IntroductionPolitical parties exist to represent and advocate the interests of itsmembership. Increasing global wealth and social modernisation have broughtabout profound impacts on voting behaviour, where parties find themselveslosing support from their traditional voters. Today, the increasingly educatedelectorate prioritises strategic concerns over party loyalty andidentification. It is imperative that parties search for new bases of electoralsupport to win elections and secure legislative representation. To ensure thatthey remain versatile and respond swiftly to the ever-changing voter demands, partiesare ultimately incentivised to cater to the median voter in the electorate.
Downs’ median voter theory postulates that electoral parties will be atan advantage should they appeal directly to the median voter, who holds thedecisive vote in an election (Downs, 1957). The assumption that all voters votesincerely limits the applicability of Downs’ theory to today’s politicalcontext. Seeking to advance the literature further, political scientistsstudied party strategy and positioning through multiple angles such as voterbehaviour and variations in electoral system settings. The multitude ofvariables present in each political context has resulted in incongruouselectoral patterns and outcomes, leading to a divided scholarship on whetheradopting extremist or centrist party positions maximises vote share. Throughexamining the relationship between voters and political parties, inter-partyinteractions and the influence of electoral systems on party positioning, thispaper proves on multiple levels that all political parties are ultimatelyincentivised to cater to the median voter in the electorate. Relationship between politicalparties and voters As society progresses from”materialist” to “post-materialist”, we have witnessed a trend of partiesre-aligning their policy positions towards the middle. The waning influence of ideologicalpolitics and cleavage-based voting means that parties can no longer assume thesupport of their past voters.
Lachat’s research in 2012 captured the erosion ofreligious cleavage in Switzerland, where the support for the ChristianDemocratic Party was greatly diminished due to a 40% reduction in churchgoers.Class cleavage has also suffered the same fate. Many voters now find themselveswithout clearly defined positions in class, religion or other social stratifications.The overlapping and blurred social positions of voters makes it hard forparties to appeal directly to distinct social groups. As such, parties cast alarge centrist electoral net that targets the median voter to ‘catch’ othervoters who do not deviate too much from the median social position. Conversely, the rise inissue-based voting has also demanded for a shift in party strategy.
Havingsatisfied their basic material needs, voters of the new generation areincreasingly expressive about post-material concerns such as self-expression,lifestyles and individual freedom (Inglehart, 1977). In issue-based voting, votersdemand for these issues to be addressed swiftly and will select parties that theyperceive to be capable of instituting legislative change. As citizens turn toshort-term cues and candidate evaluation to vote, parties are likely to adoptinclusive political stances by supporting broad-based causes. In Egypt, thecentrist Yesh Atid party achieved political success by denouncing left-wing andright-wing policies and capitalising on the media popularity of its leader YairLapid to garner electorate support (Schwartz, 2015). As post-material issuesgain prominence and partisanship declines, parties and candidates resort topopulist appeals that address immediate concerns of the electorate and themedian voter. The combination of a decline incleavage-based voting and the rise of issue competition has induced a ‘ridingthe wave’ trend of many political parties. As posited by Kluver and Sagarzazu(2016), political parties clinically “respond to the salient policy concerns ofvoters through a bottom-up process”.
Parties attempt to court new voters byaltering their election programmes to address issues affecting the nationalelectorate. Research has revealed a pattern of parties becoming more centristin their party programmes across 12 European countries after identifying newsources of political support to strengthen their electoral bases (Klingemann,1995). To boost credibility, parties and candidates must respond quickly to newsocial concerns close to the hearts of their voters. Such reactive mechanismspromote deviations from traditional ideological lines towards middling policypositions that caters to the interests of the median voter.
Inter-party interactions Parties of varying electoral sizesare ultimately motivated to capture the median vote. Against the backdrop of ahighly diversified ‘sea of free-floating voters’, major parties deliberatelyadopt more integrative political positions to indicate a shift from traditionaland outdated ideologies. By attracting diverse candidates to increase partyheterogeneity, parties aim to reduce the distance between the party and themedian voter by adopting multiple intra-party policy positions, as witnessed froma more libertarian and centrist Liberal Democrat Party following its electoraldefeat in 2015 (Schmitt & Loughran, 2017). The demand for diversecandidates is met by the supply of high-quality candidates engaging in’strategic entry’. These candidates join major political parties to increasetheir chances of electoral success, which reinforces party heterogeneity ascandidates advance policies that differ from the existing membership. The trendof party heterogeneity is supported by research on Japan’s open recruitmentsystems which registered an increase in nominations of more centrist candidateswithin the Liberal Democratic Party and Democratic Party of Japan (Smith , 2014).
In major political parties, we witness how the demand for diversecandidates coincides neatly with the supply of candidates advancing variedpolitical agenda, which produces a gradual shift towards a centrist policyposition that caters to the median voter. The struggle to gain legislativerepresentation compels smaller parties to either undergo mergers or pursueswing voters outside its traditional support base, causing a naturalgravitation towards the median voter. To avoid vote split, smaller parties maycombine to form a larger party with a new ideological framework. Tracking thebirth of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in Nigeria, Buba (2017) contendsthat constituent parties compromise on their political ideologies during amerger, which results in a union that is largely centrist.
Moreover, smallerparties in ethnically-diverse countries can set broad and inclusive policydirections to court non-co-ethnic voters, as illustrated in Kenya’s 2002elections where parties divide support equally amongst their own candidatesthat belong to various ethnic groups (Horowitz, 2015). Driven by a desire forlegislative representation, parties of differing sizes must diversify its fieldof candidates whilst achieving policy consensus and party cohesion, where shiftingtowards a centrist position to appeal to the median voter is inevitable. Turning our attention to partyideology, we observe that mainstream and niche parties are ultimately motivatedto appeal to the median voter. Building on Kirchheimer’s concept of the ‘catch-allparty’, Ezrow et al., (2008) confirms through his general electorate model that”mainstream parties typically respond to shifts in the mean voter position bypitching larger ideological tents to catch more voters”.
This is furthercorroborated by Maeda (2016) who proved that 95% of mainstream oppositionparties across 8 Western European countries tend to shift their policypositions to the centre. Both mainstream incumbents driven to stay in officeand mainstream opposition parties hoping to get elected are all incentivised toposition themselves at the centre of the ideological spectrum where the largestshare of the electorate is located. Niche parties, defined as parties which emphasise issues neglected bytheir mainstream rivals, also strategically shift their policy positions to themiddle. Ezrow’s partisan constituency model (PCM) contends that niche partiesonly respond to shifts in their supporters’ positions and disregard the electoratemean. However, the PCM model is invalid as it attaches a fixed “niche” label onparties and neglects the prospects of niche parties changing their salienceprofiles. In fact, niche parties are incentivised to switch to a mainstreamprofile after a poor electoral showing to target a larger voter audience andstage an electoral comeback. Following its 2005 electoral defeat, the GermanGreen Party adopted a more mainstream policy position after reviewing its partyalliances and nominating more centrist party leaders (Klein & Falter,2003).
Motivated by a desire to reverse its past failings, niche partiescritically adjust their policy positions to cater to the median voter. Electoral systems and party positions The non-permissive nature of the majoritarianelectoral system compels parties to cater to the median voter. According toDahlberg (2009), “parties will lean towards deploying bridging strategies toaddress issues widely shared among the public and bring together diverse groupsof voters”. In majoritarian systems, parties aim to secure the most votes, andtherefore are extrinsically motivated to the appeal to the largest populationof voters, especially median voters who are likely to cause a swing inelectoral results. Predicting party positioningstrategies in proportional representation (PR) electoral systems is not as straightforwardas majoritarian systems. In PR systems, parties consciously endorse radicalpolicy positions to discern themselves from their competition.
Under the lowelectoral threshold setting, parties prioritise the interests of their faithfulsupporters to secure sufficient votes above the minimum threshold. Contrary topopular belief, appealing to the median voter in PR systems may prove to beadvantageous. Wishing to vote strategically for the party that can accomplishpolicy change, voters carefully consider how each party’s proposal will belimited by the median party’s approval in coalition governments. To capture therelatively moderate voters, parties in PR systems are compelled to skew itspolicy choices closer to the median party (Cho, 2013). Aggregating the effectsof strategic voting by voters and strategic policy compromises by parties, itis indubitable that parties in PR systems also tend towards the medianposition. Although the number of contesting parties may differ in electoralsystems, party incentives to attract the median vote does not change. Sartori(1976) combined both numerical and ideological criteria to categorise partysystems. He postulated that simple pluralism systems produce centripetalpolitical incentives due to intense two-party competition.
However, Sartori’s subsequenthypothesis that extreme pluralism typically results in centrifugal dynamics anda polarization of parties across the Left-Right dimension lacks relevance intoday’s context. Recent statistical analyses conducted by Ezrow (2005) provethat parties occupying positions close to the mean voter position inmulti-party systems gain larger electoral benefits as compared to non-centristparties, where a shift away from the mean voter leads to an exponential declinein votes obtained. Amidst the highly competitive political landscape, it islogical for parties to stage centrist appeals to gain an electoral edge. Parties and candidates consistently appeal to the median voter despitevarying district magnitudes. In single-member constituencies, candidates aremotivated to develop a “principle-agent relationship” through adopting moderatepositions on issues that broadly serves the interests of their constituents(Norris, 2004). In multi-member districts, the key to winning constituencyrepresentation involves reducing the voter-party distance by propagatingwidely-accepted ideologies.
Large districts also promote centralized partyorganization, which induces centrism in party positions to cover the variedinterests of voters belonging to different constituencies (Powell, 2000). Asparties are unable to control the design of the electoral system or thepolitical agenda of other parties, formulating a coordinated and consistentpolitical agenda that addresses issues central to the local political contextwhere the median voters are located is pivotal to electoral success. ConclusionHaving considered the effect of party-voterrelations, interactions amongst competing parties and electoral system designon party strategy, this paper concludes that all parties ultimately cater tothe median voter. Although electoral settings may differ across countries, therise of issue-based voting has made policy salience and party responsiveness tovoter demands the key determinants of electoral success. As parties’ policypositions converge to the centre of the policy space, the rise of politicalcentrism and ideological homogeneity will restrict voter choices and underminedemocracy. The way forward requires parties to be nimble in responding to thechanging social contexts and voter demands, whilst maintaining ideologicalindependence that voters can identify themselves with.
Granted, catering to themedian voter is a form of electoral strategy employed by parties to gainlegislative representation. Nonetheless, true success in representativedemocracy is achieved only when the parliamentary median reflects the votermedian and voter concerns are adequately addressed in parliament.