Arcane process encourages papal horse trading

While the voting for the pope is billed as secret, with each cardinal guided only by his faith in God, the process is ultimately a closed-door exercise in consensus-building that cements fidelity to the Church’s new leader among the inner circle.


The papal election resembles how decisions were made in Europe some 700 years ago, before elected monarchies were replaced by hereditary monarchies, says Bruce Bueno De Mesquita, professor of politics at New York University who uses a computer model based on game theory to predict the outcome of elections.

Though it is more a product of tradition than design, it has turned into an efficient system for consolidating the power of the pope and the Church’s other elites, he says.

Just as in the corporate world or autocratic governments, the small number of electors who are deciding on the leader of the Catholic Church can expect specific rewards — promotions, assignments and other perks — for their loyalty, Bueno De Mesquita says. The idea is that the smaller the number of electors, the greater the relative advantage of siding with the winner.


Cardinals used to sign their names to ballots, but stopped doing so “due to an old history of intrigues and tensions when people used to fear the most serious reprisals for their choices,” says Michael Bruter, who teaches political science at the London School of Economics.

Even so, factions make their views known during informal discussions between votes.

Because the proceedings are secret, researchers know little about what exactly motivates cardinals to switch their votes, but Romain Lachat, a political scientist at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, says the formation of coalitions — where electors slowly rally around a man who may only be their second or third choice — is inevitable.

But Indrajit Ray, professor of economics at Britain’s Birmingham University, says actively campaigning for the job may not be a good idea. A passive candidate who doesn’t alienate too many other cardinals may well find it easier to win a majority. “I think in the end we are going to get someone who is in the middle,” he says. This could also translate into a handicap for ultraconservative or very liberal cardinals.


Because there are no official candidates, in theory any baptized and unmarried Catholic male — cardinal or not — can get elected. But in practice, they have almost always elected one of their own.

The process can easily go to multiple rounds with the same people theoretically getting the same number of votes each time as cardinals play chicken to see who gets dropped first, Bruter says. But slowly, cardinals who voted for someone who only received a very small number of votes are likely to add their vote to one of the stronger candidates in the next round.


In the past, competing factions have reportedly tried to negotiate compromise candidates to break deadlocks and prevent undesirable candidates from winning in the end, according to Bruter. Rumor has it that liberal cardinals tried this during the 2005 election but the supporters of Josef Ratzinger, later Benedict XVI, knew they had the votes to block anyone else and chose to stick to their man.


According to Bueno de Mesquita the papal election can also be compared to decision-making in large publicly traded companies, with the accompanying level of cronyism and reward-seeking and lesser concern for the general well-being of the broad constituency — be it the shareholders or in this case the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

“This structure maximizes loyalty of the choosers to whoever is chosen because rewards — opportunities for promotion, desirable venues, and quality of life factors such as housing, etc. — follow loyalty,” he says.

So, choosing purely with the flock — or shareholders — in mind could cost an elector dearly and set back their own projects, whether selfish or selfless.

Non-dynastic autocratic regimes also follow a similar decision-making process, says Bueno de Mesquita, and the vote on which city will host major sports events such as the Olympics have a similar dynamic.


No voting system is safe from manipulation. The most obvious, and hardest to control, is the agenda-setting before the vote and the informal discussions that take place between ballots.

But the voting process itself is fairly watertight and should prevent anyone from voting twice. And while some might argue that it imposes certain constraints that might be called a “fix,” it could also be described as an attempt to conserve a cherished way of doing things.