One of the most critical questions of modern comparative politics is: who governs? The first thing that would come to mind would be party politicians. However, transformations in several European countries’ governmental arena indicate that partisan presence in office, and, more broadly, the general model of party government, characterised by parties’ centrality in representing the needs and demands of citizens, is in decay. Such a decline owes much to the increased government involvement of technocratic personnel – i.e., ministers with no political affiliation. Indeed, while Italy established itself as the promised land of technocracy, currently led by Mario Draghi and by four technocratic prime ministers in the last two decades, technocratic ministers have also entered the last three partisan governments in France and Greece. In this way, technocracy can be interpreted as an alternative to classic party government and populism, becoming a pervasive ruling configuration in many countries (e.g. Italy, France, Greece, Austria, Portugal, and Spain), particularly in the last decades.
Interested in such transformations, scholars have paid attention to the impact of technocracy, investigating the drivers behind technocratic appointments particularly, the role of economic crises. In our new article, co-authored with Bruno Marino and Luca Verzichelli published in West European Politics, we contribute to this burgeoning research agenda by examining the impact of the electoral context on technocratic government participation.
Our paper focuses on turbulence in the electoral context as a contextual factor exerting an integral role in affecting parties’ trade-offs when it comes to the tension between responsibility and responsiveness. Following Peter Mair’s illustration of the responsibility-responsiveness gap, we understand ruling parties as increasingly confronted with crucial challenges. On the one hand, they are forced to comply with supranational institutions and globalised markets when holding governing responsibility. On the other hand, by satisfying the need for responsibility, they risk losing fulfilling their responsiveness function, that is, meeting voters’ demands. The offsets towards the responsibility or responsiveness sides may put ruling parties under dramatic pressure.
Ruling parties and the responsibility-responsiveness dilemma
How do ruling parties come out of this dilemma? In our article, we argue that they must choose between two strategies. The first strategy is to hold governing responsibility accepting the risk of being punished by voters at the ballot box. Alternatively, they may opt for a safer solution, namely ceding cabinet positions to technocrats as an attempt to dilute responsibility. In this case, ruling parties interpret technocratic involvement as a viable way to preserve their electoral appeal vis-à-vis voters, sacrificing – their government roles partially or completely in cases of full-technocratic cabinets.
From this perspective, we tested the hypothesis that ruling parties opt for a strategy of diluting responsibility the more the electoral context becomes turbulent, as this signals voters’ likelihood to punish parties for poor governance. We tested our hypothesis through a longitudinal multilevel dataset comprising 655 cabinets and 373 elections in 20 Western European countries, covering a timespan starting from 1945 up to 2021. The findings confirm our hypothesis that electoral volatility significantly influences the recourse to technocratic appointments in governments. Particularly, the empirical analysis demonstrated that the regeneration component of volatility, the party system unpredictability brought by the emergence of new parties and the disappearance of old ones, plays the greatest role in explaining the ruling parties’ resort to the diluting responsibility strategy. Therefore, alongside economic, and institutional drivers, electoral context is also an important explanation for why governments appoint technocrats.
Diluting responsibility measures and the quality of democracies
Our study has important implications for understanding recent political developments in Europe, where the rising process of party system deinstitutionalisation has also been affecting the governmental arena. Indeed, technocrats have been entrusted to lead the government in Greece (Lukas Papademos) and Italy (Mario Monti) in recent times. However, the “technocratic zeitgeist” is not limited to those countries. In 2019, a full-technocratic cabinet was formed in Austria. In 2021, key government portfolios in Spain were delegated to technocrats (e.g., Nadia Calviño, Minister of Economy). Government formation processes behind these technocratic appointments were complex and parties suffered from dramatic drops in confidence among the public.
Although the rise of technocrats in government is more pronounced in some countries (e.g., Italy, Greece) than in others (e.g., United Kingdom, Germany), our study showed that technocrats have been spreading in most European countries. This raises major questions about the quality of our democracies. The rise of technocratic personnel in government might be considered an additional sign of parties’ ailing. Our work highlights that the diluting responsibility strategy is implemented when parties face electorally turbulent times. However, we know that electorally turbulent times are becoming the rule in Europe rather than the exception. We now might deem moments of electoral stabilisation as the new ‘exceptional times’. In this context, there is an excellent chance that parties will continue to adopt diluting responsibility measures, putting party legitimacy vis-à-vis citizens in serious jeopardy. Perhaps, in the future, we will immediately think of technocrats, rather than party politicians, when asked: who governs?