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Factors of Political Interest – the Internal and External Political Efficacy in Different Regions of Europe

Factors of Political Interest – the Internal and External Political Efficacy in Different Regions of Europe


Andrea Szabó, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Centre for Social Sciences, Institute of Political Sciences,

Dániel Oross, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Centre for Social Sciences, Institute of Political Sciences,

ISSN: 1335-3608


An interest in politics is a key factor for political behavior and beliefs and the main component of political motivation, and is essential for the participation in the democratic process. When explaining where political interest comes from, most studies explore the source of political interest focused on parental influences, economic status, and opportunity. The aim of the paper is to map differences among European citizens regarding their political interest. In addition to the standard question of political interest, the dataset of the 7th wave of the European Social Survey includes new questions about individual political competences and about the perception of the political system. Therefore, data also allows for analyzing political efficacy; a term that refers to the feeling that one’s own political actions can have an impact upon the political process. Based on this data, citizens’ assessment of their countries political system and of their ability to participate in politics can contribute to a better understanding of differences among European countries concerning those factors that affect political interest.

Adherents of elitist theories hold that the combination of low levels of internal efficacy with high levels of external efficacy is most beneficial for the stability of democracy (see Almond and Verbas’s development of the “civic culture” for a closely related argument). ESS data allows for testing this theory via mapping differences among European citizens’ opinions. First, we assume that external political efficacy, the sense of openness of the political system increases the political interest of the citizens. It is expected that political interest will be higher in those countries, which, according to their citizens, are more open to their initiatives. Second, we expect that there will be a higher level of political interest in countries where citizens feel that they have the appropriate competences to influence political processes and it will be lower where individuals have doubts about their own knowledge and abilities. Third, following Inglehart’s theory we assume that countries with similar cultural heritage are close to each other in terms of political interest and political efficacy.

The paper first describes differences between the attitudes of citizens and their perception about their political systems from a European perspective. Then it examines how political interest is influenced by external and internal political efficiency. Beyond presenting differences among 21 countries of Europe based on descriptive statistical data, via binary logistic regression models, the paper also explores how internal and external political efficacy influences the level of political interest. We use regression models to find out how closeness or openness of a country’s political system influences political interest and what impact it has on citizens’ sense of individual competence to influence politics. We conclude our paper with an explanation of regression models to see what factors have most influence on political interest.

Our study has confirmed that internal and external political efficacy are correlated in almost all countries. We found that residents of a country who believe that they have their personal skills to influence politics are basically those who say that the political system accepts their demands and vice-versa.

Europe's democracies break down into three distinct groups in terms of the openness and closeness of their political system. Firstly, in Scandinavian countries and in Switzerland citizens feel that the political system is more open to civic initiatives and it allows them to engage in political affairs. Secondly, the countries of Western Europe, who offer less sense of openness to their citizens. Thirdly, the Central Eastern European and Southern European countries, where the principal component of external political efficiency is negative or strongly negative.

Multivariate regression models indicated that external political efficacy (the sense of system openness), not completely in line with descriptive statistics, also does not increase or diminish political interest in relation to an individual’s competences as it does not have a significant effect on it. However, if we control for the effects, either with groups of countries or with socio-cultural and socio-demographic variables, the sense of openness of the political system does indeed increase political interest.

A second hypothesis was confirmed; internal political efficacy was highest amongst Scandinavian and Swiss citizens, Western European countries were found in the middle (around 0 value of the principal component) whereas citizens of Central Eastern and Southern European countries reported that they lack the necessary competences to influence political life directly or indirectly. Out of the 21 countries we found the lowest political competence in Hungary.  The countries of Central Eastern Europe are not as homogeneous as it could be supposed based on their post-communist political heritage: the Czech Republic is separate from Poland, Slovenia and Hungary: although the principal component of internal political efficacy is also negative, but is less low than in the other three countries.

Multivariate statistical analyses have strengthened the results of descriptive statistics; the more the citizen feels that they have the skills to influence political life, the more they are interested in politics. This effect occurs even if control variables are involved. It became also clear from the data that from external and internal political efficiency the second is of greater importance, that is, by the improvement of personal skills, political interest increases. On the basis of multivariate analysis, gender and education have paramount importance in this regard.

Results confirm our third hypothesis that based on the traditional North-South, East-West cleavage there are significant differences between groups of countries in regards to internal and external political efficacy. In Europe, there is a North-South and East-West cleavage concerning individual political skills, attitudes towards the political system and individuals’ political interest; so our results based on descriptive statistics were confirmed by multivariate regression models. The openness of the political system is perceived more by the citizens of the Nordic countries where both internal and external political efficiency is the highest amongst citizens. In some Western European countries, we found inconsistent results. Internal political efficiency is high in many countries, but the political system is considered as closed by the citizens. Political interest in these countries is relatively high. Citizens of Central Eastern and Southern European countries are consistent in their view about their political systems; they consider them to be closed and they judge their individual competencies as inadequate for influencing political life. Citizens of Slovenia and Hungary report to have the lowest level of ability to influence the political system.

Overall, our research has confirmed that political interest stems from internal political efficiency, from cultural and learnable factors. External factors as political systems (openness and closeness) has a lesser influence on it, but it is undeniable that individual competences of citizens are consistently higher in systems that are more open. The traditional cultural differences of Europe's democracies, indicated by Inglehart, Huntington and Haller are still relevant in this regard.

Bibliografické informácie (sk)

SZABÓ, Andrea – OROSS, Dániel. Factors of Political Interest – the Internal and External Political Efficacy in Different Regions of Europe. Človek a spoločnosť, 2017, roč. 20, č. 4, s. 12-26.

Bibliographic information

SZABÓ, Andrea – OROSS, Dániel. Factors of Political Interest – the Internal and External Political Efficacy in Different Regions of Europe. Individual and Society, 2017, Vol. 20, No. 4, pp. 12-26.

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