Policy and Politics: Do candidates from non-profit organisations who adopt party political values improve their chances of electoral success?

Policy and Politics: Do candidates from non-profit organisations who adopt party political values improve their chances of electoral success?

Oto Potluka and Marybel Perez

 This section of Discover Society is provided in collaboration with the journal, Policy and Politics. It is curated by Sarah Brown.

Candidates aspiring to win a seat in local elections may act instrumentally. In our recent research published in the journal Policy & Politics, we question whether leaders of non-profit organisations (NGOs) may be willing to set aside NGO values to adopt party values when they become candidates for local office. Our answer is yes. Our results suggest that the most important factor relating to whether a candidate was elected was the national standing of the relevant political party; local values on local issues were found to be irrelevant.

Our analysis of 355 local candidates in three capital cities in Central and Eastern Europe – Prague, Budapest, and Bratislava shows that many aspiring politicians, including non-profit leaders, made a strategic calculation to adopt core party values in order to improve their prospects of success in running for election in local government. This was the case for all political parties surveyed, irrespective of their positions on the political spectrum.

Our results suggest that there is still a significant attachment to national politics at the local level in cities in central and Eastern Europe. While formal decentralisation may have taken place, the decentralisation of politics in larger cities in central Europe is still underway. Local candidates form positions according to both their party’s positions and local factors since they are socialized within both their political parties and local communities. Both socializers (parties) and the socialized (candidates) perform strategic calculations. Parties do so to reproduce their values and rules, and candidates to seek legitimacy and an increased chance of being elected. But since political parties are responsible for selecting candidates, they can dispense with local candidates whose opinions deviate significantly from the party’s positions, especially in larger cities where candidates are individually unable to reach all voters effectively.

Despite their common intention to represent citizens, NGOs and parties have fundamentally different roles and values. First, they have distinct institutional roles in governance terms: for instance, parties represent constituencies, and NGOs represent civil society. NGO leadership is independent of governments and businesses and sometimes in contest with them. This contestation is based on the value of equality NGOs pursue by questioning power (economic, political, social and so on). Meanwhile, parties pursue power-questioning ideologies and seek the means to exercise power. Therefore, NGO and party leadership are different and NGO candidates may need to act strategically to win elections.

At the same time, the professionalization of both sectors as a result of managerialism may make NGO candidates – with their networking, management and charismatic skills – valuable leaders for parties and local governance. In Central and Eastern European countries (CEECs), parties have been professionalising for more than two decades, but professionalization is still incipient in NGOs. Additionally, the professionalization of party and local governance may be appealing to NGO leaders looking for a more stable and long-term career. Both their skills and the promise of a professional future may make NGO candidates more likely to strategically adopt party values and rules.

On the other side, local governments are closer than national leadership to citizens. They are more exposed to scrutiny and high expectations for performance. They also focus more on policy issues than party cleavages. As a result, leadership is currently highly valued at the local level, and local leaders must prove that they are good networkers, strong managers and charismatic politicians. NGOs leaders fulfil these requirements. But our results cast doubts on the scope for effective local collective action. Our results are significant within the context of problematic central European relationships between civil society and NGOs on one side, and central governments on the other, especially in the light of the current political developments in Hungary.

In addition, we looked at the importance of the issues considered relevant at the city level, such as environmental protection or local development. For example, the issue of environmental protection presents some deviation between candidates’ and parties’ values, but this deviation was not statistically significant. The environmental issue was more important to almost all local politicians than to their political parties, regardless of their position on the political spectrum.

The insignificance of the politics of issues may be connected to the results on voting behaviour and political systems in the Central and Eastern European countries. Although some civic movements grow to gain national political importance, the political systems generally limit political participation at national levels. This finding implies that parties with greater visibility at the national level may also contribute to candidate identification at the local level, thus increasing the likelihood that these candidates will be voted in. This finding is particularly relevant in larger cities (especially in capital cities), while the political scene is more decentralized in rural areas (but they are beyond the scope of our research). This is caused by a higher level of anonymity among inhabitants in cities, the focus of the voting public on economic activities, a higher density of political and social activities beyond political parties and less direct contact between voters and politicians.

Our results do not show resistance to socialization among candidates who are NGO leaders. The presence of non-profit leadership does not affect the relationship between the positions of politicians and the positions of their political parties. Moreover, candidates who are NGO leaders were not more likely to be elected than other candidates. This finding can be explained by a strong party politics culture, in which NGOs are less involved in political decision-making. This implies that the traits of non-profit leaders at the local level are not particularly useful for building political leadership. It confirms the results of the Eurobarometer which shows that NGOs are regarded as weak political players in Central Europe, and the current political steps of central governments towards civil society organizations in these countries.

Our study contributes to leadership research in two respects. First, it shows that sets of values are involved in leaders’ strategic thinking and that leaders are willing to adopt new sets of values and rules instrumentally, in order to facilitate their own success. Second, the irrelevance of adopting party values for the likelihood of being elected underlines the importance of studying voting behaviour as the key to understanding how voters may facilitate or hinder political leadership.


Oto Potluka is a senior researcher at the Center for Philanthropy Studies (CEPS) at the University of Basel, Switzerland. Among his main concerns belong relationship between nonprofit and public sectors, and impact evaluations of intervention programmes. He concentrates on the regional development, including of role of the civil society in development policies. Marybel Perez is a senior researcher at the Center for Philanthropy Studies (CEPS) at the University of Basel, Switzerland. Her previous appointments include adjunct lecturer at Parsons: The New School for Social Research in Paris and at ESSCA School of Management in France. She was research fellow for Eurosphere, a 6th Framework Programme of the European Commission at the University of Bergen, Norway, where she obtained her PhD.