Yale University: New research on why authoritarian regimes have local leadership elections

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A trade-off between autocratic control and local information can explain institutional choices in dictatorships, according to new research coauthored by Gerard Padró i Miquel, Yale Professor of Economics and Political Science and an EGC affiliate.

When a state is poor and has little resources, it cannot afford to monitor a large, dispersed population of local officials. This is where local elections become important. The autocrat delegates monitoring of local elected officials to the citizens who, via elections, can use their local knowledge to better select and to discipline these officials. The downside of this arrangement is that elected officials have weak incentives to implement unpopular policies mandated by the central government. Hence, as the state becomes richer, the autocrat is likely to undermine local officials and take back direct control.

The study tests this logic with a large new dataset that documents change in the political economies of more than 200 Chinese villages over 40 years.

The research finds that the benefits in terms of better monitoring indeed come with a loss of direct control for the autocrat. Local officials care about their re-election outcomes, so while they exert effort to implement popular policies, they are reluctant to institute unpopular policies. This undermines autocratic power. The study shows that as bureaucratic capacity increases, the power of elected officials is undermined as the vertically controlled bureaucracy reasserts dominance.

Results at a glance
When China had little resources in the 1980s, they used local elections as a low-cost way to monitor the population.

Citizens held their local official accountable which led to a lowering in corruption and responsibility shirking.

A local official’s re-election incentives also lead to less implementation of unpopular central policies.

As China’s economy grew, the central government increased support towards county governments who strengthen direct control over villages, thus undermining the role of elected officials.

Bureaucratic capacity was an important part of China’s re-centralization.

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