Defining Ideas

Europe And The Death Penalty

Thursday, February 25, 2016
Image credit: 
Barbara Kelley

When Boston Marathon Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death nearly a year ago, America witnessed another heated debate over the utility, legitimacy, and morality of executing killers. Some families of victims publicly endorsed the ultimate penalty, while others advocated life imprisonment.

The European Union (EU) not only bans capital punishment among member states, but also actively petitions other nations to join in implementing a universal ban. Indeed, its embargo on the export of a chemical used for lethal injections has complicated American executions in recent years. Do the people of Europe overwhelmingly regard the debate as settled, and the death penalty as immoral? No. European governments have been united in dismissing capital punishment as barbaric and outmoded for decades, but the broader public has rarely been consulted. Referenda are uncommon in most of Europe—non-EU member Switzerland aside—and even pollsters have largely ignored the topic in many European nations, perhaps in the belief that opposition to it is overwhelming or its support is distasteful.

In a March 2015 YouGov survey commissioned by the Hoover Institution, respondents in France and Britain (about 1,200 in each) were asked their opinions about capital punishment. Specifically, they reported their own views and their impressions of the stances of the major political parties toward the justifiability of death sentences for “some serious crimes, such as pre-meditated murder or acts of terrorism that cause multiple deaths.” The results suggest that, on this issue, the major parties in two of the largest EU nations are out of step with most of the people they aim to represent.

In the UK, opinion leans toward favoring capital punishment with 50% of respondents saying they endorse the death penalty for serious crimes, and 35% saying they do not (the other 15% said they were unsure). A separate August 2014 YouGov poll found 45% support and 39% opposition, so the public might have shifted to the pro-side in the interim, though the questions were not identically worded. The only party perceived to be on the majority side, meanwhile, was the populist and anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP), which 30% thought was pro-death penalty, against 18% saying it was anti- (the majority of respondents were thus unsure of what position the party holds on the matter, or if it has one at all). Respondents saw all other parties as opposed, with 44% of respondents saying the Conservatives were anti-death penalty compared to the 14% who said the party was pro—and more than ten times as many respondents saying that the Labour, Liberal Democrat, and Scottish National parties were opposed versus in favor of capital punishment.

The victors in last year’s UK parliamentary election were the Conservatives, who returned to power, and the Scottish National Party, which surged to 56 seats, a near sweep of the only part of Britain in which its candidates compete. But while UKIP won only one seat, its candidates took more than 12% of the vote, an impressive gain not reflected in parliamentary seats because of the electoral system. The campaign featured little discussion of capital punishment, moreover, so UKIP candidates might have missed an opportunity to adopt (or advertise) a distinct and popular position.

Across the channel, many French respondents probably recalled the Charlie Hebdo attack that left 12 people dead while answering the poll’s question about capital punishment. So perhaps it is not surprising that the French were even more pro-death penalty than the British, with 53% endorsing it, and only 29% not in support.  Respondents overwhelmingly saw the right-wing National Front as holding the majority position, but no other party was at all widely perceived to favor capital punishment.

Re-establishing capital punishment is perhaps not a top priority for many European voters, though the November 2015 Islamist terrorist attacks in Paris perhaps brought the topic of punishing mass murderers and deterring potential ones to the fore of many people’s minds.

Capital punishment is not the only instance of major political parties ignoring the public. The survey also asked respondents to indicate their own positions and those of the major parties on immigration, using a scale running from 1 (“immigrants out to be encouraged to integrate with French society”) to 7 (“immigrants ought to leave France”). Around 50% picked the “leave” side (5, 6, or 7), 22% chose the middle point (4), and only 28% took the “integrate” side (1-3). The National Front was the party most often seen as reflecting the position preferred by the respondents—about 40% had it among the set of parties at exactly the same point as themselves on the scale, and about 19% had only the National Front in their own spot. No other party came close to matching respondents.

On the related question of whether immigration levels should stay the same, increase, or decrease, the National Front advantage was also clear—more than 70% saw the party as sharing their positions (usually on “decreased”), and no other party topped 55%.

In light of these findings, perhaps the strong performance by the National Front in regional elections late in 2015 should not surprise commentators, who are forever characterizing it as a party of the fringe. As with the UK Independence Party, the National Front’s strong support—it won more than a quarter of the vote—was muted by the electoral system. With two rounds of voting, strategic withdrawal by candidates from the other main parties facilitated anti-NF voting.

These observations are not meant to constitute endorsement of the UK Independence Party, the National Front, or those positions these parties take that are well aligned with public preferences. Instead, they suggest only that understanding the success of a party starts with a simple inspection of the public’s preferences and its electoral options. The elites’ ritual of declaring select parties and candidates “extreme,” shameful, and, therefore, successful only by trickery or when voters err is tiresome and eventually self-defeating. As support for the parties like the UK Independence Party and the National Front rises, it becomes evident that “extreme” often means not out of step with voters, but, rather, disagreeing with experts, incumbents, and pundits.

When elite consensus defies, rather than mirrors, national sentiment, governing parties have no reason to expect stability or good election results. Politicians should be prepared either to persuade the people that certain popular positions are dangerous or myopic, or else to watch to their own electoral coalitions splinter.