Going Local: Determinants of Institutional Changes of Local Government and their Implications for Political Participation and Political Decision-Making in West European Democracies

Research question/goal: 

The aim of the project was to examine the consequences of local government reforms. In addition, we asked what effects these institutional changes have on the policy output, on citizens’ degree of satisfaction with the political system, and on citizen’s degree of political participation. Furthermore, we aimed to analyse the impact of the partisan composition of local parliaments and governments on the policy-making process. The starting point of the project were the waves of local government reforms that have taken place in many West European countries over the past decades. These reforms changed both the administrative structures and the political institutions of local government. In addition, they set incentives for new patterns of political participation and for variation in the decision-making processes of political actors as well as in the outcomes of the political process across the local units of a political system.

In a first step, we created a dataset that covers the full texts of local parties’ election manifestos and coalition agreements in major German cities. On this basis, we estimated the positions of local parties and legislative coalitions on key policy dimensions. We then used this information to analyse coalition formation on the local level and to answer the question if processes of political decision-making work differently on the local level than on the regional or national level of a political system. The results show that—even on the local level, which is often described as less politicised—not only office-seeking variables but also the ideological positioning of parties are good predictors for local coalition formation. Additionally, our findings suggest that local political actors take the party affiliation of the directly elected mayor into account when forming coalitions in local councils. The findings imply that political actors on all levels of political systems try to maximise their payoffs and form coalitions accordingly.

In a second step, we developed a simple spatial model, suggesting that Members of Parliament strive for the inclusion of the head of state’s party in coalitions formed in mixed democratic polities and that parliamentary parties try to assemble coalitions minimizing the ideological distance to the head of state. We identified the German local level of government as functionally equivalent to a parliamentary setting, such that the directly elected mayor has competencies similar to a president in a mixed national polity. The findings show that the party affiliation of the head of state is a key factor for party members in the legislature when forming coalitions: coalitions in the legislature are more likely to form if they include the party of the head of the executive branch. Furthermore, the policy preferences of the head of the executive branch are significant for legislators’ behaviour in the coalition formation process: the smaller the ideological distance between the position of a coalition and the position of the head of state is, the more likely a coalition is to be formed.

Fact sheet

2013 to 2017
Data Sources: 
Survey Data, Social Structural Data, Election Manifestos
Geographic Space: 
Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and the Netherlands



Gross, Martin (2016): Koalitionsbildungsprozesse auf kommunaler Ebene: Schwarz-Grün in deutschen Großstädten. Wiesbaden: Springer VS. more