How intra-party referenda re-vitalize party organizations

A quasi-experimental study on the effects of intra-party democracy

Alexander Wuttke, Andreas Jungherr und Harald Schoen

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After the country’s reunification German political parties have lost half of their members.

Parties respond by expanding intra-party participation. 

The goal: Re-vitalizing party organizations and motivating more citizens to join. 

What we want to know Research Question

Will political parties appear more attractive after expanding participatory rights?

Will attitudes towards their party change after members participated in an intra-party referendum?

Will the relationship between party elites and the rank-and-file change?

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How we investigate it Research Design

An unexpected referendum as quasi-experiment

We survey members before and after the referendum…

… and analyse attitude changes for each party member. 

The Case Issue-Referendum of CDU Berlin, June 2015

Party position on same-sex marriage
  • First referendum in history of CDU Berlin.
  • Surprising reaction by party leadership to a motion in parliament.
  • Heterogeneous positions among party elites. Party leader stayed neutral. Other elites campaign for pro-/anti-camps.

Increases in party-related efficacy Results

  • Members evaluate opportunities for intra-party participation more positively.
  • Increases higher among members who did not perceive themselves as efficacious before.
  • Efficacy increased independent of a member’s voting behavior.

Issue-based leader appraisal Results

  • Before the referendum: Elite evaluations are independent of a member’s position on same-sex marriage. 
  • After the referendum: Members use issue-positions as yardstick to evaluate party elites, if they took a stance on same-sex marriage.
  • So, members judge party elites more strongly in terms of issue congruence. 

The impact of intra-party participation Conclusion

An issue-referendum has secondary effects beyond the decision outcome itself:

A referendum changes how members perceive their party.

Who is allowed to decide on political, feels empowered in the role as party members.

Members learned during the campaign about intra-party politics and judge party elites more strongly along their own convictions.

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  • Alexander Wuttke

    Alexander Wuttke


    University of Mannheim
    PhD student
  • Dr. Andreas Jungherr

    Dr. Andreas Jungherr


    University of Konstanz
    Assistant Professor
  • Prof. Dr. Harald Schoen

    Prof. Dr. Harald Schoen


    University of Mannheim
    Chair for Political Psychology