Does Democratic Consolidation Lead to a Decline in Voter Turnout? Global Evidence Since 1939

 

By Filip Kostelka, Institutions and Political Economy Research Group (IPERG), University of Barcelona & Centre d’études européennes, Sciences Po, Paris

 

Voting rates in new democracies often decline dramatically. For instance, in less than twenty years after democratization, voter turnout fell by 17.5 percentage points (pp) in Portugal (which has held democratic elections since 1975), 29 pp in El Salvador (1982), 30 pp South Korea (1988), and 47 pp in Romania (1990). Both researchers and journalists usually ascribe these declines to citizens’ disillusionment with the functioning of the new democratic regime and raising apathy in the face of reduced electoral stakes. Democratic consolidation, the process through which democracy becomes established, is believed to depress turnout.

However, this conventional interpretation is problematic. First, it does not explain the striking variation that exists among new democracies. My review of 91 democratic consolidations that took place between 1939 and 2015 shows that, in half of new democracies, turnout declined little or not at all (see Figure 1). For instance, in Spain, which, like neighbouring Portugal, experienced a military dictatorship that lasted several decades before democratizing in the mid-1970s, turnout decreased by only 2.6 pp. This is 7 times less than in Portugal. Second, a number of recent studies, including those employing a pre-/post-election panel design, have found no causal relationship between democratic dissatisfaction and voter turnout.

Figure 1: Voter Turnout Change in the First Six Democratic Elections

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In a new study, I offer an alternative explanation of the deep participation declines that sometimes occur in new democracies. I argue that these declines originate in exceptionally high levels of participation at the beginning of the democratic transition, which are provoked by the democratization context. If regime change is a revolution or if citizens are used to voting from the authoritarian era, the democratization context is strongly mobilizing and conducive to electoral participation. In such cases, the voting rate in the founding democratic elections exceeds the “standard” level that would be expected in an established democracy with the same characteristics as the new democracy at hand. Later on, however, as the democratization context loses salience, voter turnout returns to the “standard” level, which is determined by the same factors as in established democracies. Only on face value, it seems that participation is depressed by the democratic consolidation context but, in reality, the dynamic is driven by what happened before the process of consolidation has even started.

To test both the conventional and my alternative accounts, I compiled an original dataset that covers most legislative elections held in new and established democracies between 1939 and 2015. I run two regression analyses. In the first, I test whether, in the first democratic elections, voter turnout reaches higher levels that those that would be expected in established democracies. I find that it is the case and that, as hypothesized, participation is particularly high after bottom-up democratizations, and when the preceding authoritarian regime held elections and forced its citizens to vote in them.

In the second analysis, I model voter turnout dynamics in new democracies. The results reveal that the initial participation surplus, which I call as the democratization bonus, translates into declines. This makes sense of the stark contrast between Portugal and Spain. In Portugal, the democratization process was mainly driven by the democratic opposition, which rendered the Portuguese founding election particularly mobilizing. In Spain, the democratization mover was the authoritarian regime, which limited the euphoria and stakes in the Spanish founding election.

Once this democratization bonus is controlled for, democratic consolidation seems to depress voter turnout only in post-communist democracies. Additionally, like in established democracies, voting rates in new democracies have tended to decrease since the 1970s regardless of the democratization and democratic consolidation contexts.

Altogether, the results untangle the complexity of voter turnout dynamics in new democracies. They show that a single occurrence of a voter turnout decline in new democracies may stem from one to three sources. In combination, the three sources can contribute to particularly sharp drops in electoral participation, such as that observed in Romania. They also explain why we have seen so many dramatic declines since the beginning of the third wave of democratization in 1974: prior to the third wave, opposition-driven democratizations from electorally mobilized dictatorships were rare, no consolidating democracy had to cope with Communist legacies, and the global environment was pushing turnout up in all democracies.

For more details, read Kostelka, Filip. 2017. “Does Democratic Consolidation Lead to a Decline in Voter Turnout? Global Evidence Since 1939.” American Political Science Review. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0003055417000259.

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