Saturday, March 7, 2009

Fickle voters!

Over the next two months, India will go into a general election even as a major global economic crisis, both whose incidence and resolution is largely beyond the control of the Indian government, clouds the landscape. One of the biggest concerns for the ruling party relates to what effect this economic crisis will have on the outcome of the elections.

Findings of a study on weather events, disaster relief, and election results in India by Shawn A. Cole, Andrew Healy, and Eric D. Werker provides little comfort to the ruling party by claiming that "voters (tend to) punish incumbent politicians for events beyond their control". It also finds that even in cases when politicians are responsive during crisis, they are not proportionately rewarded in the subsequent elections. However, at times of severe crisis, a strong enough response by the government can generate significant goodwill for the ruling party in the elections.

The authors final verdict is a testament to the fickle nature of voters, "Our results suggest, however, that the typical elected policymaker should pray for tranquility rather than turbulence while in office and that even the best governments should fear inconspicuous negative shocks."

Another study by Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels comes to similar conclusions that "voters regularly punish governments for acts of God, including droughts, floods, and shark attacks". They write, "Thus, voters in pain are not necessarily irrational, but they are ignorant about both science and politics, and that makes them gullible when ambitious demagogues seek to profit from their misery. Neither conventional understandings of democratic responsiveness nor rational choice interpretations of retrospective voting survive under this interpretation of voting behavior."

(HT: Chris Blattman)

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