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Throwing the rascals out? Problems of accountability in two-party systems

QUINN, THOMAS (2016) 'Throwing the rascals out? Problems of accountability in two-party systems.' European Journal of Political Research, 55 (1). pp. 120-137. ISSN 0304-4130

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This article critically examines the concept of 'accountability' as it is understood in two-party systems and majoritarian democracy - namely the ability of voters to remove governments that violate their mandates or otherwise perform poorly. Voters' capacity to 'throw the rascals out' is one of the main normative appeals of two-partism and the single-member plurality (SMP) electoral system. However, this article uses a spatial model to show that in at least two types of situation voters are left in a bind when confronted with a mandate-breaking governing party: (1) when both major parties undertake unexpected non-centrist shifts in opposing directions after an election, leaving centrist voters with an unappealing choice; and (2) when a governing party that had won an election on a non-centrist platform undertakes a post-election shift to the centre, leaving its more radical supporters dissatisfied. In each case, voters have four imperfect options: punish the governing party by throwing the rascals out, but in doing so vote for a party that is ideologically more distant; abstain, and withdraw from the democratic process; vote for a minor party that has no hope of influencing government formation, but which might detach enough votes to allow the ideologically more distant major opposition party to win; and forgive the governing party its mandate-breaking. All of these options represent accountability failures. The problems are illustrated with two case studies from two-party systems: the United Kingdom in the mid-1980s and New Zealand in the period 1984-1993. In both instances, many voters found it difficult to 'throw the rascals out' without harming their own interests in the process. The article concludes that accountability may sometimes be better achieved if voters can force a party to share power in coalition with another party in order to 'keep it honest' instead of removing it from government completely, as can happen in multi-party systems based on proportional representation. Thus, although two-partism based on plurality voting is normally regarded as superior to multi-partism and proportional representation on the criterion of accountability, in some instances, the reverse can be true. The article therefore undermines a core normative argument advanced by supporters of majoritarian democracy and SMP.

Item Type: Article
Uncontrolled Keywords: accountability; two-party system; single-member plurality system; proportional representation; Duverger's law
Subjects: J Political Science > JA Political science (General)
Divisions: Faculty of Social Sciences
Faculty of Social Sciences > Government, Department of
SWORD Depositor: Elements
Depositing User: Elements
Date Deposited: 23 Oct 2015 08:59
Last Modified: 18 Aug 2022 11:16

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