The wonderful advantage of voting for change

Across democracy around the world, millions of voters are becoming more and more fascinated with electoral politics. Many voters reported in the polls that their voices could not be heard. Some are increasingly leaning towards political parties with radical populist platforms (Guiso et al. 2017). These voters’ dissatisfaction may be related to the deteriorating quality of life in the West, especially the secular decline of productive employment (Dorn and Level 2022) and the rise of inequality (PKT et al. 2017), all of which have led to a decline in trust. In democratic institutions (Algan et al. 2017). Another reason may be the rise of the mobile Internet (Guriev et al. 2019), which helped spread the ‘alternative truth’ and allowed populist parties to thrive in many countries.

Yet another simple explanation might be that elections fail to improve the economic livelihoods that voters want. Many voters may feel that, after all, elections are not really important for their well-being. We explored this hypothesis in a recent study (Marx et al. 2022), where we compiled a new dataset of national election results from around the world since 1945. Our main research question is simple: We ask whether ‘voting for change’, such as voting for a ruling candidate or party out of office, improves governance, economic performance, and other social welfare measures.

This research question is the focus of all election studies. The only way under democracy for citizens to change their national leadership is to stage a revolution, in short, to cast ballots against those in power. In the words of Adam Prazeorski (1991), elections reflect the most fundamental feature of a democratic system – its ability to process non-violent social conflict and change of power.

Addressing this question raises a fundamental problem. National elections are not random events, and their results are related to a variety of underlying economic and social factors. In particular, those struggling to win re-election may have performed relatively poorly or faced particularly adverse economic conditions (Brender and Drazen 2008). Other studies have shown that the economic downturn combined with low levels of confidence affects the potential for turnover of leaders across the country (Nunn et al. 2018).

So we compare the performance of the national economy after a close re-election of a ruling candidate or party relative to the close election of a rival candidate or party. We use sophisticated regression discontinuity techniques to estimate the impact of electoral turnover near the regression discontinuity cut-off, i.e. for elections where the opposition only compresses the current candidate. In this case, we show that the election results can be considered almost random.

Until now, close-election regression discontinuity strategies have been used almost exclusively for local or regional election studies (see Girardi 2020 for an exception). Our large dataset of presidential and parliamentary elections allows us to expand this approach to the national level and assess the impact of turnover across a large sample of countries (Figure 1).

Figure 1 [1945electionturnover[1945সালথেকেনির্বাচনীটার্নওভার

We show that electoral turnover improves the performance of countries at different levels For example, an electoral defeat by a national ruling party or party results in an average deviation of 0.34 on average economic performance over the next four years. This is mainly driven by a relative decline in inflation and unemployment after the election of a rival. These effects are huge and are implemented gradually over time: the biggest increase in economic performance after three years of close election of a rival candidate or party.

Figure 2 provides a visual representation of these effects, measured throughout the four years following a national election (left-hand panel) or for each year of the next election cycle (right-hand panel). We anticipate a 0.22 value deviation improvement on a general performance index of the country, consisting of economic indicators (GDP per capita, inflation, and unemployment), international trade, human development, and indicators of peace and democracy.

Figure 2 Impact of electoral turnover on the performance of the country

The impact of electoral turnover is partly driven by turnover in the executive branch. The electoral defeat of those in power mechanically led to a transfer of power under the presidential system, and they took the possibility of a change of power under the parliamentary system to a significant leap, as we see in Figure 3.

Figure 3 Impact of electoral turnover on change of power under parliamentary system

Moreover, the turnover is more important when the executive members appointed after the election have more power and when there are less institutional restrictions on them. These effects are self-evident: weak checks and balances and the strong executive power vested in national leaders translate into more effective election results at the national level.

We provide additional evidence that the positive effects of electoral turnover are probably farther from the regression discontinuity cut-off for selection, as selections are closer. Using a method developed by Angrist and Rokkanen (2015), Figure 4 shows that the increase in turnover also results in an increase in economic performance for a wider margin-winning election. Furthermore, we show that the “unfortunate incumbents” who face a close re-election battle as a result of the global oil spill do not act differently from those responsible (Arezki et al. 2020). This suggests that the implications we have found are not driven by the inferiority of the ruling candidates in our recent national election model.

Figure 4 Impact of turnover on economic performance, regression discontinuity away from cut-off

Overall, the implications we find are amazing because there are so many reasons to expect electoral turnover Negatively Affects a country’s performance – for example, bringing less-experienced political leaders to power (Alt et al. 2011), increasing policy uncertainty (Alesina et al. 1996), or creating instability among bureaucrats (Akhtari et al. 2022). Instead, our results suggest that turnover Improvement Motivate leaders to do better and provide real benefits to their constituents.

Indeed, turnovers also improve the quality of governance and reduce (perceived) corruption, a standard measure of politicians’ performance in political economy literature (Ferraz and Finan 2011). One possible explanation is that concerns for reputation and re-election are probably more important for newcomers to the political office, than for long-term incumbents (e.g. Ashworth 2005). The French have a phrase, ‘Wear of energy and tears (‘Loss of energy’), which contains this insight.

Our detailed information allows us to rule out a range of alternative interpretations, especially the possibility of bringing electoral turnover to power leaders with different characteristics. We show that on average, those who win national elections are not younger, they are not leftist, they are not more populist, and they are no less liberal than the re-elected incumbents. In addition, the close selection of a leftist candidate or a liberal candidate does not have a clear effect on the performance of the country, in sharp contrast with the large impact of electoral turnover we notice in our data.

Previous research has shown that democratization periods improve economic growth (Rodrik and Wacziarg 2005, Acemoglu et al. 2019). Our results provide some reason to be cautiously optimistic about the long-term prospects for electoral democracy. Without a regular turnover of national leadership, societies could fall into institutional sclerosis and economic stagnation because they fail to implement disruptive policies, as Mankur Olson (1984) famously observed. Democracy, in its various forms, remains the only political system that has a built-in system that repeatedly engineers the leader’s turnover and policy change. For example, citizens would not be advised to move away from such measures in favor of a more authoritarian regime.


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