Presidents Shaping Public Opinion in Parliamentary Democracies: A Survey Experiment in Turkey

Erdem Aytaç and Ali Çarkoğlu

In our article in Political Behavior, we focus on how presidential heads of state can shape public opinion in parliamentary democracies. Many parliamentary democracies feature a president who is elected directly by voters or indirectly by the parliament. The institutional arrangement of a directly elected president alongside a prime minister, which has come to be designated as semi-presidentialism by some scholars (e.g., Elgie, 1999), is especially popular among the democracies of Central and Eastern Europe.

The relationship of presidents with other political actors, especially with prime ministers, has not always been amicable. Public exchanges of policy disagreements and accusations of power grab are not uncommon. Recent examples of such conflictual episodes include debates over presidential powers in Czech Republic, over a controversial nuclear project in Hungary, over media freedoms in Bulgaria, and over the handling of the migrant crisis in Croatia. One plausible strategy of presidents to exert influence during such conflicts is to make public statements in an effort to capitalize on their prestige and popularity to rally support for their preferred policy positions.

How do voters react when presidents make issue statements to shape public opinion? To address this question, we focus on the role of partisanship. While presidents in these systems have at least a nominally, if not formally, nonpartisan status as the head of state, they often have had a long political careers with well-known party affiliations before assuming the presidency. And we know that partisanship plays a prominent role in individuals’ opinion formation (Campbell et al., 1960; Zaller, 1992). Extensive research has shown a strong link between party identification and issue opinions such that individuals are more likely to report issue opinions that are in line with their preferred party’s position (e.g., Bartels, 2000, 2002; Brader and Tucker, 2012; Nicholson, 2012; Samuels and Zucco, 2014). In addition, endorsements of a particular issue position by a rival party or candidate typically lead partisans to further distance themselves from that position (out-group effects).

The role of partisanship in presidents’ efforts to shape public opinion in parliamentary democracies is far from straightforward, however. One might expect such statements to evoke partisan reactions, since in many cases presidents were major partisan figures before assuming the presidency. Yet at the same time the office of the presidency in parliamentary democracies has typically a nonpartisan status as the president is the head of the state representing the unity of the nation. Accordingly, the legitimacy and moral authority accrued to the office of the president might trump any partisan considerations, and therefore partisan reactions might not be invoked.

We argue that partisan reactions depend on the relationship between the domain of issue statements and prerogatives of the president. Specifically, statements about issue domains within the prerogatives of the presidential office should not lead to out-group effects. Such statements will be perceived as a legitimate use of constitutional powers, and the nonpartisan character of the presidential office will dominate any partisan considerations. Therefore the partisan background of the president will not have a polarizing effect on opposition partisans. In contrast, we predict partisan reactions when the statements are considered outside presidential prerogatives. These statements will be contentious, and politicians opposing the president’s agenda will challenge them as politically motivated overreach of institutional powers. In this case a partisan controversy will ensue, leading voters to align themselves along partisan lines.

We present evidence in support of our argument from a partisan cue experiment embedded into a nationally representative survey conducted in Turkey, a parliamentary democracy with a constitutionally nonpartisan presidential office at the time of our study. In August 2014, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the founder and former leader of the incumbent Justice and Development Party became the first popularly elected president of Turkey. Our experimental manipulations show that when Erdoğan makes a statement about an issue outside his prerogative, both in-group and out-group partisan responses are invoked, just as we would expect for cues from a strictly partisan actor. In contrast, a statement about an issue domain considered to be within the responsibilities of his office does not lead to out-group bias among opposition partisans. Moreover, respondents with no partisan affiliations seems to be persuaded by Erdoğan regardless of the issue domain, a result that highlights the moral authority of the office of the president in the Turkish context.

Our results suggest that presidential heads of state in parliamentary democracies have a unique advantage over other partisan figures in influencing public opinion, at least in certain areas. Earlier research indicates that statements from partisan actors typically persuade in-group co-partisans while at the same time polarizing out-group members (Nicholson, 2012; Samuels and Zucco, 2014). In contrast, we show that presidents, even those with strongly partisan backgrounds, can persuade some segments of the population while not polarizing others when they make issue statements in domains within their prerogatives. This might prove an important asset when they seek to expand their political influence. And our research also helps to explain why many institutional crises and intra-executive conflicts turn into debates about prerogatives with presidents seeking to define their prerogatives broadly while opponents trying to convince the public that the president has stepped out of his or her constitutional powers.



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