fundamental
features of constitutions and their political effects. Yet they have mainly focused on
political phenomena, failing to study how constitutional rules shape economic policies.
Although economists in the field of political economics have studied the determinants of
policy choices, they rarely study constitutional details and their implications for policy
choice and economic performance.
This chapter discusses recent theoretical and empirical research on one feature of
modern democracies: the electoral rule. Our central conclusion is that the electoral rule
systematically shapes economic policy. We show that to understand the extent of political
corruption, the devil is in the details of electoral systems, such as the ballot structure or
district magnitude. In the case of the size of government and fiscal policy outcomes, the
effects are associated with the broad distinction between proportional vs majoritarian
systems. The effects are often large enough to be of genuine economic interest.
A closely related question concerns the effects on economic policy of the
constitutional rules that define the form of government, especially the crucial distinction
between parliamentary and presidential systems. We do not address this topic here and
refer the interested reader to Persson and Tabellini (2003, 2004a).
We develop our arguments as follows. Section 1 outlines some key objectives of
electoral rules and notes the stability and systematic selection that characterize real world
constitutions. Section 2 introduces the main concepts that categorize different electoral
rules. Section 3 explains how these elements shape the accountability of government and
the size of political rents and corruption. Section 4 deals with representation in
government and a variety of fiscal policy choices. Section 5 offers our conclusions and
brief comments on emerging research.
1. Electoral systems: Motives, stability and selection
In a representative democracy, elected officials determine policy. Electoral systems
decide how well voters can hold politicians accountable and which groups in society are
more likely to see their interests represented.
Economists in the field of corporate finance show that alternative rules of corporate
governance entail a trade off between agency problems and representation of minority
interests. Rules that concentrate powers in the hands of a dominant shareholder reduce
managerial discretion and limit the scope of the agency problem, but this control is likely to
come at the expense of minority shareholders (cf. for instance Becht, Bolton, and Röell,
A similar tradeoff between accountability and representation arises in the design of
electoral rules. Indeed, this idea is familiar to political scientists in the field of comparative
politics (see e.g., Bingham Powell; 2000, Prezworski et al., 1999). Compared to
proportional representation, plurality rule in single member districts translates swings in
voter sentiment into larger changes in legislative majorities. This leverage effect of plurality
rule strengthens the incentives of politicians to please the voters, leading to smaller
political rents and less corruption. But since it makes political candidates more responsive
to the wishes of pivotal groups of voters, stronger accountability also raises the propensity
to target benefits to narrow constituencies. This targeting comes at the expense of broad
spending programs that benefit many citizens. Hence the design of electoral rules entails a
tradeoff between accountability and representation.
Overall features of electoral systems change very seldom. In the sample of 60
democracies studied by Persson and Tabellini (2003), only two enacted important reforms
of the electoral system between 1960 and 1990 (Cyprus and France) – though more
reforms are observed if one considers marginal changes and transitions from autocracy to
democracy. At the same time, the electoral system is strongly correlated with stable
country characteristics: former British colonies tend to have U.K.-style plurality rule in
single-member districts, while continental Europe predominantly has proportional
These patterns make it difficult to draw causal inferences from the data. Electoral
stability means that reforms are very seldom observed; but cross-country comparisons risk
confounding the effects of the constitution with other country characteristics, since the
electoral rule itself could be selected on the basis of unobserved variables that also
influence policy outcomes.
In our own work, we have exploited econometric techniques developed by labor
economists to estimate the causal effects of non-random treatments from cross-sectional
comparisons. For us, treatment is the electoral reform. We have relied on three estimation
methods. First, we isolate exogenous variation in electoral rules through instrumental
variables. If change is very rare, it may be largely determined by historical circumstances
(whatever was “fashionable” at the time). The broad period in which the current
constitution was adopted can thus be used as an instrument for the electoral system. The
identifying assumption is that, controlling for other determinants of policy (including the age
of democracy), the birth period of the constitution is not directly related to current policy
outcomes. Second, we adjust the estimates for possible correlation between the random
components of policy outcomes and the selection of electoral systems, as suggested by
Heckman and others. Third, we exploit so-called “matching methods” where countries are
ranked by the probability of adopting a specific electoral system, called a propensity score.
Comparisons of countries with similar propensity scores, but with different actual systems,
receive more weight. This third method avoids biased estimates due to heterogeneous
treatment effects. Persson and Tabellini (2003) discuss these three estimation methods in
context, while Acemoglu (2005) provides a critical review.
2. Categorizing electoral systems
Political scientists commonly emphasize three aspects of electoral rules for legislatures.
Electoral formulas translate votes into seats. Under plurality rule, only the winner(s)
of the highest vote share(s) are elected in a given district. In contrast, proportional
representation awards legislative seats in proportion to votes in each district. To ensure
closeness between overall vote shares and seat shares, a district system of plurality rule is
often amended by a system of “adjustment seats” at the national level.
District magnitudes reflect the number of legislators (given the size of the
legislature) acquiring a seat in a typical voting district. One polar case is where all districts
have a single seat, as in the U.S. House of Representatives; the other polar case is where
all legislators are all elected in a single, all-encompassing district, such as the Israeli
Knesset. See Grofman (this volume) for a more extended discussion.
Ballot structures determine how citizens cast their ballot. One possibility is that they
choose among individual candidates. Another common possibility is that each voter
chooses from a set of closed lists of candidates drawn up by the parties participating in the
election. In the latter, if an electoral district has ten seats and Party A wins, say, four of
these seats, the first four candidates on the list of Party A get elected.
Although these three aspects are theoretically distinct, their use is correlated across
countries. Anglo-Saxon countries often implement plurality rule with voting for individual
candidates in single-member districts. Others implement proportional representation
though a system of closed party lists in large districts, sometimes a single national district.
In the wake of this pattern, many observers have classified countries into two archetypical
electoral systems, labelled “majoritarian” and “proportional” (or “consensual”). These
correlations are nonetheless not perfect, and several countries employ “mixed” electoral
system. German voters, e.g., cast two ballots, electing half the Bundestag by plurality in
single-member districts, and the other half by proportional representation at a national
level, to achieve proportionality between national vote and seat shares. Furthermore,
some proportional representation systems, such as the Irish, do not rely on party lists.
Blais and Massicotte (1996) and Cox (1997) present overviews of world electoral systems.
How do electoral rules affect accountability? In this section, we consider only policies
evaluated in roughly the same way by all voters (so-called valence issues), leaving the
problem of how elected officials react to disagreement among voters for the next section
that focuses on representation. Accountability in this context refers to two things. It gives
The distinction between open and closed party lists is discussed further below.
To achieve proportionality, the Irish “single transferable vote” system (also used in Malta) relies on votes over
individuals in multi-member districts where each voter can only vote for a single candidate, and a complicated
procedure where seats are awarded sequentially and votes for losing candidates are transferred from one seat to the next.
voters some control over politicians who abuse their power: voters can punish or reward
politicians through re-election or other career concerns, and this creates incentives for
good behavior. Accountability also refers to the ability of voters to select the most “able”
candidate, where ability can be interpreted as integrity, technical expertise, or other
intrinsic features valued by voters at large. As the emphasis of this chapter is on
economic policymaking, we focus on how the electoral rule affects corruption, rent
seeking, and electoral budget cycles.
The details of electoral rules have direct effects on the incentives of politicians.
They also have indirect effects through party structure and, more generally, who holds
office. We consider the direct and indirect effects of the three aspects of electoral rules
mentioned above: ballot structure, district magnitude and the electoral formula.
3.1 Direct effects
Politicians have stronger direct incentives to please the voters if they are held accountable
individually, rather than collectively. Because they disconnect individual efforts and re-
election prospects, party lists discourage effort by office-holders. Persson and Tabellini
(2000) formalize this idea and predict that political rents will be higher under electoral
systems that rely on list voting, than in systems where voters directly select individual
candidates. The same argument also implies that open lists (voters can modify the order
of candidates) should be more conducive to good behavior than closed lists (non-
amendable by voters), as should preferential voting (voters are asked to rank candidates
of the same party).
What does the evidence say? If higher political rents are associated with illegal
benefits, then we can study whether corruption by public officials in different countries is
systematically correlated to the electoral rule. Of course, corruption is only an imperfect
proxy for political rents. Furthermore, corruption is measured with error and is determined
by many other country features.
Cross-sectional and panel data suggest some connections. Persson and Tabellini
(2003) and Persson, Tabellini and Trebbi (2003) study about 80 democracies in the 1990s.
They measure corruption as perceived through surveys assembled by the World Bank,
Transparency International and private risk services. They also control for country
characteristics that earlier studies have found to correlate with corruption, notably per
capita income, openness to international trade, the citizens’ education and religious
beliefs, a country’s history as captured by colonial heritage, and geographic location as
measured by a set of dummy variables. The ballot structure is indeed strongly correlated
with corruption: a switch from a system with all legislators elected on party lists, to plurality
rule with all legislators individually elected, would reduce perceptions of corruption by as
much as 20 percent. This is about twice the estimated effect of being in Latin America. The
decline in corruption is stronger when individual voting is implemented by plurality rule,
rather than by using preferential voting or open lists in proportional electoral systems. Of
course, the result could also reflect effects of the electoral formula (as discussed below),
rather than just the ballot structure. Kunicova and Rose Ackerman (2001) obtain similar
empirical results, although they single out closed-list, proportional representation systems
as the most conducive to corruption.
Some of these conclusions run counter to those in Carey and Shugart (1995) and
Golden and Chang (2001), who instead emphasize the distinction between inter-party and
intra-party competition. These scholars argue that competition between parties is
desirable, as it leads to legislation that pleases voters at large. In contrast, competition
within parties is not desirable, as it leads candidates to provide favors to their
constituencies, through patronage and other illegal activities. The Italian and Japanese
electoral systems before the 1990s reforms are deemed to exemplify this problem.
Measuring corruption by judicial inquiries against Italian members of parliament, Golden
and Chang (2001) show that corruption is more frequent in districts with more intense
intra-party competition. They conclude that open-list systems are worse than closed-list
systems, and claim that the empirical results by Kunicova and Rose Ackerman (2001)
reflect a misspecified model (see also Golden and Chang, 2003).
Summarizing the argument so far, both theory and evidence suggest that individual
accountability under plurality rule strengthens the incentives of politicians to please the
voters and is conducive to good behavior. But the effects of individual accountability under
proportional representation, implemented with open rather than closed lists, are more
The electoral formula, including district magnitude, seems to affect the incentives for
politicians also in other ways. Under plurality rule, the mapping from votes to seats
becomes steep when electoral races are close. This connection ought to create strong
incentives for good behavior: a small improvement in the chance of victory would create a
large return in terms of seats. The incentives under proportional representation are
weaker, as additional effort has a lower expected return on seats (or on the probability of
winning). If electoral races have likely winners, however, incentives may instead be
weaker under plurality than proportional representation: if seats are next to certain, little
effort goes into pleasing the voters of those districts.
Aggregating over all districts (and
thus over races of different closeness), the relative incentives to extract rents under
different electoral formulas become an empirical question. Strömberg ‘s (2003) results
bear on these arguments. Employing a theoretical and structurally estimated model of the
U.S. Electoral College, he studies the effects of a (hypothetical) reform to a national vote
for president. Given the empirical distribution of voter preferences, he finds that the
incentives for rent extraction are basically unaffected by such a reform.
3.2 Indirect effects
Electoral rules (and in particular district magnitude) also have indirect effects on
accountability, by altering the set of candidates that have a chance to be elected, or more
generally by changing the party system.
Myerson (1993) presents a model in which barriers to entry allow dishonest
candidates to survive. He assumes that parties (or equivalently, candidates) differ in two
dimensions: honesty and ideology. Voters always prefer honest candidates, but disagree
on ideology. With proportional representation and multi-member district, honest candidates
are always available for all ideological positions, so dishonest candidates have no chance
of being elected. But in single-member districts, only one candidate can win the election.
Voters may then cast their ballot, strategically, for dishonest but ideologically preferred
candidates, if they expect all other voters with the same ideology to do the same: switching
to an honest candidate risks giving the victory to a candidate of the opposite ideology.
Thus, plurality rule in single-member districts can be associated with dishonest
incumbents, whom it is difficult to oust from office.
But electoral systems that make it easy for political parties to be represented in
parliament (for example, multi-member districts and proportional representation) may
actually encourage rent seeking, through another channel. If many factions are
represented in parliament, the government is more likely to be supported by a coalition of
parties, rather than by a single party. Under single-party government, voters know
precisely whom to blame or reward for observed performance. Under coalition
government, voters may not know whom to blame, and the votes lost for bad performance
are shared amongst all coalition partners; this dilutes the incentives of individual parties to
Of course, districts can be redesigned at will at some intervals, which makes the closeness of elections an endogenous
choice. This possibility opens up the door for strategic manipulation (gerrymandering) where protection of incumbents
is one of several possible objectives.
please the voters. These ideas are discussed by Persson, Roland and Tabellini (2003) and
Bingham Powell (2000).
Do the data shed light on these alternative predictions? The hypothesis that
coalition governments are associated with more corruption remains untested, as far as we
know, though some of the blatant corruption scandals in Europe – Belgium and Italy –
have been intimately associated with such governments. Other evidence supports the idea
that barriers to entry raise corruption, however. Persson and Tabellini (2003) and Persson,
Tabellini and Trebbi (2003) find corruption to be higher in countries and years with small
district magnitude (that is, few legislators elected in each district), again with large
quantitative effects. Alt and Lassen (2002) show that restrictions on primaries in
gubernatorial elections, that raise barriers to entry for new candidates, are positively
associated with perceptions of corruption in U.S. states.
We have thus far emphasized the implications of the electoral rule for political rents
and corruption. A strong incentive of political representatives to please the voters can also
show up in electoral policy cycles, however. Persson and Tabellini (2003) consider panel
data from 1960 covering about 500 elections in over 50 democracies. They classify
countries in two groups according to the electoral formula and estimate the extent of
electoral cycles in different specifications, including fixed country and time effects and
other regressors. Governments elected under plurality rule tend to cut taxes and
government spending during election years, by about 0.5% of GDP. In proportional
representation democracies, tax cuts are less pronounced, and no spending cuts are
observed. This finding is consistent with better accountability under plurality rule, allowing
voters to punish governments for high taxes and spending either because they are fiscal
conservatives (as in Peltzman, 1992) or because they are subject to a political agency
problem (as in Persson and Tabellini, 2000 or Besley and Case, 1995).
3.3 Summing up
What does all of this imply about the consequences of electoral reforms for corruption?
Because it would entail changing several features of the electoral rule, a large-scale
reform from “proportional” to “majoritarian” elections would have ambiguous effects. A
switch from proportional representation to plurality rule, accompanied by a change in the
ballot structure from party lists to voting over individuals, would strengthen political
incentives for good behavior, both directly and indirectly through the type of government.
But these welfare-improving effects might be offset if the reform diminishes district
magnitude, thus erecting barriers to entry to the detriment of honest or talented
incumbents. The net effects of electoral reform thus depend on which channel is stronger,
and on the precise architecture of reform. The empirical evidence in Persson and Tabellini
(2003) and Persson, Tabellini and Trebbi (2003) support this nuanced conclusion. After
controlling for other variables and taking into account the self-selection of countries into
constitutions, they find no robust difference in corruption across a broad classification of
majoritarian vs. proportional electoral systems.
Economic policy generates conflicts of interest. Individuals and groups in society differ in
many dimensions: they have different levels and sources of income, work in different
sectors and occupations, live in different geographic areas, and possess different
ideologies. As a result, people differ in their views about public policies: the appropriate
level and structure of taxation, the preferred structure of tariffs, subsidies, and regulations,
the support for programs aimed at different regions, and so on. Electoral rules help
aggregate such conflicting interests into public policy decisions, but the weight given to
specific groups varies with the system. In this section we discuss how this influences
fiscal policy choices.
4.1 Direct effects on the composition of government spending
Single-member districts and plurality vote both tend to pull in the direction of narrowly
targeted programs benefiting small geographic constituencies. Conversely, multi-member
districts and proportional representation induce politicians to provide benefits for broad
groups of voters. Building on this insight, some recent papers have studied the influence of
district magnitude and the electoral formula on the composition of government spending.
Persson and Tabellini (1999, 2000, Ch. 8) study electoral competition between two
opportunistic and office-seeking parties. Multimember districts and proportional
representation diffuse electoral competition, giving the parties strong incentives to seek
electoral support from broad coalitions in the population through general public goods or
universalistic redistributive programs (e.g., public pensions or other welfare programs). In
contrast, single-member districts and plurality rule typically make each party a sure winner
in some of the districts, concentrating electoral competition in the other pivotal districts.
Both parties thus have a strong incentive to target voters in these swing districts.
Strömberg (2003) considers the effect of the Electoral College on the allocation of
campaign resources or policy benefits in his afore-mentioned structural model of the
election for U.S. president. He shows empirically that this election method implies a much
more lopsided distribution across states, where spending is focused on states where a
relatively small number of votes might tip the entire state, compared to a (counterfactual)
system of a national vote.
Moreover, the winner-takes-all property of plurality rule reduces the minimal
coalition of voters needed to win the election. Under plurality rule, a party can control the
legislature with only 25% of the national vote: half the vote in half the districts. Under full
proportional representation, 50% percent of the national vote is needed, which gives
politicians a stronger incentive to provide benefits for many voters. This point has been
made in different frameworks. Lizzeri and Persico (2001) study a model with binding
electoral promises, where candidates can use tax revenue to provide either (general)
public goods or targeted redistribution. Persson and Tabellini (2000, Ch. 9) consider a
broad or narrow policy choice by an incumbent policymaker trying to win re-election.
Milesi-Ferretti et al. (2002) obtain similar results in a model where policy is set in post-
election bargaining among the elected politicians. They also predict that proportional
elections lead to a bigger overall size of spending.
Is the evidence consistent with the prediction that proportional electoral systems
lead to more spending in broad redistributive programs, such as public pensions and
welfare spending? Without controlling for other determinants of welfare spending,
legislatures elected under proportional electoral systems spend much more in social
security and welfare compared to majoritarian elections: on average, the difference is
about 8% of GDP. Controlling for other determinants of social security and welfare
spending, such as demographics, per capita income, the age and quality of democracy,
this magnitude shrinks to 2-3% of GDP and remains statistically significant. This estimate
is robust to the sample of countries and to taking into account the non-random nature of
electoral systems (cf. Milesi-Ferretti et al, 2002 and Persson and Tabellini, 2003, 2004b).
If politicians have stronger incentives to vie for electoral support through broad
spending programs under proportional representation than under plurality rule, we might
expect to observe systematic differences around election time in the two systems. Persson
and Tabellini (2003) indeed find a significant electoral cycle in welfare-state spending –
expansions of such budget items in election and post-election years – in proportional
representation systems, but not in plurality systems.
4.2 Indirect effects on the overall size of government spending
The papers discussed so far in this section focus on the incentives of individual
candidates, in a two party system. Many studies of comparative politics, however, observe
that electoral rules also shape party structure and types of government. Plurality rule and
small district magnitude produce fewer parties and a more skewed distribution of seats
than proportional representation and large district magnitude (for example, Duverger, 1954
and Lijphart, 1990). Moreover, in parliamentary democracies few parties mean more
frequent single-party majority governments, and less frequent coalition governments
(Taagepera and Shugart, 1989; Strom, 1990). Evidence presented in Persson, Roland
and Tabellini (2003) suggests that these political effects of the electoral rule may be large.
In about 50 parliamentary democracies, proportional electoral rule is associated with a
more fragmented party system, more frequent coalition governments and less frequent
governments ruled by a single-party majority.
It would be surprising if such large political effects did not also show up in the
economic policies implemented by these different party systems and types of government.
Indeed, a few recent papers have argued that the more fractionalized party systems
induced by proportional elections lead to a greater overall size of government spending.
For example, Austen-Smith (2000) studies a model where redistributive tax policy is set in
post-election bargaining. He assumes that there are fewer parties under plurality rule (two
parties) than under proportional representation (three parties). The coalition of two parties
spends and taxes more compared to the single-party. But here the number and size of
parties is not allowed to depend on policy choices, imposing an artificial constraint on
Persson, Roland and Tabellini (2003) and Bawn and Rosenbluth (2003) also predict
that proportional representation leads to more government spending than plurality rule; but
they treat the number of parties as endogenous and stress how the type of government
determines the nature of electoral competition. When the government relies on a single-
party majority, the main competition for votes is between the incumbent and the
opposition; this pushes the incumbent towards efficient policies, or at least towards
policies that benefit the voters represented in office. If instead the government is supported
by a coalition of parties, voters can discriminate between the parties in government and
this creates electoral conflict inside the coalition. Under plausible assumptions,
inefficiencies in bargaining induce excessive government spending.
These theoretical predictions are supported by the data: without conditioning on
other determinants of fiscal policy, legislatures elected under proportional representation
spend about 10% of GDP more than legislatures elected under plurality rule. Careful
estimates obtained from cross-country data confirm this result. Persson and Tabellini
(2003, 2004b) consider a sample of 80 democracies in the 1990s, controlling for a variety
of other policy determinants (including the distinction between presidential and
parliamentary democracy) and allow for self-selection of countries into electoral systems.
Their estimates are very robust, and imply that proportional representation rather than
plurality rule raises total expenditures by central government by a whopping 5% of GDP.
Persson, Roland and Tabellini (2003) focus on 50 parliamentary democracies,
identifying the effect of electoral rules on spending either from the cross-sectional
variation, or from the time-series variation around electoral reforms. They find spending to
be higher under proportional elections by an amount similar to that found by Persson and
Tabellini (2003, 2004b). But here the effect seems to be entirely due to a higher incidence
of coalition governments in proportional electoral systems. This conclusion is reached by
testing an over-identifying restriction that follows from the underlying theoretical model.
Several features of the electoral rule -- such as the electoral formula, district magnitude
and minimum thresholds for being represented in parliament -- are jointly used as
instruments for the type of government. The data cannot reject the restriction that all these
measures of electoral systems are valid instruments for the type of government; that is, the
electoral rule only influences government spending through the type of government, with
no direct effects of the electoral rule on spending. Earlier empirical papers that treated the
type of government as exogenous also find evidence that larger parliamentary coalitions
spend more (e.g. Kontopoulos and Perotti, 1999; Baqir, 2002).
As noted above, the selection of countries into electoral systems is certainly not
random, and some of the empirical research takes account of this (in particular, Persson
and Tabellini, 2003, 2004b). But Ticchi and Vindigni (2003) and Iversen and Soskice
(2003) note a particularly subtle problem: at least in the OECD countries, proportional
electoral rule is frequently associated with center-left governments, while right-wing
governments are more frequent under majoritarian elections. This correlation, rather than
the prevalence of coalition governments, could explain why proportional representation
systems spend more.
Variables held constant in the underlying regressions include per capita income, the quality and age of democracy,
openness of the economy, the size and age composition of the population, plus indicators for federalism, OECD
membership, colonial history, and continental location. Various estimation techniques produced similar results.
But why should the electoral rule be correlated with government ideology? These
papers argue that majoritarian elections concentrate power, which tends to favor the
wealthy. In such systems, the argument goes, minorities (groups unlikely to benefit from
spending, irrespective of who holds office) would rather see fiscal conservatives than fiscal
liberals in office, since this reduces their tax burden. Hence, in winner-takes-all systems,
conservative parties have an electoral advantage. If electoral rules are chosen on the
basis of the policies they will deliver, this might explain the observed correlation: where the
center-left voters dominate proportional systems have been selected, whereas majoritarian
systems have been selected where conservatives dominate. The empirical results by
Persson, Roland and Tabellini (2003) cast some doubt on this line of thought, however. If
indeed the electoral rule influences policy through the ideology of governments, rather
than through the number of parties in government, the electoral rule cannot be a valid
instrument for the incidence of coalition governments in a regression on government
spending – contrary to the findings discussed above.
4.3 Indirect effects on budget deficits
Finally, if bargaining inefficiencies inside coalition governments lead to high spending, they
may also produce other distortions. Several papers have studied inter-temporal fiscal
policy, treating the type of government as exogenous, but arguing that coalition
governments face more severe “common-pool problems.” The latter concept refers to the
tendency for over-exploitation when multiple users make independent decisions on how
much to exploit a common resource such as fish; the analogy to this common resource is
current and future tax revenue. In reviewing the extensive work on government budget
deficits, Alesina and Perotti (1995) draw on the work by Velasco (1999) to argue that
coalition governments are more prone to run deficits. Hallerberg and von Hagen (1998,
1999) and von Hagen (this volume) explicitly link the severity of the common-pool problem
to electoral systems and argue that this has implications for the appropriate form of
The experiences of European and Latin American countries suggest a second
reason why coalition governments might be prone to run budget deficits. As coalition
governments have more players who could potentially veto a change, they may be less
able to alter policy in the wake of adverse shocks (Roubini and Sachs, 1989; Alesina and
Drazen, 1991). These ideas are related to those in Tsebelis (1995, 1999, 2002), where a
large number of veto players tends to “lock in”' economic policy and reduce its ability to
respond to shocks. In Tsebelis's conception, proportional elections often lead to multiple
partisan veto players in government and thus to more policy myopia, even though the
electoral rule is not the primitive in his analysis.
Finally, changes of government or the threat of government crisis are more frequent
under proportional elections (due to the greater incidence of minority and coalition
governments). And governments facing a vote on their own survival are more likely to
behave myopically and run large budget deficits (Grilli, Masciandaro and Tabellini, 1991).
A priori, this argument could also go the other way, however. In a coalition government,
some parties will remain in government for a long time, despite changes in the coalition.
With plurality rule, the party in power this time may be completely out of power next time.
So the party in power today will take the money and run. In other words, political instability
(i.e. large swings in political majorities), rather than government instability, undermines
fiscal prudence (Alesina and Tabellini, 1990).
The empirical evidence confirms that proportional electoral systems behave more
myopically. In the raw data, budget deficits are larger by about 1% of GDP in legislatures
elected under proportional representation, compared to those elected under plurality rule.
Persson and Tabellini (2003) show that, when controlling for other determinants of policy,
this difference grows to about 2 percent of GDP and is statistically significant in a large
sample of democracies. There is also evidence that the electoral rule is correlated with
government reaction to economic shocks: in proportional democracies, spending as a
share of GDP rises in recessions but does not decline in booms, while cyclical fluctuations
tend to have symmetric impacts on fiscal policy under other electoral systems.
One of the principal conclusions of this chapter is that electoral reforms entail a trade off
between accountability and representation, as political scientists have suggested, and this
has sharp implications for economic policy outcomes. This tradeoff shows up in the direct
effects of the electoral rule on incentives of political candidates, as well as the indirect
effects on party structure and type of government.
Plurality rule strengthens accountability. It does so directly, by reinforcing the
incentives of politicians to please the voters, which results in smaller political rents and
less corruption. But plurality rule also makes political candidates more responsive to the
wishes of pivotal groups of voters, which increases the propensity to target benefits to
narrow constituencies, at the expense of broad and universalistic programs such as
welfare-state spending and general public goods. We surveyed a range of evidence
suggesting that both effects are quantitatively important.
Electoral rules also have indirect effects on policy outcomes, through the party
structure. Small district magnitude combined with plurality rule results in fewer political
parties. This makes it more difficult to oust dishonest or incompetent incumbents, because
voters often support such incumbents over honest but ideologically opposed challengers.
Fewer parties also reduce the incidence of coalition governments (in parliamentary
democracies), and this is likely to lead to more efficient policies. As these indirect effects
work in opposite directions, the overall impact on accountability is ambiguous. The
approach also reveals that the overall size of government and budget deficits are much
larger under coalition governments, and the latter are promoted by proportional
representation and large district magnitude.
Whether economists or political scientists, at the end of the day we are interested
not only in economic policies, but also in their overall effects on economic performance.
The interaction between electoral systems, other political institutions, and economic
development is one of the most exciting new areas of research at the boundary between
economics and political science. As discussed by Helpman (2004), progress in this area
will have to combine insights not only from these two disciplines, but also from sociology,
and from many branches of economics, such as macroeconomics, economic
development, political economics and economic history. This line of research will also
have to focus on the distinction between democratic and autocratic forms of government,
trying to understand which features of democratic institutions make democracy more
stable, and how the quality of democracy interacts with specific institutional features.
Although it is still premature to review this rapidly evolving line of research, one thing is
sure. When such a review is written a few years down the line, the state of our knowledge
in economics and political science will be very different from what it is today.
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