CSES: A Short History and New Challenges

CSES: a short history and new challenges
Jacques Thomassen


The launch of the new Comparative Study of Electoral Systems (CSES) blog is a perfect occasion to reflect upon CSES’ 22 years history and its future challenges. CSES was a joint initiative of the established election studies in a number of European countries, since 1989 joined in ICORE, and the American National Election Studies. It was kicked off in a memorable conference in Berlin in 1994.

The pièce de résistance at this meeting was a stimulus paper written by representatives from the established election studies in Western Europe and the US. This paper focused on the effect of political institutions on political behavior and the mechanisms of representative democracy. This focus lead to a fierce debate. Representatives from developing democracies argued that the paper hardly took into account the specific problems new democracies were facing. They wanted to know what kind of political institutions would enhance people’s support for democracy. As a consequence the impact of political institutions on people’s support for democracy became a second main research topic.

Ever since its tumultuous start CSES has been a tremendous success, both from an organizational and substantive perspective. We have learned  a lot more about the impact of electoral institutions both on political behavior and people’s assessment of the performance of democracy. But what we have learned might be a bit disappointing for whoever might have thought that CSES would find us the Holy Grail containing the toolbox to design the best possible political institutions for an effective and sustainable system of representative democracy.

‘The electoral system matters but not much’ has become the catchphrase summarizing our findings with regard to the first question. To mention just one major finding, we hardly found any evidence for the widely shared assumption that retrospective voting is typical for majoritarian democracies and prospective voting for consensus democracies. Findings for the second research question are equally negative. There is evidence that people’s satisfaction with the function of democracy is even partly related to the nature of political institutions.

Does this mean we are done with studying the effects of political institutions? No, we definitely are not. First, the jury is still out. The Module 4 Planning Committee in its Theoretical Statement claims that ‘two sets of findings challenge those of the CSES so far’. Research findings in comparative political economy they argue make dramatic claims about the effects of electoral systems whereas the ‘thermostatic’ model of democratic responsiveness is based on the hypothesis that public preferences on matters such as social expenditure are significantly mediated through institutions. We’ll see what evidence Module 4 data will provide with regard to these claims.

Second, in some respects institutions were found to matter. The seminal work of Chris Anderson and colleagues for example, revealed that in majoritarian democracies the differences in satisfaction with democracy between winners and losers of elections, and in particularly voters repeatedly losing elections are larger than in consensus democracies. This finding strongly supports an argument made by Arend Lijphart in his earlier work that the introduction of majoritarian institutions in heterogeneous societies would only undermine the legitimacy and hence the stability of democracy because it would tend to exclude sizable minorities more or less permanently from government power.

These findings are as relevant as ever in many countries where sizable minorities feel poorly represented by the established political parties and therefore massively flee to radical populist parties. If these parties are permanently excluded from government power, or exclude themselves from it, this will only increase their voters’ frustrations.

In other words the institutional architecture of democracy might seriously affect its sustainability. It is somewhat ironic that this perspective was originally introduced in CSES by representatives from developing democracies but has now become a major issue in the world of established democracies.

Perhaps it is time to reverse the main research question of CSES by exploring to what extent changes in citizens’ behavior like the decline of turnout and partisanship, the increase of volatility, as well as people’s attitudes towards democracy affect the sustainability of the main institutions of representative democracy.


Jacques Thomassen is emeritus professor of pJacques Thomassenolitical science in the Faculty of Behavioural, Management & Social Sciences at the University of Twente. He was the chair of the first planning committee of CSES and edited the fourth volume of the CSES book series, Elections and Democracy. Representation and Accountability.


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