Arms for despots and the powerlessness of public opinion
Poullie, Yannick (2014)
Master's Programme in Peace, Mediation and Conflict Research
Yhteiskunta- ja kulttuuritieteiden yksikkö - School of Social Sciences and Humanities
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Julkaisun pysyvä osoite on
This thesis is concerned with the influence of public opinion on unpopular but marginal policies in democratic systems. I devise a simple game theoretical model representing the strategies of government and opposition concerning such a policy. Then I test this model against the contemporary case study of German arms exports into the MENA region in 2011. To this end, I qualitatively study official government and parliamentary sources as well as certain media actors' coverage to determine both political parties' and the media's impact on the debate. The putative willingness of the federal German government to export main battle tanks to Saudi Arabia during the uprisings in the MENA region caused an outcry in the German media and public. While the opposition used the opportunity for thorough criticism, it was largely inactive on the topic prior to the federal elections in 2013. The model is able to explain this difference. Both government and opposition are unlikely to problematise a policy that yields a gain for them but that is unpopular with the electorate. Although a majority of voters dislikes the policy it does not impact on voting decisions because it is marginal to almost all voters. The finding holds even under the assumption of voters making their voting decisions retrospectively. This armistice between relevant political parties constitutes a Nash equilibrium and can effectively prevent unpopular but marginal policies from modification. It shows the difficulty of making the government resolve a hugely unpopular yet minor issue, rendering public opinion effectively powerless. While the media is not identified as an effective corrective, further research on the possibilities of civil society to influence political parties is recommended. Equally, it should be possible to identify similar issues and test the model in other democratic polities.