Can a name change for Congress usher its renaissance?

While trying to give the party some hot tips, Prashant Kishor probably didn’t prescribe a name change for the Congress. Well, Shakespeare’s Juliet may think names to be unimportant, but French politicians would disagree. For them, there’s lots in a name. After his uncomfortable re-election in the presidential bid, Emmanuel Macron has rebranded his party, La Republique en Marche! – The Republic on the Move – or simply En Marche!, as ‘Renaissance’ ahead of the June French legislative election. He certainly thinks the name change will help him politically amid the changing socio-political dynamics of France.

It’s not the first time that Macron has rebranded his party. In 2016, he created En Marche! – using his own initials, EM! – as a vehicle for his presidential bid in 2017. It was then renamed La Republique En Marche!, that too before the 2017 parliamentary elections, where Macron won a majority.

As it happens, name-changing is quite common in French politics. Gaullist party Les Republicans has changed its name six times since its foundation in 1946. Macron’s main political rival, Marine Le Pen, also changed her far-right party’s name to Rassemblement National (National Rally) from Front National (National Front) in 2018, although it’s unclear how much of her recent success in French politics can be attributed to that.

Researchers certainly paid attention. A 2015 study, ‘The Dynamics of Party Relabelling: Why Do Parties Changes Names?’, on 537 parties in 429 different elections held in 31 European democracies during 1945-2015, pointed out that across European democracies, roughly a third of all parties have relabelled themselves at least once since 1945. A similar proportion of elections include at least one party running under a new name.

While party relabelling is not quite common in countries such as India and the US, South Korea is another country where renaming parties does not have a bad name. The Democratic Party of Korea, for example, has been relabelled so frequently that the average age of each label is about three years.

So why do parties undertake such an aggressive step like relabelling? Understandably, these are usually caused by some form of shock or series of electoral setbacks. Parties carry out such a cosmetic change in pursuit of revitalising their deteriorating images, reconnecting with their voter-consumers, and eventually regaining support from the electorate – sometimes shedding a possible ‘disgraceful’ past, while also signalling to electorates that something about the party has changed thereby meriting a name change.

So, can a party really get more votes by relabelling itself than it could have won without changing its name, with other things being equal? That’s not very clear though. Of course, there are parties like Italy’s green party, Verdi, or Czech Republic’s US-DEU (Freedom Union-Democratic Union), that drew near 0% vote shares in 2001 and 2002, respectively, despite changing party names.

The effect of relabelling is, according to available research, not negatively conditioned by electoral viability but positively conditioned by electoral pressure – even for large and catch-all parties. And how well parties fared in their last contest negatively affect party relabelling for vote share. However, an election outcome, we know, is a complex effect of numerous socio-political factors. So, it’s difficult to assess the ‘true’ effect of relabelling.

And in India? A few months ago, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) was reportedly mulling the idea of a possible change in party name, with an eye on achieving a pan-India appeal ahead of 2024 polls. The Jan Sangh certainly transformed successfully into today’s Bharatiya Janata Party, but it’s doubtful whether it was because of the change in labelling.

For some parties, a name change may be the first step to starting anew. As a 1987 Journal of Business Research paper, ‘New Brand Names and Inferential Beliefs: Some Insights on Naming New Products’ (bit.ly/3syPS5s), illustrated, ‘Polar Bear’ is more remindful than ‘Pharaoh’ as an ice-cream brand name. Whether all calls for En Marche! can eventually lead to Renaissance, the proof of that pudding will be in the French legislative election voting in June.

(The writer is professor of statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata)


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