Why you vote the way you do

THERE was once a time when priests ruled the world and religious texts offered an understanding of how the world worked. Economics has now taken that position. Economics is the new theocracy.

Economists try to explain everything from preferences to choice to marriage, to why gangsters thrive in some districts rather than others, and so on and so forth. In a similar manner, it is possible to explain voting.

To start with, have you considered that when you vote, your vote declares your preference. In other words, the vote you cast reveals your preference. If you vote for Ali rather than Singh, you are revealing that you prefer Ali rather than Singh.

What if it is not just one time period that is under consideration? Suppose you vote for Ali year in and year out. This keeps Ali as your village chief every year. You have revealed that you think that Ali is superior to Singh.

After being promised delivery of a set of goods, you vote for Ali. Ali comes to power, but performs poorly. You are disappointed by his performance, but before the next election Ali pleads with you to restore him to his position.

What do you do? You can decide that Ali is a conman and discontinue voting for him. Or, you might be convinced by his new promise. You could also feel sorry for Ali and decide to give him another chance.

So although Ali has been a failure, you still vote him in. In the usual sense of the term, Ali is not superior, but you have ranked him above Singh. You are signalling that you prefer Ali to Singh.

What happens if Ali fails miserably after several good attempts as the village chieftain early in his career? You would probably keep voting him in on the basis of his early successful achievements. You may even tolerate his bad performances on the grounds that he has been known to have done well and return him to his position as chieftain. If this is what you plan to do, it could be that you are hoping that Ali will perform as well as he did when he was younger.

It is likely that there will come a time when you decide that Ali can no longer be counted upon to deliver what he promises. You will then vote Singh in.

People have high levels of tolerance. History attests to this. In India, the Congress party has led the country since independence save for a couple of terms. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 1998, after a failed attempt to lead the country in 1996. More recently, Narendra Modi led the BJP to victory in 2014.

The extent of BJP's margin in 2014 suggests that the votes must have come from diverse sections of the population. The preference for a change in government over the Congress could have come about as a consequence of fatigue with Congress's failure to deliver results.

It seems to me that people prefer to keep the known devil in place. One always hopes that the known devil will reform, transform itself. And this sentiment will have different levels of sensitivity among different sections of the electorate.

Some groups of voters will be more tolerant, others less so. It is only when the disaffection is big enough to tilt the balance will there be a change – it is only then that you will choose Singh over Ali.

Why is it that sometimes voters keep switching between two political parties?

This happens in two states in India, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Kerala, which has a population of about 33 million people, has the distinction of being a state that democratically voted a Communist party into power. In this state, the Communist party takes leadership for one term, often followed by the Congress party.

Tamil Nadu, with a population of 80 million, frequently alternates between the DMK and the ADMK.

One reason why this phenomenon occurs is because it disallows any one party from exercising monopoly power. When people feel that a particular party has not delivered on their promises or failed in some way, the other party is voted into power.

This mechanism also places a limit on the abuse of power. If a party's corrupt practices have been exposed, then there is a choice that is waiting in the wings.

But does this root out corruption? No, it does not; but if one party were continually in power the abuse would be excessive and without control.

A duopolistic structure in the market for votes is a system where two parties have control over votes. This keeps both parties on their toes. In a two-party system, a party knows that if it is inefficient it will be booted out. It also knows that if its corrupt deals are exposed, its misdeeds will be pursued by the opposition, which may form the next government. This places a cap on misgovernance.

Going back to our Ali-Singh scenario, Ali knows he does not have till eternity to produce good outcomes. He also knows that he will be punished if he misbehaves, and replaced by Singh. As a consequence, Ali might go in for programmes that produce good outcomes in short time periods. He will try to limit his unruly conduct.

It is not the end of the world for Ali or the village if Ali is voted out this time. Ali might be in greater demand the next time round, if Singh makes a mess of things.

None of this is meant to help you vote better in the forthcoming elections. If you enjoyed reading this article, then you should read the vast and very abstract literature on voting theory or modern political economy.

If you did not enjoy reading this article, then you should watch the many YouTube clips of ceramah throughout the country. There is enough there to keep you entertained till May 9.

Dr Shankaran Nambiar is a senior research fellow at the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research. He is author of Malaysia in Troubled Times. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com