I was awarded my PhD in 2014 at the University of Amsterdam. My dissertation and several follow-up papers focus on the electoral competition between challenger and mainstream parties on issues like immigration and European integration. Given the ongoing electoral demise of mainstream parties throughout Western Europe this is an important topic. Amongst others I have examined when mainstream parties decide to respond to the issues of challenger parties, how challenger parties use the issue of European integration to destabilize government parties and government coalitions and how challenger and mainstream parties respond to internal divisions among their supporters. In a recent project, I study under which conditions mainstream party voters decide to switch to a niche party and what makes niche party voters decide to switch back to the mainstream. My work on electoral competition is characterised by the fact that I apply bounded rationality theory. This theory assumes that parties behave boundedly rational when confronted with complex choice problems. Hence, rather than being fully knowledgeable of their environment and knowing the optimal strategy to choose, parties and party elites are assumed to rely on heuristics (behavioural shortcuts) when deciding whether they should adapt to their environment. In my work I examine the role of different types of heuristics like the effect of government-opposition status on party platform change and how parties’ decisions are affected by the performance of likeminded parties abroad.
New party entry and Party survival
Given the ongoing societal concerns about electoral fragmentation it is important to develop a better understanding about why new parties emerge and existing parties disappear. In the past years, I have constructed a large cross-national and longitudinal database containing information on all parties that contested the post-war elections in 20 Western European democracies. I have developed the concept and measure of party system saturation, capturing how many parties contest parliamentary elections compared to the number that can be sustained by the party system. Subsequently, I have studied how oversaturation affects the entry and exit of political parties and the likelihood that parties will adapt by changing their platform, entering electoral alliances or merging. While I find that increasing party system saturation drives parties out of business, new parties are not discouraged from entering oversaturated party systems. Neither do I find evidence that parties adapt to party system saturation by engaging in core changes (i.e., merging or increasing their ideological nicheness). More recently, I studied how ideological incongruence between parties and voters affects the entry and electoral support of new parties. Here we find that new parties will emerge if ideological space along the left-right dimension opens up and that voters will vote for new parties if these stand closer to their ideal point. In my most recent publication, we endeavour to explain the decision of parties to keep contesting election in the younger democracies of Central and Eastern Europe. Hence, my research on party entry and survival covers consolidated as well as newer democracies. Currently, I am working on a paper where we study the international diffusion of party families through Europe. Specifically, we study to what extent the entry of parties is driven by the entry of party family members abroad. My research on party entry and exit has been awarded six years of research funding by the Flemish Fund for Scientific Research (FWO) and the Walloon Fund for Scientific research (FNRS).
Diversity of parliaments
The underrepresentation of women, ethnic minorities and lower educated in national parliaments is a is a key societal problem. These groups have different opinions on political issues and it is important to show to society that they can govern competently. For the parliamentarians themselves, their underrepresentation is a question of equal opportunity. Within the framework of the international PATHWAYS network, I helped compile a huge database on the demographic background characteristics of all parliamentarians in eight West European countries from the 1990s onwards. I recently published on the substantive representation of ethnic minority women where we show that female ethnic minority MPs are more likely than others to stand up for the interests of their group. Moreover, I am working on a project where I apply homophily theory (a sociological theory) to the entry and exit of female, ethnic minority and lower educated MPs from parliamentary parties and parliaments. According to homophily theory, people are attracted to people with similar demographic characteristics. Hence, I want to find out what consequences arise from the fact that parliaments and parliamentary parties are dominated by white, higher-educated males. One of our main findings is that female, ethnic minority and lower educated MPs are indeed more likely to vacate their seats, the less MPs there are of the same demographic background within their parliamentary party. Recently, this research was front-page news in ‘de Morgen’, a Belgian quality newspaper. In future work I will also study the role of homophily in the recruitment of female, ethnic minority and lower educated MPs; I will study how the demographic composition of the parliament at large affects entry and exit of MPs from parliaments; Finally, I want to gain a better understanding of which factors increase or dampen these unwarranted homophily effects.
Personality traits and political careers
My most recent research line studies the descriptive representation of personality traits and how personality traits are related to political ambition, running for office, being elected to office and political survival. Here I am particularly interested in the role of so-called virtue-related personality traits like honesty-humility from the HEXACO personality model and Dark Triad and Light Triad traits. Given that these personality traits are correlated with ethical decision-making, it is highly important to study whether persons high on virtue-related traits indeed step forward and are selected into a political career. Such questions are also highly relevant, considering the low levels of public trust in politicians. Currently I am applying for research funding which I need to carry out this project. Yet, in preliminary research with the POLPOP network, based on data from five countries, we find that citizens low on honesty-humility have higher political ambition, deem themselves more qualified to run, are more likely encouraged to run and more likely to actually run for a political office. Since citizens prefer honest politicians, this casts a dark light on the current state of democratic representation. This stresses the need to further study the selection process of virtue-related personality traits in politics