In the forthcoming issue of AJPS is an article by Kate Baldwin entitled “Why Vote with the Chief? Political Connections and the Performance of Representatives in Zambia.” I asked Kate to provide a synopsis of her article and she sent the following:
- When elections are introduced in “traditional” societies, do powerful local leaders force voters to support their preferred candidates? “Why Vote with the Chief?,” details the extent to which and the reasons why voters in one African democracy – Zambia – support parliamentary candidates preferred by their traditional chiefs.
- I find that the political opinions of chiefs often influence voters, but this is not because voters are coerced or cajoled by their chiefs. Instead, rural voters take their chiefs’ opinions into account because these opinions communicate information about how well politicians are likely to perform if elected to office. Voters who support their chiefs’ preferred candidates are actually politically sophisticated voters. They are influenced by their chiefs’ opinions because they understand that in rural Zambia, where the formal state bureaucracy is largely absent, the ability of elected politicians to deliver goods and services to their constituents depends on them being able to work with local traditional chiefs. These voters correctly anticipate that politicians will perform better if they have a strong relationship with local chiefs, other things being equal.
- This study is important because it shows that the influence of powerful local leaders in elections does not necessarily imply voters are misled. It is often assumed that poor, rural voters are easily manipulated, but this research shows these voters often make their own sophisticated political assessments. They carefully evaluate how well different candidates will represent them in office, considering the local context in which the politicians will work.
Kate’s work connects with a cross national literature pointing to the information shortcuts used by voters. As she notes, voters are not unthinking, but are very capable of using limited information to draw sophisticated inferences about how to vote.