Introduction

Political parties exist to represent and advocate the interests of its
membership. Increasing global wealth and social modernisation have brought
about profound impacts on voting behaviour, where parties find themselves
losing support from their traditional voters. Today, the increasingly educated
electorate prioritises strategic concerns over party loyalty and
identification. It is imperative that parties search for new bases of electoral
support to win elections and secure legislative representation. To ensure that
they remain versatile and respond swiftly to the ever-changing voter demands, parties
are ultimately incentivised to cater to the median voter in the electorate.

Downs’ median voter theory postulates that electoral parties will be at
an advantage should they appeal directly to the median voter, who holds the
decisive vote in an election (Downs, 1957). The assumption that all voters vote
sincerely limits the applicability of Downs’ theory to today’s political
context. Seeking to advance the literature further, political scientists
studied party strategy and positioning through multiple angles such as voter
behaviour and variations in electoral system settings. The multitude of
variables present in each political context has resulted in incongruous
electoral patterns and outcomes, leading to a divided scholarship on whether
adopting extremist or centrist party positions maximises vote share. Through
examining the relationship between voters and political parties, inter-party
interactions and the influence of electoral systems on party positioning, this
paper proves on multiple levels that all political parties are ultimately
incentivised to cater to the median voter in the electorate.

 

Relationship between political
parties and voters

              As society progresses from
“materialist” to “post-materialist”, we have witnessed a trend of parties
re-aligning their policy positions towards the middle. The waning influence of ideological
politics and cleavage-based voting means that parties can no longer assume the
support of their past voters. Lachat’s research in 2012 captured the erosion of
religious cleavage in Switzerland, where the support for the Christian
Democratic Party was greatly diminished due to a 40% reduction in churchgoers.
Class cleavage has also suffered the same fate. Many voters now find themselves
without clearly defined positions in class, religion or other social stratifications.
The overlapping and blurred social positions of voters makes it hard for
parties to appeal directly to distinct social groups. As such, parties cast a
large centrist electoral net that targets the median voter to ‘catch’ other
voters who do not deviate too much from the median social position.

              Conversely, the rise in
issue-based voting has also demanded for a shift in party strategy. Having
satisfied their basic material needs, voters of the new generation are
increasingly expressive about post-material concerns such as self-expression,
lifestyles and individual freedom (Inglehart, 1977). In issue-based voting, voters
demand for these issues to be addressed swiftly and will select parties that they
perceive to be capable of instituting legislative change. As citizens turn to
short-term cues and candidate evaluation to vote, parties are likely to adopt
inclusive political stances by supporting broad-based causes. In Egypt, the
centrist Yesh Atid party achieved political success by denouncing left-wing and
right-wing policies and capitalising on the media popularity of its leader Yair
Lapid to garner electorate support (Schwartz, 2015). As post-material issues
gain prominence and partisanship declines, parties and candidates resort to
populist appeals that address immediate concerns of the electorate and the
median voter.

              The combination of a decline in
cleavage-based voting and the rise of issue competition has induced a ‘riding
the wave’ trend of many political parties. As posited by Kluver and Sagarzazu
(2016), political parties clinically “respond to the salient policy concerns of
voters through a bottom-up process”. Parties attempt to court new voters by
altering their election programmes to address issues affecting the national
electorate. Research has revealed a pattern of parties becoming more centrist
in their party programmes across 12 European countries after identifying new
sources of political support to strengthen their electoral bases (Klingemann,
1995). To boost credibility, parties and candidates must respond quickly to new
social concerns close to the hearts of their voters. Such reactive mechanisms
promote deviations from traditional ideological lines towards middling policy
positions that caters to the interests of the median voter.

 

Inter-party interactions

              Parties of varying electoral sizes
are ultimately motivated to capture the median vote. Against the backdrop of a
highly diversified ‘sea of free-floating voters’, major parties deliberately
adopt more integrative political positions to indicate a shift from traditional
and outdated ideologies. By attracting diverse candidates to increase party
heterogeneity, parties aim to reduce the distance between the party and the
median voter by adopting multiple intra-party policy positions, as witnessed from
a more libertarian and centrist Liberal Democrat Party following its electoral
defeat in 2015 (Schmitt & Loughran, 2017). The demand for diverse
candidates is met by the supply of high-quality candidates engaging in
‘strategic entry’. These candidates join major political parties to increase
their chances of electoral success, which reinforces party heterogeneity as
candidates advance policies that differ from the existing membership. The trend
of party heterogeneity is supported by research on Japan’s open recruitment
systems which registered an increase in nominations of more centrist candidates
within the Liberal Democratic Party and Democratic Party of Japan (Smith &
Tsutsumi, 2014). In major political parties, we witness how the demand for diverse
candidates coincides neatly with the supply of candidates advancing varied
political agenda, which produces a gradual shift towards a centrist policy
position that caters to the median voter.

              The struggle to gain legislative
representation compels smaller parties to either undergo mergers or pursue
swing voters outside its traditional support base, causing a natural
gravitation towards the median voter. To avoid vote split, smaller parties may
combine to form a larger party with a new ideological framework. Tracking the
birth of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in Nigeria, Buba (2017) contends
that constituent parties compromise on their political ideologies during a
merger, which results in a union that is largely centrist. Moreover, smaller
parties in ethnically-diverse countries can set broad and inclusive policy
directions to court non-co-ethnic voters, as illustrated in Kenya’s 2002
elections where parties divide support equally amongst their own candidates
that belong to various ethnic groups (Horowitz, 2015). Driven by a desire for
legislative representation, parties of differing sizes must diversify its field
of candidates whilst achieving policy consensus and party cohesion, where shifting
towards a centrist position to appeal to the median voter is inevitable.

              Turning our attention to party
ideology, we observe that mainstream and niche parties are ultimately motivated
to appeal to the median voter. Building on Kirchheimer’s concept of the ‘catch-all
party’, Ezrow et al., (2008) confirms through his general electorate model that
“mainstream parties typically respond to shifts in the mean voter position by
pitching larger ideological tents to catch more voters”. This is further
corroborated by Maeda (2016) who proved that 95% of mainstream opposition
parties across 8 Western European countries tend to shift their policy
positions to the centre. Both mainstream incumbents driven to stay in office
and mainstream opposition parties hoping to get elected are all incentivised to
position themselves at the centre of the ideological spectrum where the largest
share of the electorate is located.   

Niche parties, defined as parties which emphasise issues neglected by
their mainstream rivals, also strategically shift their policy positions to the
middle. Ezrow’s partisan constituency model (PCM) contends that niche parties
only respond to shifts in their supporters’ positions and disregard the electorate
mean. However, the PCM model is invalid as it attaches a fixed “niche” label on
parties and neglects the prospects of niche parties changing their salience
profiles. In fact, niche parties are incentivised to switch to a mainstream
profile after a poor electoral showing to target a larger voter audience and
stage an electoral comeback. Following its 2005 electoral defeat, the German
Green Party adopted a more mainstream policy position after reviewing its party
alliances and nominating more centrist party leaders (Klein & Falter,
2003). Motivated by a desire to reverse its past failings, niche parties
critically adjust their policy positions to cater to the median voter.

 

Electoral systems and party positions

              The non-permissive nature of the majoritarian
electoral system compels parties to cater to the median voter. According to
Dahlberg (2009), “parties will lean towards deploying bridging strategies to
address issues widely shared among the public and bring together diverse groups
of voters”. In majoritarian systems, parties aim to secure the most votes, and
therefore are extrinsically motivated to the appeal to the largest population
of voters, especially median voters who are likely to cause a swing in
electoral results.

              Predicting party positioning
strategies in proportional representation (PR) electoral systems is not as straightforward
as majoritarian systems. In PR systems, parties consciously endorse radical
policy positions to discern themselves from their competition. Under the low
electoral threshold setting, parties prioritise the interests of their faithful
supporters to secure sufficient votes above the minimum threshold. Contrary to
popular belief, appealing to the median voter in PR systems may prove to be
advantageous. Wishing to vote strategically for the party that can accomplish
policy change, voters carefully consider how each party’s proposal will be
limited by the median party’s approval in coalition governments. To capture the
relatively moderate voters, parties in PR systems are compelled to skew its
policy choices closer to the median party (Cho, 2013). Aggregating the effects
of strategic voting by voters and strategic policy compromises by parties, it
is indubitable that parties in PR systems also tend towards the median
position.

               
Although the number of contesting parties may differ in electoral
systems, party incentives to attract the median vote does not change. Sartori
(1976) combined both numerical and ideological criteria to categorise party
systems. He postulated that simple pluralism systems produce centripetal
political incentives due to intense two-party competition. However, Sartori’s subsequent
hypothesis that extreme pluralism typically results in centrifugal dynamics and
a polarization of parties across the Left-Right dimension lacks relevance in
today’s context. Recent statistical analyses conducted by Ezrow (2005) prove
that parties occupying positions close to the mean voter position in
multi-party systems gain larger electoral benefits as compared to non-centrist
parties, where a shift away from the mean voter leads to an exponential decline
in votes obtained. Amidst the highly competitive political landscape, it is
logical for parties to stage centrist appeals to gain an electoral edge.

Parties and candidates consistently appeal to the median voter despite
varying district magnitudes. In single-member constituencies, candidates are
motivated to develop a “principle-agent relationship” through adopting moderate
positions on issues that broadly serves the interests of their constituents
(Norris, 2004). In multi-member districts, the key to winning constituency
representation involves reducing the voter-party distance by propagating
widely-accepted ideologies. Large districts also promote centralized party
organization, which induces centrism in party positions to cover the varied
interests of voters belonging to different constituencies (Powell, 2000). As
parties are unable to control the design of the electoral system or the
political agenda of other parties, formulating a coordinated and consistent
political agenda that addresses issues central to the local political context
where the median voters are located is pivotal to electoral success.

 

Conclusion

Having considered the effect of party-voter
relations, interactions amongst competing parties and electoral system design
on party strategy, this paper concludes that all parties ultimately cater to
the median voter. Although electoral settings may differ across countries, the
rise of issue-based voting has made policy salience and party responsiveness to
voter demands the key determinants of electoral success. As parties’ policy
positions converge to the centre of the policy space, the rise of political
centrism and ideological homogeneity will restrict voter choices and undermine
democracy. The way forward requires parties to be nimble in responding to the
changing social contexts and voter demands, whilst maintaining ideological
independence that voters can identify themselves with. Granted, catering to the
median voter is a form of electoral strategy employed by parties to gain
legislative representation. Nonetheless, true success in representative
democracy is achieved only when the parliamentary median reflects the voter
median and voter concerns are adequately addressed in parliament.