Oslo Summer School in Comparative Social Science Studies 2009

Political Parties and the Life Cycle of Parliamentary Democracy

Lecturer: Professor Kaare Strøm,
Department of Political Science,
University of California, San Diego, USA

Main discipline: Political science

Dates: 27 - 31 July 2009
Course Credits: 10 pts (ECTS)
Limitation: 30 participants

The purpose of this course is to examine the “life cycle” of parliamentary democracy and especially the role of bargaining among political parties. The focus will be on contemporary advanced democracies, especially Western Europe. A focal point of the course will be applications of rational choice theory, such as agency theory and coalition theory, to the study of political parties and parliaments. The course will assume some basic familiarity with rational choice models, but no particular mathematical training.

Representative democracy means delegation, and parliamentary democracy is a particular delegation regime. Yet, parliamentary democracies differ significantly from one another in their delegation regimes. Delegation implies the risk of agency problems such as adverse selection and moral hazard. There are two main remedies: political parties and external constraints, and parties are the key accountability mechanism of parliamentary democracies. Political parties are first and foremost an ex ante screening device to select politicians with appropriate beliefs, values, and skills.

For parties to function as mechanisms of citizen control, they must lessen the agency problems of voters as well as politicians. Traditionally, parties have reduced agency costs by bringing together voters and candidates with similar demographic traits and policy preferences. European mass parties had their origins in distinctive social segments such as the industrial working class, the Catholic subculture, or the agricultural sector. Yet, as old social segments have declined and societies have become more differentiated, parties have trended toward ‘catch-all’ profiles.

The policy process in parliamentary democracies is intimately tied to a “life cycle” that begins and ends with general elections. In between, parliamentarians attempt to control the flow of government policy through bargaining over cabinet membership, portfolio allocation, policy agreements, decision rules, and election dates. Parties are the organizations through which this bargaining takes place. The course will examine the different stages of bargaining in this “life cycle” and their interdependence. Finally, we shall examine the policy consequences of parliamentary democracy, as well as its effects on regime stability.

Background Readings
There is no required set of background readings, though Lijphart (1992) provides the best general introduction to the classical literature on parliamentary democracy. Several of the chapters in Lijphart (1999), especially chs. 6, 7, and 11, are also very instructive as a guide to the contemporary world of parliamentary democracies. Laver and Schofield (1990) is still a useful and accessible survey of the literature on coalition bargaining.


July 27, Day 1

Lecture 1: Parliamentary Government and the Chain of Delegation

Lecture 2: Democratic Agency Problems and the Party Remedy


July 28, Day 2

Lecture 3: Party Organization and Discipline

Lecture 4: Party Behavior and Strategy


July 29, Day 3

Lecture 5: Parliamentarism and Coalition Bargaining


Lecture 6: Portfolio Allocation


July 30, Day 4

Lecture 7: Coalition Agreements and Governance


Lecture 8: Cabinet Termination and Electoral Performance


July 31, Day 5

Lecture 9: Parliamentary Democracy and Public Policy


Lecture 10: Parliamentary Democracy and Regime Stability


Literature (total reading of 915 pages):

The lecturer:
Profedssor Kaare Strom's interests include political parties, coalition theory, European politics, and the institutions of parliamentary democracy. He is the author of Minority Government and Majority Rule; co-editor of Challenges to Political Parties, Policy, Office or Votes?, Coalition Governments in Western Europe, Delegation and Accountability in Parliamentary Democracies, and the textbook Comparative Politics Today: A World View. Strom has published numerous articles in such scholarly journals as the American Political Science Review, the American Journal of Political Science, and the European Journal of Political Research. He has received the American Political Science Association's Franklin Burdette Pi Sigma Alpha Award for best conference paper (1983), the Gabriel Almond Award for best dissertation in Comparative Politics (1984), and UNESCO's Sixth Stein Rokkan Prize in Comparative Social Science Research (1994). He has also served on the National Science Foundation political science panel and on the editorial boards of a number of leading academic journals in the US and Europe. Strom was a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Rochester in 1988 and a National Fellow at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace in 1994-95. In 2001, he was a Fellow at the Rockefeller Center in Bellagio, Italy. Between 2002 and 2004 he was Study Center Director of the University of California's Education Abroad Program in Scandinavia. Strom is a 2004-05 Fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford. He is a Fellow of the Norwegian Academy of Arts and Sciences and also a Fellow of the Royal Norwegian Society of Science and Letters.

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