Popularity vs. collegiality

As I type this item, we are a few hours from the caucus meeting of the Australian Labor Party, where a decision will be made on the party leader. Current leader and PM, Julia Gillard, is being challenged by former PM (and until a few days ago, Foreign Minister), Kevin Rudd. Today’s caucus vote is a good case study in parliamentary vs. presidential democracy.

In Presidents, Parties, and Prime Ministers, David Samuels and I make the point that Prime Ministers in parliamentary democracies are agents of their parties, whereas parties in presidential systems must select executive candidates who can succeed as agents of the electorate. We show that this fundamental institutional distinction has consequences for the types of leaders who are chosen under each system. We suggest this is because the qualities that make a potential executive leader a “good agent” of the party might be only loosely correlated with the qualities that make a potential leader sufficiently popular to win a separate election. Australia today is apparently going to give us an excellent case study in exactly why these leadership-selection distinctions matter.

It now appears, based on various news accounts, that Gillard has outmaneuvered Rudd and will survive the challenge, notwithstanding evidence that Rudd is favored by the voters.

If public opinion polls are to be believed, Rudd is vastly more popular than Gillard. For example a Newspoll survey, reported in The Age, has Rudd preferred over Gillard, 53% to 28%. Polls also suggest that he would run a closer contest, or even beat, opposition leader Tony Abbot, while Gillard would lose badly.

However, Australia does not select its executives by popular vote. The only voters who matter under the rules the Labor Party uses are the members of its parliamentary caucus. The Sydney Morning Herald estimates that the 69 of the 103 caucus members back Gillard and only 29 Rudd.

That’s 67% Gillard in the caucus (and it may end up much higher), 53% Rudd in the public.

Rudd’s wife says the challenger’s campaign is “people-led“. Right; that’s the problem! Rudd and his backers are encouraging voters to contact their Labor MPs on Rudd’s behalf. I doubt many MPs will be swayed. This is their decision.

If the challenger is more popular with the public than the incumbent, one might expect that it would be the marginal seat-holders who would most tend to be in favor of the challenger. After all, they are the Labor MPs who are most vulnerable, and therefore would gain most from whatever additional votes a changed leader might bring to their party. Yet marginal members are actually more likely to favor the incumbent party leader and PM, Gillard, over Rudd. According to a count by the Sydney Morning Herald, only 5 of Labor’s 20 most marginal MPs favor Rudd. They are prepared to sacrifice their seats for the current leader. As the Herald concludes:

Another MP said marginal seat holders tended to support the leader because they got the most attention “Name me a leader who doesn’t listen to marginal seats and I’ll show you a leader who won’t win,” the MP said.

Evidently she listens to the selectorate that matters most to a PM’s career, an area in which Rudd has an ongoing failing.

If Rudd really is more popular, by such a wide margin as polls suggest, one might expect MPs and Senators to be persuaded. Of the many tasks a party leader has to perform, one of the most important is to be able to lead the party to electoral success. Quite likely, however, the caucus members simply do not believe the leader makes this much difference. There is little objective reason to think it would matter as much as the polling says, for when an election actually comes, voters in a parliamentary system will select their legislators based overwhelmingly on the party record, and not on images of the leader. Besides, before the election there is a government and a party to manage, and for Labor caucus members, they have been there, done that with Rudd.

From the point of view of the caucus, it can’t be a good thing to contemplate entering a second consecutive election with a PM who came to power due to an inter-electoral leadership “spill”. Divided parties rarely prosper–it is almost a political-science truism. Better to get this behind them–if they can–and get on with governing and repairing a record on which to run come the next election.

PM-ship showdown in Australia Monday

Australia could have a new Prime Minister next week, depending on the outcome of a leadership contest in the Labor Party caucus.

From the Sydney Morning Herald:

The Labor Party will undergo a leadership ballot on Monday morning after Kevin Rudd quit his post and flew back to Australia to challenge Julia Gillard for the job she took from him 20 months ago.

If Rudd wins, it may have implications for the current Labor-led minority government. At least two of the independent MPs have given some indications of doubt that they’d support a government under a changed PM.

Do parties dump their own PM less often in Westminster systems?

Building on a discussion in one of the Australia post-election threads, I checked the data for Presidents, Parties, and Prime Ministers to see if PMs in “Westminster” systems were any less frequently dismissed due to “intra-party” politics than PMs in parliamentary systems overall. To make a long story short, they are (except, apparently, in Australia).

The question came up because Julia Gillard, the current PM of Australia, replaced a co-partisan PM between elections, and Alan noted that her predecessor was the third out of the last ten so replaced. At the time I pointed out that 3 out of 10 was precisely the rate at which PMs in parliamentary systems overall are dismissed by their own parties. More precisely, we found that 30.2% of 354 PMs surveyed left office on account of internal party politics. (The remainder was about evenly split between election defeats and coalition breakdown.) So, Australia seemed “normal,” not a case where PM termination between elections was overly frequent by the comparative yardstick.

But what about compared to similar parliamentary democracies, where majority government is the norm (or at least used to be!)? That is, let’s leave out parliamentary systems where coalitions are the norm, and where perhaps some cases of intra-party conflict are really generated by the tensions of governing in coalition, and not by purely intra-party matters.

My first look at the data suggested that the rate was not much different in this subset than overall (I found 22 of 78). However, quite a few of these were coded in the detailed data as something like “Intraparty — left office voluntarily.” Now, that is clearly an intra-party replacement, so I am not second-guessing our own data coding! However, there is quite a lot of difference between a party undertaking an inter-electoral leadership change because the former PM decided on his or her own accord to leave, and a challenge to a sitting leader who goes involuntarily.

So let’s look at things again, with cases of “voluntary” departure relegated to a residual category.

Now things look rather different. There are only nine of 78 PMs in Westminster systems who leave for reasons that might be termed intra-party conflict. That’s 11.5%, which I have to agree is a good deal less than 3 of 10!

What about in the non-Westminster cases? We should also remove the “voluntary” departures from this subset. When we do, we are left with about 24% leaving due to intra-party conflict in the entire parliamentary data. In the non-Westminster subset, it’s 28%.

So there you have it. Roughly one eighth of Westminster PMs leave due to intra-party conflict, compared to well over a quarter of non-Westminster PMs. That seems pretty significant. And I thank Alan for prompting me to look deeper at the data!


The countries taken as “Westminster” for the purposes of this exercise, and their own rate of dismissals for intra-party reasons, are:

Australia (2/9)*
Bangladesh (0/3)
Canada (1/12)
India (1/14)**
Jamaica (0/6)
New Zealand (1/12)***
Sri Lanka (0/10 during its parliamentary regime)
U.K. (4/12)

The real question, of course, would be to break down majority vs. coalition (and minority) governments, not Westminster vs. non-Westminster. But the two categories are quite closely aligned.

Obviously, another big difference across parliamentary subtypes is in the percentage of PMs who leave office due to electoral defeat. Elections account for about a third of all parliamentary PM terminations, but 48.1% (38 of 79) in these Westminster systems. Electoral defeat is what we might expect to be the most common mechanism of PM termination in a Westminster system, of course. Just as obviously, inter-party conflict is almost never a cause of PM termination in Westminster systems: just five PMs in India and one in Bangladesh left for such reasons. (Perhaps we could add Whitlam, in Australia, who is coded as an “other” due to his dismissal by the Governor General, but the underlying reason for conflict was his lack of support in the second chamber.)


* This was before Rudd’s forced resignation.

** The Indian case is Desai, who headed the unwieldy (and not very Westminster) anti-Congress coalition that collapsed in 1979.

*** I excluded PMs in the PR era, since 1996. Since then, our dataset has only Shipley, who served out her term. We could add Clark, who also survived to see electoral defeat. The two of them would leave NZ, through 2008, at 1/14.