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The legitimacy of political power

A fair distribution of goods and services is the most important factor in justifying political power. This is the conclusion of Honorata Mazepus in her PhD dissertation 'What makes authorities legitimate in the eyes of citizens?' PhD defence September.

Mazepus, a political scientist from Poland, carried out research among more than 2,000 students in five different countries: the Netherlands, France, Poland, Ukraine and Russia. Her research question was: What conditions do authorities have to meet in order to be legitimate in the eyes of their citizens and what norms and values is this legitimacy based on?

Equal treatment of people

The differences were much smaller than Mazepus had expected. Citizens in both democratic and non-democratic countries attach a lot of importance to equal treatment of all sectors of the population. 'This is the general basis for voluntarily transferring power to politicians.' For political power to be legitimised, what is important is not only how you respond, but also how politicans got to their present position. 'You have to have been fairly elected, and you also have to be fair and honest once you are in power.' 

Prosperity is not the most important issue

People – and that includes political scientists – tend to think that politicians need to focus on prosperity, stability and public order in order to be successful. But in all five countries those who took part in the research consider such issues as honest elections, impartiality, transparency and integrity far more important. 

Transparency important to the Dutch

There are some differences in what people in different countries find important. In more authoritarian countries like Russia and Ukraine, 'integrity' and 'not being corrupt' are mentioned much more often as important characteristics for legitimate authorities. Dutch students often mention the concept of 'transparency'.  'That could be because they perceive a lack of openness in some areas, or that they think too much goes on behind closed doors. Another reason could be that they believe transparency is a crucial value in itself,' Mazepus comments. 

Norms and values

There is a difference between legitimising power and supporting the political order. 'There could be different reasons why someone would give their support. Out of fear, for example, or because there is some personal benefit involved, or because the costs of changing things are too high. Legitimising political power is about people's norms and values. These values are most important than personal interests and seem to be highly universal.' Mazepus believes that legitimacy can contribute to the stability of political regimes. 'Discovering the conditions underlying people's willingness to hand over political power to others is crucial to understanding political developments.' 

East Europeans and the EU

Honorata Mazepus has worked on her research since 2011 at the Institute for History and the Institute for Political Science at Leiden University. She was also a lecturer during this time. Having obtained her PhD, she will now be working at the Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs at Campus The Hague. Her new research focuses on the question of how people in East European countries regard the European Union. Her research will be partly funded by the EU. 

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