Do politicians keep their election promises--and does it matter?

Author:Petry, Francois

Conventional wisdom holds that politicians do not keep their promises. According to the 2006 Role of Government IV International Social Survey Program (ISSP) survey, only 26 per cent of Canadians think that "their elected representatives make the effort to keep their election promises." Canadians are not the only ones to hold this opinion. Out of 21 countries that participated in the survey, the average percentage of respondents stating that politicians keep their promises was 20 per cent. Israel had the lowest percentage (8 per cent) and Switzerland the highest (37 per cent).

Political leaders accuse one another of lying on a regular basis and media stories frequently portray political leaders as promise-breakers. Moreover, political scientists are reluctant to embrace the notion that candidates actually carry out their campaign promises. In their classic work Absent Mandate, Harold Clarke and collaborators affirm that "absent mandates are likely to be the rule, not the exception. Elections decide who shall govern, but rarely the substance of public policy." For his part, Anthony King, Canadian-born political scientist at the University of Essex, affirmed that "party manifestos are empty and meaningless documents having a virtual random relationship to what a party will do in office." (1)

Parties keep their promises

Recently a team of researchers decided to systematically test whether Canadian governments indeed ignore their own campaign promises. Answering this question is important. The fulfillment of election promises is at the heart of democratic accountability. Citizens should expect that the winning party will mobilize the resources necessary to fulfill the mandate on which it has been elected, and judge the government accordingly. The underlying logic and expected outcomes are clear at least in a majoritarian system of government such as Canada's: the commitments that the ruling party promises to fulfill are the winning issues and policy options, those that led the party to victory in the first place.

To do an empirical "reality check," our research team collected the pledge fulfillment records of seven successive Canadian governments from 1993 to 2015. We first manually recorded specific individual pledges contained in the officially sanctioned election program of the wining party at each election. Pledges are defined here as statements containing unequivocal support for proposed government policy actions or outcomes. The "unequivocal support" part of the definition stipulates that a statement must contain an explicit promise to do something. Statements in which parties promise to "consider" or "look into" specific policy actions do not qualify. The second part of the definition stipulates that pledges contain proposed government policy actions or outcomes that are testable. This requires that the election program author, not the researcher, provide the criteria that serve as the basis for assessing whether the pledge is fulfilled. (2)

Once recorded, individual pledges are classified in three categories: "fulfilled", "fulfilled in part" and "unfulfilled." To be classified as fulfilled, a pledge has to be followed by a subsequent government action (a law, a regulation, a policy statement, a budget allocation, a treaty or an agreement that has been passed). A pledge is rated "fulfilled in part" when the corresponding action is a compromise or is in the process of being completed, but below the standard or beyond the timeline set by the promise wording. Pledges are classified as "not fulfilled" when they are not followed by a government action.

They are then classified as "at least fulfilled in part" or "not fulfilled" for analysis purposes as well as comparability with studies by researchers in other countries that use the same methodology. Pledges are coded and matched with government actions by teams of trained research assistants. Intercoder reliability tests are conducted, and intercoder agreement is usually well above 90 per cent.

Figure 1 displays the proportion of pledges fulfilled at least in part by each successive governing party between 1993 and 2015. The rate of pledge fulfillment by the Liberals has varied between a low of 53 per cent for Jean Chretien's first government (elected in 1993), and a high of 77 per cent for his third government (elected in 2000). The rate for...

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