Lakshan Perera

Understanding Election Results through Economic Theory of Democracy

Though its been two days since the announcement of the results, still there is no end to the spread of speculations & rumors on the concluded Presidential Election in Sri Lanka. I don't have any strong political bias to either of the main two candidates and didn't want to accept anything reported in a blind eye.

This morning, I came across an interesting Political Science literature written by Anthony Downs, named "An economic theory of democracy". I only could read the WikiSummary of it, but while going through it, my mind eventually mapped it to the context of the Sri Lankan Presidential Election. It helped me to dispel some of the doubts that were in my mind and understand how majority of the people would have voted.

I thought of jotting them down here for others who are interested. Also, I hope someone, who is more knowledgeable on this subject would correct me if my line of thoughts was wrong (I haven't done any formal study on Political Science than casual reading of the stuff here and there).

Downs defines basic logic of voting as follows:

In a world of perfect information, each voter would compare his expected utility of having party A (incumbent) in government (for another term, that is) with the expected utility of having party B (opposition) in government. This utility differential would determine each voter's choice at the ballot box.

In our case, party A would be current president Hon.Manhinda Rajapakse and party B is opposition's common candidate Gen.Sarath Fonseka.

Further Downs mentions there are several factors that would matter to a typical voter and would modify the above model. Let's consider each of those factors.

1. He doesn't really know what the future holds, so he doesn't know which party's rule will give him greater utility (in the future). So instead, he will instead compare the utility he got over the last term from party A with what he thinks party B would have provided under the same circumstances; if he thinks party B would have brought him more utility, he votes for B.

I think from the first Presidential Election what mattered to most of the Sri Lankan average voter was the civil war with LTTE in north & east. Hence, the end of war, the biggest utility he got during the last term of party A (i.e. Mahinda Rajapakse). Though, Gen.Sarath Fonseka played a major role in war victory, I feel due to the other parties involved with him (and their broken promises on ending the war in the past), would have prevented majority from voting to party B over A.

2. He doesn't just look at raw utility differential, though; he also considers the trend. Is A getting better or worse? If it is getting better, then the voter will forgive A for early failures to deliver utility.

This is the point government (party A) did exploited within the last 2 months after the announcement of the election. Fy-over bridges, International Stadiums, Power Plants and all sorts of the other development efforts started to blossom within this period. Also, fuel prices and price of other essentials were brought down tactfully. Moreover government again used peace as a lucrative belief for future development. Voters would have consider this as a positive trend. While opposition clearly showed the government (party A) has failed to fulfill many of the promises in last election manifesto (Mahinda Chintanaya), voters seems to have forgiven for those failures.

3. If A and B would have provided equal utility, the voter asks himself whether B would have used identical approaches and policies as A, or different ones? * If B would have been identical, the voter is indifferent and abstains.

Apart from ending corruption and government wastage opposition(party B) didn't have vastly different approach when it comes to solving other problems (improving agriculture, education, healthcare or on how to create more job opportunities) which would have failed to convert subset of voters from their current stance.

Also, as I see the above point could also explain the reason for the lower voter turnout in North and East. Both A & B didn't seem to have significantly different or new approaches when it comes to solving the prevailing problems of those areas. This would have led many from those areas to abstain from voting.

* If B would have provided equal utility but by different means, then the voter concludes: "Okay, a vote for B is a vote for something to change, but a vote for A is a vote for no change." He then must evaluate whether change (generally) is a good thing. To make this evaluation, performance evaluations come into play. Based on the history he has seen of various parties governing in various circumstance, he asks himself, "How much utility would the ideal government have delivered me under the circumstances that A has governed in?" If A stacks up well in comparison, he votes against change (i.e. for A). If not, he votes for change (i.e. for B) and hopes for the best.

Ending the corruption & wastage in government was the popular slogan of the Gen.Fonseka's campaign (party B). Here I believe again the voters were split into two sides based on the performance evaluations. Some thought Gen.Fonseka, who comes from a totally different background to political arena would surely bring in the change they want by getting rid of all the corrupted politicians. While, there were another bunch, who did look at the past (even considering the cases like Hitler, Idi Amin & etc) feared of he would turn into a dictator and decided to vote against the change. Apparently, based on the results it's evident the number belong to latter set was high.

Finally, Downs mentions a very important statement in his writing:

These decisions about utility, however, lack perfect information. He must estimate all these questions about utility based on the "few areas of government activity where the difference between parties is great enough to impress him". In other words, voters use information shortcuts;

As I understand, for voters to use information shortcuts he must be able to get the true picture of the context. This is why existence of free, balanced & impartial media should really matter!