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Dissatisfied citizens at the polls? Party system, satisfaction with democracy and turnout

Jordi Munoz
Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona
Jordi Munoz
Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona
Open Panel

Abstract

Satisfaction with the working of democracy in one’s country is a strong predictor of turnout, one that works across very different contexts. Beyond other considerations, dissatisfied citizens have significantly lower probabilities of showing up at the polls on election day than those who express positive attitudes towards the way the democratic system works in their country. Indeed, abstaining is the most often used option for expressing insatisfaction with the political system. However, a closer look reveals that this relationship is not always and everywhere equally strong: in some contexts the difference in the probability of voting for satisfied and unsatisfied citizens is substantial, while in other cases it is less pronounced. How can we explain these differences? Under what conditions will political dissatisfaction lead to a moderate, versus a sharp decrease in turnout? In this paper we argue that we have to look to the ‘supply side’ to find an answer for this question. Certain features of the political supply will mediate this relationship: the more options citizens find on the ballot, and the more diverse this options are, the less consequential (in terms of abstention) will political dissatisfaction be. We test our argument using a multilevel model with random intercepts and slopes in which we pool data from the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems (CSES) with aggregate data on the party systems. Results show how there is a substantial cross-country and time variation in the effect of satisfaction with democracy on turnout, and how part of this variation can be explained by characteristics of the party system.