Blaming the government in the times of pandemic: Effects of unemployment in the EU

The COVID-19 pandemic reinforces the primary function of any government to produce corresponding policies. Despite managing day-to-day administration, executives now should handle the Corona crisis, lockdowns, border closure, and vaccination campaigns. The pandemic context created a window of opportunity for some national executives to exercise extra power and, in certain cases, violate democratic standards (Lührmann, Edgell, and Maerz 2020). Considering this trend, the question is how citizens hold governments accountable for the economic consequences of the current crisis?  Valeria Caras analyzes the relationships between governmental trust and economic indicators in the pandemic context in the previous post. In this text, a mediator in this causal mechanism is added. As such, the impact of unemployment on trust levels is determined by the clarity of governmental responsibility – an indicator measuring how much control the cabinets exercise. 

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The link between economy and trust attribution is not as straightforward as it may seem. Although it is acknowledged that people reelect incumbents or punish them in terms of support loss depending on the economic situation, the political factors intervene in this interaction, making blame attribution more complicated (Powell and Whitten 1993). This causal mechanism of economic voting depends on institutional design and the cohesiveness of governmental composition. The basic logic looks as follows: the fewer choices are available, the stronger is the economy’s impact on trust (Anderson 2000). 

Systems with proportional representation and multiple parties, multilevel governance, and institutions with exceptionally balanced powers blur responsibility, causing a challenge for citizens to link actors and policies (Anderson 2006). As such, consensual democracies allow higher representation and are characterized by a more complex institutional design that ensures higher governmental trust levels (Listhaug, Aardal, and Ellis 2009).

In contrast, majoritarian two-party systems with enhanced roles of the executive provide more accountability. Still, they tend to suffer from lower levels of trust in authorities since it is more evident for voters whom to blame for a crisis. The basic institutional design’s role appears to be significant contextually, while recent empirical studies reveal the undermined role of institutional clarity (Dassonneville and Lewis-Beck 2017). The reason is that voters adapt to the complex institutional structure prevalent in modern democratic systems overlooking it, and focusing on evaluations of national executives instead (Hobolt, Tilley, and Banducci 2013). Besides, this study is based on EU member states which, despite having different institutional characteristics are all multi-party systems with a limited institutional variation.  In such case, greater interest is presented by governmental clarity – “the cohesiveness of the incumbent government at a concrete moment,” shaped by such indicators as the presence of the single-party, majority vs. minority coalitions, ideological polarization, and the effective number of parties (Anderson 2006; Nadeau, Niemi, and Yoshinaka 2002; Hobolt, Tilley, and Banducci 2013). 

The compound index of these indicators illustrates how polarized or united the current national government is and the extent to which it can control policymaking. The decision-making deadlocks are more common in a relatively ideologically divergent and oversized with multiple parties governments (Lijphart 2012). The impact of governmental composition on trust follows the same logic as institutional design: higher levels of government cohesion undermine trust and enhance punishments for a recession (Hobolt, Tilley, and Banducci 2013). While the previous research found some support for the impact of clarity and economy on trust, this relationship remains understudied in crisis times. The context of the Corona pandemic with the enhanced role of executives offers an opportunity for such analysis.

I evaluate the relationship between trust in governments and clarity of governmental responsibility based on the Eurofound (2020) survey conducted in the EU member states. The concept of trust was measured by the standard survey question on how much a respondent trusts the current government on a 1 – 10 scale where one is ‘Do not trust at all’ and ten is ‘Fully trust’. The clarity of responsibility is a compound index that consists of four indicators: the effective number of parties, polarization, single-party or coalition government, and the percentage of seats held by the Prime-Minister’s party. The index varies from 0 to 1, where zero is the least precise composition, and one is the clearest. In general, the composition of the  EU governments on the pandemic’s onset is closer to the more blurred threshold since the index’s mean value is 0.41 across countries. However, three outliers have a relatively high value of the index: Denmark, Romania, and Greece. In these countries, prime-ministers’ parties managed to form single-party governments run by the Social-Democrats in Denmark, National Liberal Party in Romania, and New Democracy in Greece[1].

Assuming that clarity of responsibility acts as a moderator in the mechanism of trust attribution for the economic downturn, I modeled the interaction between the compound index and job loss during the pandemic. Previously, I found a negative impact of unemployment on trust. For instance, the permanently unemployed respondents distrust the authorities to the most significant degree. Trust is higher among individuals who lost the market position temporarily and those who kept the jobs. Adding governmental responsibility to the relationship supports the previous findings. However, the trust’s divergences are minor when the clarity of responsibility is lower. People face difficulties assigning responsibility for economic outcomes in systems with polarized and less cohesive governments. The discrepancies between employment are visible in contexts with higher clarity of responsibility. Respondents who did not lose jobs or lost them temporarily trust higher in contexts where governments are united and less polarized. In contrast, permanently unemployed due to the pandemic, experience a greater distrust in such conditions blaming more cohesive cabinets for their losses. 

Figure 1. Predicted trust in governments by the interaction between clarity of responsibility index and losing job during the pandemic[2].

Source: author’s calculation of marginal effects obtained from the multilevel regression model

I demonstrate that trust formation during crises diverges from peaceful times. While in ordinary times, trust is supposed to be lower under more united and cohesive governments who bear responsibility for policies, this outcome proves to be valid only for respondents who lost the job permanently.  The harsh economic circumstances push them to blame incumbents when it is more evident to understand the governmental balance of power. Temporarily unemployed and employed individuals, in contrast, appreciate the united and coherent actors who can manage the pandemic. Such groups value the certainty over ambiguity and may experience the ‘rally around the leaders’ effect’ (e.g., Yam et al. 2020). Overall, these findings partially contradict the economic voting literature showing that higher clarity leads to lower governmental support (Hobolt, Tilley, and Banducci 2013). This mechanism coincides with the theory only for respondents who lost the job permanently. 

[1] Cabinets composition accounts for the period of the survey April – July 2020. Note that in Romania, the new coalition cabinet was formed in December 2020, consisting of the National Liberal Party, USR-PLUS Alliance, and Democratic Union of Hungarians (Casal Bértoa, F. 2021).

[2] The interaction effect between clarity index and losing a job is statistically significant (p-value <0.001**, t-statistic). The confidence intervals are computed on a 90% level and are overlapped due to the low difference between employment levels on the segment with low values of clarity index.

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