Heath, O., & Ziegfeld, A., ‘Why So Little Strategic Voting in India?’, American Political Science Review, Vol 116, Issue 4, November 2022. Pp.1523-1529
Among the many studies conducted on electoral behaviour and voting patterns, Oliver Heath and Adam Ziegfeld’s article ‘Why So Little Strategic Voting in India?’, looks at how despite the many theories on strategic voting, only 1% or less of voters from Uttar Pradesh, the largest State in the country in terms of population, engages in said voting method.
In 2017, State elections were conducted in U.P., with strong competition between the incumbent Samajwadi Party (SP), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The study was conducted by the Indian survey firm Cicero, through a face-to-face survey in February and March 2017, after the 2017 State elections took place but before results were announced. About 3,600 respondents were selected from voter rolls, using a stratified random sampling method from 66 of U.P.’s 403 constituencies.
In Political Parties, French political scientist Maurice Duverger proposes a hypothesis about the relationship between the number of parties in a country and its electoral system. He explains that a simple majority single-ballot system, favours the two-party system, while in a simple-majority system with a second ballot or in proportional representation, a multi-party system is favoured. Thus, in single-member district plurality voting systems (SMDP) such as in U.P. where the candidate who gets more votes is declared the winner, a two-party system should be preferred. And ideally, strategic voting must take place, wherein a voter despite feeling close to a political party, votes for a different party, as they feel that the latter party has a better chance of winning. They are expected to strategise their votes, keeping aside their attachment to a party when they feel that their vote would be wasted because their party is unlikely to win in their constituency.
The authors explain that while many studies support this theory, their data revealed otherwise — that strategic voting was almost non-existent in the State. The reasoning given behind such an anomaly by political theorists like André Blais is that voters avoid engaging in strategic behaviour because of a sense of loyalty towards their preferred parties. This prevents them from voting for others. But even this argument is refuted by the authors in their analysis.
Before one understands the voting patterns of the electors in U.P. and the lack of strategic voting in the State, one must look at the different categories of voters that emerge in such an analysis which gives us a better understanding of the general electoral pattern. Among all the voters, there are two types of voters who cannot vote strategically — the ‘unattached’ voters who express no preference for a particular party and thus cannot vote strategically as they have no preferred party to abandon for strategic reasons; and ‘constrained’ voters who prefer a party that is not running in their constituency and thus do not have the option of remaining loyal to their preferred party.
Of the voters who can vote strategically, there are four sub-categories — the ‘sincere’ voter who will vote for their preferred party as they sincerely expect it to come in first or second in their constituency, having no reason to strategically abandon their preferred party; the ‘expressive’ voter who despite knowing that his preferred party might lose, will vote for them, for expressive and not instrumental purposes; the ‘insincere’ voter who for whatever reason, votes for a party other than their preferred party even though they believe that it will win the election; and finally the ‘strategic’ voter who believes that their preferred party is unlikely to win and thus, votes for another party who they believe will come in first or second in their constituency.
Data from the surveys revealed that close to 28% could not vote strategically as they were either unattached or constrained. A vast majority were sincere voters with the share of strategic voters limited to 1.1% and only 1.6% of the total voters who could vote strategically. The share of expressive voters was less than 0.5%. Thus, the lack of strategic voting can be attributed to the fact that voters sincerely believed that their preferred party would come first or second in their constituency and not their loyalty towards a party that is expected to lose. Of the 55 respondents who believed that their preferred party could lose, 41 (75%) voted strategically, which is higher than most estimates from other countries.
Allegiance to a party tends to distort the voter’s belief about their party’s ability to win in their constituency, dampening their concept of voting strategically. More than 90% of the respondents believed that their preferred parties were likely to win and did not think that their party was uncompetitive, though many of them were statistically proven wrong. This, being said, the voter’s objective attitude towards party performance did come into play in the perception of the other parties’ performances in the elections. They correlated the distance from contention and beliefs about election outcomes when it came to parties other than the ones they supported. The authors thus conclude that strategic voting was unlikely to affect the election outcomes, even though the voters in U.P. for instance, were willing to vote in accordance with the theory when they expected their preferred party to lose, proving that strategic voting is not a pressing factor that determines two-party election outcomes in the country.
While this phenomenon is relevant in U.P., it cannot claim to be a pan-Indian phenomenon. In attributing such voting patterns to the mass electoral behaviour in the country, the authors did not consider the range of political awareness and differences in voting cultures in different parts of the country. The authors point to the lack of public opinion polling or proxies for party viabilities, the volatility of party systems where there are no safe seats, the absence of electoral advantage to the incumbents, and the insufficiency of political information that could update the voter’s beliefs and political preferences as possible explanations for lack of tactical voting patterns. But they miss out on how political strategies made by voters in a State are largely dependent on the level of literacy, political activism, and general political awareness of the people and how this, in turn, is influenced by the socio-economic and political history of the State.
In Tamil Nadu and Kerala for instance, people tactically vote for either of the two major political alliances, as smaller parties seem non-viable. Accordingly, the smaller regional parties also change their alliance every election season. In Kerala, the smaller regional parties or independent candidates are preferred during panchayat or general body elections, as they are trusted to bring about hyper-local change. During the State Assembly elections, the voters prefer to choose between the two strong alliances (the Left Front and the United Front) while also strategically alternating between the two in most electoral seasons. During the Lok Sabha elections, they prefer to vote for parties that they believe have the ability to form a strong alliance at the national level.
Examples of such strategies in different States are proof that strategic voting can only be followed when there is higher political awareness, which is not uniform across India.