Friday, December 19, 2008

Does terrorism influence voter decision?

Recent results of the state assembly elections led most observers to conclude that terrorism can hardly be an election issue and that it was wrong to expect that the Mumbai mayhem, coming close on the heels of the assembly elections, was most likely to benefit the BJP rather than the Congress. Some analysts pointed out that though voters are highly sensitive to terror incidents, the Mumbai carnage did not benefit the BJP because, in the voters' eyes, both the major parties, the BJP and the Congress were equally guilty of being soft on terror while in power. However, the recent assembly election results evoked much interest in the media precisely because the BJP used the Mumbai attack as the campaign theme. Only a post-poll survey, usually carried out by Yogendra Yadav of Lokniti, can bring out the truth regarding whether Mumbai attack really influenced the voters' decision. The Lokniti site does not carry any such findings so far.

Curiously, a study on Israelis' voting behaviour and published in the recent American Political Science Review has provided strong empirical support for the hypothesis that the electorate is highly sensitive to terror fatalities. Notably, it presented solid evidence that terrorism causes an important increase in the support for the right bloc of political parties. This effect, according to the study, is of a significant political magnitude, to the extent that the occurrence of a terror attack before an election (or the lack thereof) can clearly determine the electoral outcome. The study simply multiplied the estimated effects of terrorism by each locality's valid ballots and the actual distribution of terror attacks to calculate the number of voters that switched alliances between the two major contending blocs.

The authors of this study conclude that terror attacks affect the electorate, substantiating the hypothesis that democracies are especially susceptible to being targetted by terror organisations. In general, they say that implementation of counterterrorism policies is accompanied by an increase of the salience of terrorism, due partly to public statements made by policy makers. Their results implied that an increase of the salience of terrorism as an important issue dimension has a negative effect that may encourage terrorists to intensify their campaign. Policies that diminish the electorate's sensitivity to terrorism, on the contrary, may also be very efficient in lowering its threat, the study reveals.

Granted that India is not Israel, is it not time to carry out similar empirical studies in India to determine the salience of terrorism as an election issue, whether counter-terrorism policies, with an emphasis on stringent measures, intensify terrorism-related incidents in the run-up to the elections? The Lokniti has been in the forefront in conducting issue-centric election surveys before and after the elections. This time, however, we have not so far seen similar studies in the media after the recent assembly elections, which is unfortunate. In this lecture at MIDS, Yogendra Yadav reflects on the state of survey research on politics in most of the world.
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