How can new democracies restrain electoral clientelism? This study from New York University draws on evidence from the 2006 presidential elections in Benin. It shows that if a campaign strategy is based on town hall meetings and policy proposals informed by empirical research, the electorate feels they have greater understanding of policies and candidates. It also suggests that this approach could have positive effects on turnout and electoral support for the candidates involved.
The main theme of the 2006 election in Benin was better governance, with strong anti-corruption measures and better public services. There were twenty-six candidates competing in the election, but only four were serious contenders capable of securing more than two percent of the vote. Several political parties and candidates volunteered to experiment with the campaign strategies of the research project. Together, these parties represented a projected 85 percent of the electorate.
The project developed a mechanism for generating programmatic platforms, which consisted of a two-stage deliberative campaign. The first stage was a conference involving academics, policy experts, all major candidates, and political parties that were represented in the National Assembly. This expert deliberation enabled parties to devise very specific policy platforms. The second stage was a series of town hall meetings during the electoral campaign. The meetings were led by party activists, who used information resulting from the policy conference. Districts and villages were randomly assigned to non-clientelist institutions for generating electoral support, such as ‘informed’ town hall meetings. These town meetings allowed political platforms to be explained to and amended by voters.
When these campaigns were compared with standard clientelist compaigns, (involving cash distribution and promises of targeted redistribution at festive campaign meetings), it was clear that town meetings and expert information generate electoral support for programmatic platforms. This is because:
- Expert information generates specific platforms and town meetings facilitate voter coordination.
- When platforms are specific, they enable parties to make promises on public goods and transfers that are credible.
- When voters interact in town meetings, they learn about each other’s preferences and beliefs.
- As such, this approach generates clear benchmarks that candidates have to meet to avoid being punished by voters in future elections.
- The meetings also facilitate coordination between voters in punishing those politicians who failed to keep their promises.
Town meetings and expert information enhance governance reform. They make the electoral process more transparent and voters better informed. Policy promises become more transparent and credible and hence more likely to generate electoral support. Further:
- The creation of councils of experts would allow the systematic evaluation of policy initiatives.
- Councils of experts could advise local and national governments, political parties and civil society organisations.
- Councils of experts could lead public discussions around election times, or other critical junctures of national policy-making.
- Councils of experts would not only help create an electoral constituency for good governance, by engaging voters and political actors. They would also improve transparency and accountability in governments.