Theory of Political Representation

by Jarosław Szymanek (Author)
©2015 Monographs 221 Pages


This book discusses political representation both as a political idea and a principle of law. Representation was a topic of political debates throughout the 19th and 20th century and the debate has intensified with today’s so-called «crisis of representation». The issue always relates to the political system in practice and this study takes into account the obvious assertion that it is impossible to imagine contemporary political systems without representation: Political representation is a principle of law and a process of correlating the political will of the representative and the represented.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter I: Axiological and Teleological Assumptions of Representation
  • 1. Representative Versus Direct Democracy
  • 2. Accountability: Necessary Prerequisite of Representation
  • 3. Crisis of Representative Democracy
  • 4. Entropy of Representation: Teleological Source of Crisis
  • Chapter II: Theoretical Concepts of Representation
  • 1. The Principium: Philosophical Concept of Representation
  • 2. The Meritum: Juridical Concept of Representation
  • 3. The Accessorium: Sociological Interpretation of Representation
  • 4. Conjunction: Representation as a Correlation
  • 5. Limits of Representation: Forms and Means of Correlation
  • Chapter III: Historical and Doctrinal Embodiments of Representation
  • 1. Multivariant Applications of the Idea of Representation
  • 2. The French Concept of Political Representation
  • 3. The English Idea of Representation
  • 4. Andrew Heywood’s Retrospective Model of Representation
  • 5. Other Diachronic Models and Scenarios of Representation
  • Chapter IV: Constitutional Expression of Representation
  • 1. The Content of the Constitutional Principle of Representation: Rei Compertae
  • 2. The Sense of the Constitutional Principle of Representation
  • 3. The Constitutional Expression of the Principle of Representation
  • 4. Methods of Construing the Principle of Representation: Rei Dubiae
  • 5. Legal Effects of the Constitutional Principle of Political Representation
  • Chapter V: Representation and Interests
  • 1. Representation as Aggregation and Articulation of Interests
  • 2. Political vs. Functional Representation
  • 3. Ethics in the Conduct of a Representative as a Politician
  • 4. Legal Framework of a Representative’s Ethics: Representative Mandate
  • 5. Political Framework of a Representative’s Ethics: Ties with Subgroup or Party
  • 6. Functional Framework of a Parliamentarian’s Ethics: Representation vs. Lobbying
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography


Political representation that in a nutshell means speaking for a sovereign of some smaller group (the representatives) whose will is then regarded as the will of all (the sovereign), hence in a dual system of representation – as the will of the so-called ‘represented’, is a solution widely applied across all democratic systems nowadays. It cannot be otherwise, anyway, as it is hardly possible to imagine mechanisms of direct democracy, in spite of their appeal, being used on a wide scale.1 Notwithstanding its highly positive recognition, direct democracy can only be an accessory and, by definition, a complementary form of exercising the sovereign’s power. Hence, the normal, regular or everyday form of democracy is indirect and will probably remain so for a long time to come (should it ever be able to revert back to its ancient origins), whereby a few speak on behalf of all, but an opinion of a few is regarded as the opinion of all.

Typicality, familiarity with and – even more – in a sense a certain absence of an alternative and the resulting obviousness of prevalence of direct or representative democracy does not, however, eliminate major questions that may be put à propos this form of democracy.2 The first question that arises at once is: Who represents whom? Is the status of a representative vested in an individual (a deputy, a member of parliament), or perhaps the body for which the deputy is only a personal substratum? If we were to accept the latter, i.e. the ‘institutional’ version of representation, another question would then come to light, namely whether it is only the traditional parliament (which is, after all, popularly known as the representative body3) that is endowed with the power to represent, or whether ← 7 | 8 → such powers also are (or at least might be) vested in other bodies or, more generally, in other entities; and if so, in which specific entities and why? If we were to adopt the option of the so-called ‘pluralist representation’ that assumes a multitude of bodies and structures to express someone’s interests,4 then it quite naturally invokes questions concerning mutual relationships between these entities and whether they form a hierarchy of sorts or, perhaps, despite all, they are (or should be) equal to each other. Furthermore, another question should be posed, namely what is nowadays the relationship between political representation and other forms of representation (for instance social, professional or territorial)? Are these individual types or forms of representation competitive with or complementary to each other? Or, perchance, they all blend into some communal and homogenous whole which only then incarnates a full, genuine and in a way complete representation? Questions that arise in connection with a representative also pertain to the scope of the potential, admissible, or – for instance – optimal representation, as well as extremely crucial questions regarding the consequences of representation, whereby it is not only the strictly juridical, but also sociological or for instance political, particularly practical, competences that come into play. Certain, actually purely fundamental, questions with regard to the representative are unavoidable, such as whether in line with the etymological roots of the word ‘representation’, the representative merely presents the views, the will and the opinions of others, or perhaps he is, at least in a certain sense, the creator of this will? Accordingly, does a representative, regardless of whether such representative is an individual person or a body, merely aggregate the will voiced by others or perhaps express it himself in a certain way and, if so, how and to what extent? Further along this path, at a certain point in time an inevitable question comes up whether representation is not by chance only an abstract idea, which finds its embodiment in the will of the representative rather than in the will of the represented, since being the ‘last link in the chain’ of a complex process of representation, the latter merely acknowledges a project that in fact fulfills the primary function of a democratic legitimization of the entire system, yet its substance remains in fact void, since, if truth be told, the represented ‘cannot do anything’ without the representative.5 And the list of questions does not end here at all. ← 8 | 9 →

Other equally important questions appear, this time pertaining to the represented, including the most rudimentary question of all – namely who or what the represented really is? Is it a more or less unidentified collective body (the people, the nation, the sovereign, the citizens, the electorate6), or is it perhaps an individual, a certain group or else a conceptualized community (such as the electoral district, ethnic group, professional, social, economic or regional group, and – in the era of the increasingly rapid and ever closer integration processes – also a state, national or, for a change, supra-state or supranational group)? And if, as viewed by the traditional doctrine, representation is to be an interpersonal relation between the representative and the represented, then perhaps the represented is a specifically named person who made a personal choice of his representative? And perhaps, looking at it from another angle, a specific and personal choice does not carry the slightest significance here, since representation stands for a general idea of representing everyone regardless of whether and how these persons have voted and – even more – regardless of whether these persons have at all been endowed with voting rights (which in a way corresponds to virtual representation as we know it)? Vital questions should also be asked in connection with the relationship (ties) between the representative and the represented, including fundamental questions such as whether and to what extent the representative is bound by the will of the represented, and to what extent, if at all, he does have a free margin for action. Another non-trivial question in this regard touches upon, plausibly, the nature of sanctions imposed in the event the wills of both these entities diverge and whether such sanctions are at all admissible, and – if so – should they have a predominantly political or legal status?

The nature of relationship between the representative and the represented should also be determined. Is this relationship of strictly legal or political nature, or perhaps one and the other at the same time? Conceivably, and this cannot be a priori ruled out, this relationship is construed based on other scales of judgment such as morality, ethics, or simple integrity and decency. A particularly vital question pertaining to the mutual relation between the representative and the represented concerns also (if not above anything else) the essence of representation, that is whether the will voiced via the representative body is formed only by aggregating the wills of the individual represented persons or whether – a view promoted by some – it is an outcome of a deliberate search for some other, newfangled will which cannot be trimmed down to a simple summation of wills ← 9 | 10 → of individual members of the represented group.7 It should be highlighted without further ado that this question is a constant and perhaps the most important motive of all political, philosophical and, ultimately, legal discourses on representation and generates a wide range of views and opinions. Therefore, it is not surprising that the problem of representation till this very day constitutes one of the major issues of a widely understood political thought.8

Last but not least, more general, if not even sketchy, questions come to mind. For instance, what exactly is representation? What is the general will or the will of the general public or, simply the will of the nation or the people? What is general good or what does it mean to act pro publico bono, which – after all – almost always lies at the heart of political representation (at least in its theoretical perspective)? Amongst the most far-reaching questions it is also considerate to ask whether it is not so that the idea (the principle) of political representation at present constitutes merely a flaunting form of legitimizing contemporary political systems, yet one devoid of any real, down-to-earth substance. Or, in other words, whether such capacious and ambiguous concepts as ‘general will’ or the ‘will of the general public’, the ‘will of the people’, ‘general welfare’ or ‘common welfare’, being material components of representation, in fact find their designate in the political system or whether they are nothing more than a graceful rhetoric figure, a legal fiction aimed at dressing the system into the clothes of democracy, where for obvious reasons not everyone may make decisions. Another question, which is as much general as elementary, touches upon the effectiveness of political representation. Apart from obviously being a spectacular model of contemporary democracy, is it an effective formula as well? Or perhaps the attractive form of political representation does not go hand in hand with the appeal and, importantly, the practicality of its substance? Questions that trouble those pondering upon the complex issue of representation also focus on whether it is a certain constant condition, a constans, or perhaps an ongoing and steadily progressing process, and hence one which undergoes changes? Or whether – and it does not in any way exhaust the list of questions or doubts – representation is more of a political idea, a constitutional principle or a tangible political being, though built on strong constitutional foundations. Along these lines, as it is easy to guess, important questions come to mind one after the other, this time relating to axiological and teleological functions of representation, and amongst them, ← 10 | 11 → the most fundamental question of all: What is the essence of representation today and what are its functions in the political system of the state?9

Hence, observably, political representation is an extremely fertile and, above anything else, still enormously important and up-to-date field for analysis carried out on the grounds of the constitutional law as well as methodologically based on political science. A set of tools based on political science and constitutional legal grounds seems indispensable for analyzing political representation as well as the majority of institutions falling within the scope of a widely understood constitutional law.10 It is so, since state (constitutional) institutions most often cannot be viewed from a purely dogmatic angle of the constitutional law. True enough, political representation as a systemic principle dressed in a bodice of the constitution does have its own specific, juridical, viz. constitutional sense, which must be subjected to a proverbial first step towards the genuine and full cognizance and understanding of political representation. It so happens particularly when we acknowledge that political representation is not only a constitutional idea or principle (otherwise worth pondering upon from a scientific angle), but above all a process of the so-called correlation, i.e. reconciliation or else assimilation (homogenization) of the political wills of the representative and the represented. Once this viewpoint is adopted, it becomes clear that without an arsenal of methodology a political scientist is equipped with, political representation cannot be simply digested or comprehended.

This book aims to offer answers to these and many other questions. Nonetheless, it should be pointed out right at the outset that readers will by no means find satisfying answers to all the questions raised in this book, while some of the answers to be found will be heavily nuanced, perplexing, multi-threaded and not leading towards a single solution only. What’s more, other questions and problems which arise in the process of probing the phenomenon of political ← 11 | 12 → representation will come to light in this book. All these newly raised questions and issues, even if they remain unanswered in an ultimate or satisfactory manner, underscore that it is worth brooding over political representation despite it being – or perhaps just because it is – a permanent theme of all discussions and discourses on the political system of a state. It is unfeasible to imagine any major political project over the past two hundred years that would fail to touch upon the issue of representation (regardless of whether representation was in its foreground or somewhere in the background). As much as political representation remains the most vital and rudimentary theme, it is also infinite. Hence, understandably, this theme does not end with this book, which should be regarded as just a ‘voice in a discussion’ and a certain, definitely modest, attempt at sketching a discourse summary. Time will show how the future of political representation will play out and where the discussion on representation will head towards.

Apart from answering the raised questions, this book aspires to achieve at least a few objectives. First and foremost, it is to present and to set clarity in the findings from research on political representation that has been continued for no less than two hundred years and has still not lost its intensity as well as acuteness of debates, discussions and formulated views. Secondly, it is to prove that representation cannot be demoted to a single meaning or political idea. Depending on the angle of view, it can be perceived in many different ways and, as a result, it can be diversely arranged and accommodated as a specific institution of the system of government. Thirdly, this book is to illustrate that classical structures in the form of an imperative mandate and a free mandate are already in a certain sense passé and, therefore, different and new formulas of political and juridical relationship between the representative and the represented should be sought. Fourthly, this book aims to demonstrate that political parties, not long ago dragged through the muck and mire, are a necessary component of political representation under the circumstances of contemporary democracy, on the one hand having the greatest modifying impact upon it, yet on the other hand being a structure – even if originally unplanned – that is currently durable, stable and in fact devoid of an alternative. Fifthly, this study purports to reveal the crisis plaguing contemporary representation and the various methods of overcoming it. One of the signs is no doubt proliferation of entities claiming to be endowed with the right to be represented and to be a representative. As it is being rightly noted, it is the multiplication of claims to representation11 that is one of the most vivid symptoms of the crisis that troubles political representation ← 12 | 13 → nowadays. Paradoxically, this multiplication alone constitutes, as it seems, a sagacious riposte to the malfunction of the classical (parliamentary) mechanisms of representation. The second way out of the crisis of representation is an ambitious project of supra-national representation which may in a way reinstate the genuine or original idea of representation, which has over the years been prone to various deformations and distortions. Regardless of its form, each and every project of political representation in fact has the same objective, namely to be able to echo the will of the represented subject in the best possible way (that is most precisely) through the representative body. Last but not least, sixthly, this book aims at expanding our knowledge of representation. One should always bear in mind that while engaging in research on various institutions of the political system, such as representation, we malgré tout do so first and foremost to expand our expertise, so that once we become familiar with the findings, we are more knowledgeable than beforehand. ← 13 | 14 →


← 14 | 15 →


  1  All the more so, since direct democracy is also not free from defects and other deficiencies that generally surface when mechanisms of direct democracy, particularly the referendum, are deployed in practice. More on this topic: Leréférendum expression directe de la souveraineté du peuple. Essai critique sur la rationalisation de l’expression référendaire en droit comparé, Paris 2012.

  2  Cf.: J. Boulad-Ayoub, P.-M. Vernes, Aux fondements théoriques de la représentation politique, Paris 2007.

  3  On the margin it is perhaps worth mentioning that, for instance, in French literature, the notions of the ‘representative system’ and the ‘parliamentary system’ were regarded as synonymous, at least by some authors. Therefore, a mark of equality was often put between régime représentatif and régime parlementaire. Naturally, it was practiced mainly by those theoreticians who had an apologetic approach to the system of a strong (absolute) power of the parliament, such as, for instance, Adhémar Esmein.

  4  Cf. T. Debard, Dictionnaire de droit constitutionnel, Paris 2002, p. 270.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (June)
parliamentary mandate principle of law political idea crisis of representation
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 221 pp.

Biographical notes

Jarosław Szymanek (Author)

Jarosław Szymanek is Professor at the Institute of Political Science at the University of Warsaw. He specializes in Polish and comparative constitutional law and contemporary political systems.


Title: Theory of Political Representation
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224 pages