Demographics and Anti-Incumbency

After seeing the results of the May 2016 assembly elections, I have developed a hunch. It is that anti-incumbency will be much less powerful in elections in places where the birth rate is low.

My reasoning is this: suppose in years 0 to 5, party X is in power. In years 6 to 10, party Y is in power. In year 11, elections come around.

In a state or country where the birth rate is high, you have a large cohort of 18-23 year old first time voters, who were 13-18 when party X was last in power. So they know just how rotten party Y is, but have forgotten, or never noticed, how bad party X used to be. This cohort then votes with a great deal of hope and aspiration for party X. And because of the high birth rate, it swamps the votes of such people who remember how bad X had been.

But in a state where the birth rate is low – and possibly close to, or below replacement rate – the people with long memories of how X was in power, and how Y was in power, will outnumber the first-time voters. And so, as long as Y is even slightly better than X; they will vote Y back in.

Of the states that had election results declared in May; Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, and Kerala all have Total Fertility Rates below the replacement rate. And Tamil Nadu and WB both had incumbent governments returning. According to my hunch, that is because there were enough voters who remembered how bad the CPI(M) and DMK used to be, and even if they didn’t particularly like the TMC or AIADMK very much, still felt that they weren’t the worse alternative.

I realise that this hasn’t panned out in Kerala, which has stuck to regular anti-incumbency – perhaps because there actually isn’t anything to choose between the UDF and LDF; and perhaps also because anybody who votes in hope for change does so for the BJP.

But if my hunch is correct, it means that for any state which has a TFR less than 2.1; as long as a party in power can be just better enough than the principal opposition party, anti-incumbency for at least the first term will be less of a threat. Those states right now are:

  1. West Bengal
  2. Punjab
  3. Himachal Pradesh
  4. Tamil Nadu
  5. Delhi
  6. Kerala
  7. Andhra Pradesh and Telangana
  8. Maharashtra (does that explain why the NCP and INC came back to power in 2008?)
  9. Karnataka (but that is crazily anti-incumbent)
  10. J&K
  11. Probably many of the North Eastern states and Goa

Looking over these, I realise that my hunch will probably work best where the state has two principal parties. In Andhra Pradesh the situation has been complicated by the fecundity of political parties; in J&K by there being four major parties over three regions; and in Punjab and Delhi by the sudden appearance of the AAP.

I have a further hunch that any party that gets a second term will get a little too complacent or greedy, and eventually end up being worse than whoever was voted out; and that a new equilibrium of anti-incumbency after two terms will evolve in places like West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Delhi, and Andhra Pradesh.

So I will stick my head out and make predictions:

  1. AAP will get a second term in Delhi (though I wonder if this mechanism works as well in Delhi, which might be getting a bunch of first time voters through migration rather than birth)
  2. AIADMK will not return to power in 2021, or even get Lok Sabha seats in 2018
  3. Whoever wins Karnataka next year will figure out that they have to be just a little better than the Congress (and how hard can that be, even for the JD(U) and the BJP?), will manage it one way or the other, and come back to power in 2024.
  4. The CPI(M) will also figure this out in Kerala, and break the one-term jinx in 2021.
  5. UP will have one-term governments or unstable coalitions for the next two decades

Two corollaries that emerge from this:

  1. In low-fertility states, because vote swings will be less violent, small caste or religion – based parties will never suddenly lose their core vote, and so we will be stuck with guys like the PMK and the MIM for a long time to come.
  2. The huge cohort of first-time voters that sweeps incumbents out in high-fertility states explains the rise of Narendra Modi. It also explains the Arijitisation of Hindi film music. As long as you have a growing number of teenagers and young people who have never actually been in a romantic relationship, but are looking forward to one, soulful songs about idealised romances that bear no resemblance to real life romances will have a market. Sob.


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