Research Team 1

Democratic Institutions

Many democratic/semi-democratic regimes in developing countries face problems that weaken the direct democratic accountability link between citizens and formal political institutions. High levels of economic and social inequality often create a breeding ground for challenges to constitutional rules and judicial independence, as well as encouraging clientelism, patronage, and corruption, in addition to a disproportionately high level of influence of special interest groups. In many countries, parallel informal institutions have emerged to help certain groups attain political power and allocate state resources, which impairs the representation of less powerful groups. All of these phenomena damage the quality of democracy and the equal and efficient delivery of public goods.

Against this backdrop, the Democratic Institutions Research Team looks into the functioning of formal and informal political institutions and into ways in which citizens seek to hold power-holders accountable. With this research, the team is interested in identifying policies that can contribute to enhancing the experience of democracy from the perspective of the citizens.

As one area of focus the research team examines issues related to electoral politics. Within this framework, the team concentrates on clientelism and ethnic politics. It seeks to address questions such as: Under what circumstances do parties prefer clientelistic over programmatic mobilisation? When do voters choose short-term clientelistic handouts over redistributive policies? How do marginalised groups seek political representation? Do better-informed voters seek more elite responsiveness to their demands?

Another issue in this team’s sights is relations between state institutions and problems of horizontal accountability. New democracies are usually characterised by imbalances in favour of powerful executives and by the relative weakness of control institutions, mainly (but not limited to) courts and legislatures. This power constellation enhances the chances of politics being done in an unaccountable way, which may imperil democracy. Along these lines, research interests of members of the research team include the politics of constitutional change, challenges to judicial independence, and processes of institutional development.

A third topic of focus for the research team relates to political participation and contentious politics. In this context, the team investigates politics of social movements and protest. We look at the ways in which local civil society organises itself around topics of democracy, identity, and sustainability, and we identify the factors influencing the success of mobilisation. We also study repertoires of contention and processes of professionalisation of social movement organisations.

Our work is methodologically pluralistic, including both qualitative methods, such as participant observation, focus groups, and interviews, and quantitative methods, such as survey experiments and the analysis of survey and administrative data. The team includes anthropologists, area scholars, and comparative political scientists.