Towards Leadership Democracy

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Pinni B building auditorium 1096, address: Kanslerinrinne 1.


Doctoral defence of M.Soc.Sc. Vesa Koskimaa

Towards Leadership Democracy – The changing balance of power in three Finnish political parties 1983–2012

The field of science of the dissertation is Political Science.

The opponent is Docent Nicholas Aylott (Södertörn University, Sweden). Professor Tapio Raunio acts as the custos.

The language of the dissertation defence is English.

Towards leadership democracy

This dissertation studies a classic topic in political science: the distribution of power within political parties. The topic’s relevance is tied to two factors. First, how power is dispersed among various organizational ‘faces’ affects what agendas parties pursue. Traditionally party activists have been conceived to be politically more orthodox than the leaders, who as operating professional politicians also tend to be interested in holding offices. Second, power dispersion also reflects the degree to which party organizations are democratic (i.e. how parties pursue their objectives). The ideal of internally democratic parties as “extensions” of representative democracy has been cherished in 20th century political thought.

According to the popular cartel party theory (Katz & Mair 1995; 2002) the balance of power in Western parties shifted from activist organs towards parties’ “public faces” (party leaders, MPs, ministers) in the last quarter of the 20th century. The change was caused, the theory claims, by five major developments in parties’ operating “environments”: 1) the weakening of social class structures and traditional political participation, 2) the emergence of public party subsidies, 3) the “governmentalization” of national-level political practices, 4) the mediatization of politics and finally 5) the internationalization of politics, which increased its complexity.

This study submitted this rarely tested theory to rigorous scrutiny in the Finnish context, which provides a good “laboratory” as it corresponds well with the theory’s demands. All “environmental” changes are present in Finland’s recent history – often rather pronouncedly. Therefore, a power transfer from party activists to public “faces” should have occurred.

The study challenged the cartel theory with a competing hypothesis. Cartel theory’s underlying logic rests on the traditional environmental adaptation model of party change, which claims that when parties’ competitive context changes, parties adapt in a functional manner. As a result, party organizational structures that entail specific power distributions become alike. The alternative hypothesis is built on an institutional logic. Its central claim is that a) different types of elites form parties, therefore their initial organizational choices differ, and b) because of consolidating path dependent logics the initial choices become rather fixed. So c) instead of facing easily malleable organizational structures, the adapting party leaders might encounter severe resistance that builds on activist efforts to maintain the existing power distribution. The extent of change depends on the party’s existing distribution of power and the direction of external pressures (i.e. which party ‘face’ they favor). In some parties activists could be strong enough to resist all changes to the direction that was proposed above.

To contrast these competing hypotheses the study tracked the over time development of power distributions in three parties that differ in terms of initial power distribution. The National Coalition Party (NCP), which corresponds to the elite-centered electoral party model, was conceived as the most likely case to change as the pictured “environmental” pressure supports its “genetics”. The Social Democratic Party (SDP), which corresponds to the representative membership party model acted as the medium case while the Green League, a representative of the activist-driven democratic process party model was considered as the least likely case to change due to its tendency to disperse power widely to the grassroots.

To improve the empirical study of intra-party power (a notoriously elusive concept) the study undertook a comprehensive methodological review. The analysis found that while most of the traditional sources of intra-party power (the formal powers of party actors, material resources and important leadership positions) are sufficiently covered by existing methods, actual decision-making capacities have been overlooked. To fill the gap, the study developed a method based on process-tracing important intra-party decisions and applied it to intra-party processes during government formation at various time points.

The study discovered a two level development, which reflects a mediating hypothesis that situates between functional (parties converge) and institutional (parties remain dissimilar) models. In a party type-specific adaptation parties develop into same direction but simultaneously hold on to their type-specific characteristics. At the uppermost level of analysis the Finnish parties have arguably adapted to “environmental” pressures and appointed more power to their public “faces” during the past 35 years. The clearest indications of this development are: 1) the “etatization” of party resources whose allocation also increasingly favors parliamentary parties and leaderships (also within central party organizations), 2) the normalization of MP-status in leading party positions and 3) the emergence of highly leader-centric (even ‘presidentialized’) intra-party decision-making practices.

However, on a more proximate level – i.e. closer to party activists – the study found continuing traces of institutionalized party type-specific characteristics, which in the right conditions may stir resistance. The permanence of historical power distributions was clearest in the formal powers of party actors, which have changed very little over the years. In some parties activist organs remain stronger, and activists penetrate deeper into leadership organs. The in-depth analysis of decision-making processes also revealed that despite the widespread emergence of leader-centric practices party leaders might still face opposition if their conduct deviates too much from the party’s traditional style. As expected, resistance potential is strongest in historically member-dominated parties and weakens as we move towards more elite-dominated traditions.

Nonetheless, the big picture suggests a turn to leadership democracy. In party level this is characterized by a strongly parliamentarized resource allocation and the emergence of leader-centric practices, which rest on the tight amalgamation of professionalized national-level party elites. The new system builds on the complex requirements of contemporary political practice. Parties are leader-centric because the political reality in which they operate demands it. The situation is problematic, because at the same time party linkages to the citizenry have weakened and their popular legitimacy has been undermined. To consider how to restore the linkage without destroying the essential autonomy of party leaders the study ends by exploring the possibility of more direct party membership participation, especially through party leadership contests.


The dissertation is published in the publication series of Acta Universitatis Tamperensis; 2224, Tampere University Press, Tampere 2016. ISBN 978-952-03-0260-3, ISSN 1455-1616. The dissertation is also published in the e-series Acta Electronica Universitatis Tamperensis; 1724, Tampere University Press 2016. ISBN 978-952-03-0261-0, ISSN 1456-954X.

The dissertation can be ordered at: Juvenes e-bookstore or by e-mail:

Additional information

Vesa Koskimaa, Tel. 050 534 5025,