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Primary elections can affect voters' perceptions of corruption


The implementation of primary elections can strengthen democracy and increase evaluations of candidates. This is shown by a doctoral thesis from the University of Gothenburg that examined how the implementation of primary elections in Spain and Italy affects voters' perceptions of corruption in the political system.

Primary elections are a system where party members, or sometimes voters, can vote for the candidates who will represent them in general elections. According to research, there are two aspects to this.

On one hand, primary elections make the candidate selection process more democratic compared to when party leaders choose their candidates. For parties with decreased voter support, the introduction of primary elections can be a way to appear more democratic to attract more voters.

On the other hand, research shows that primary elections come with the risk of vote-buying, which, in turn, negatively affects both voter turnout and political trust.

Primary elections are becoming more common in Europe

Regional primaries are something that has become more common in, for example, Spain and Italy. However, the formal opportunities to conduct primary elections there vary, which means that there are different levels of democracy within parties and between different regions.

"I am investigating whether the introduction of more primary elections influences voters' perceptions of corruption among political candidates and in the political system, as well as whether the chances for women to be elected change. My studies indicate that changes in candidate selection systems do have consequences for voters' perceptions," says Jana Schwenk, a doctoral student in political science.

Initial increased perceptions of corruption

Along with one of her supervisors, political scientist Nicholas Charron, she has examined how the selection of 250 candidates for Spanish regional elections between 2010 and 2021 affects the Spanish voters' perceptions of corruption in the political system, based on data from the European Quality of Government Index.

"The results show that citizens' perceptions of corruption increase when primary elections are introduced, but that the effect decreases over time. This surprised us and suggests that primary elections are most problematic in the beginning, which is similar to countries that recently become democratic and hold elections. In these cases, we often at first also observe high levels of corruption and vote-buying."

Candidates are seen as less corrupt

Jana Schwenk has also investigated whether voters evaluate political candidates differently depending on whether they were elected through primary elections or not. In 2022, she conducted an experimental study with 1,500 Spaniards, who were tasked with choosing between fictitious candidates who were supposed to lead a project in a regional parliament. 

The study indicates that participants perceived candidates chosen through primary elections as less corrupt, but also less competent and experienced.

“Most of the participants believed that primary elections result in more outsider candidates being selected. This is considered both an advantage and a disadvantage for the candidates: they are perceived as less corrupt due to their "outsider status", but the lack of political networks also means that they are perceived as less competent and experienced."

Women's representation not affected

It is well documented that women have less chance in parties' nomination processes than men and that their chances of being elected are smaller. To investigate whether the chance for women to be selected increases or decreases when primary elections are introduced, Jana Schwenk has analyzed data on 1300 candidates for Italian mayoral elections in 2014.

“As far as female representation is concerned, I don't notice any tangible effect when introducing primary elections as a selection method for political candidates, which should be considered something positive! For women, it does not seem to be decisive how the parties choose their candidates, indicating that their chances of being selected are not negatively affected by different selection processes”.

In a time of declining trust in parties and democracy, the thesis shows that what happens within parties, such as the selection of candidates, has consequences for voters' attitudes towards both the candidates and the political systems.

“In that respect, primary elections could help restore voter confidence in parties and politicians, but to be sure, we need to carry out more studies”, says Jana Schwenk.

For more information

The study's analyses are based on data that Jana Schwenk collected herself on candidate selections in Italy and Spain, and from the QoG Institute's European Quality of Government Index (EQI). The index relies on a large citizen survey where respondents in 206 European regions were asked about perceptions and experiences of corruption in the public sector, as well as the extent to which they believe different public services are impartial and of good quality. Good quality implies that public institutions are impartial and free from corruption. The database was updated in 2021 and covers 27 EU countries.

The title of the thesisBeyond the Party’s Realm – The Consequences of Variation in Candidate Selection.

Public defense of the thesis: December 8, 2023.