This study tests the accountability hypothesis that dramatic improvements in key basic infrastructural service areas – water provision, sewerage, and refuse collection – lead to increased electoral returns to the incumbent. The findings from four Southern African countries reveals a negative relationship between change in service provision and change in incumbent vote share, voters who receive services are less likely to support the incumbent, both at aggregate and individual level. Whether this behaviour is good or bad news depends on the mechanism that explains this pattern and how the incumbent and opposition parties react to evidence of declining incumbent support.
The study was conducted in four Southern African states where infrastructural investment in basic services has expanded widely but not universally: South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and Lesotho. It analyses how changes in local service provision relate to changes in voting returns at the aggregate level, and then uses geocoded, individual-level survey data to explore the micro-level relationships between service delivery, political attitudes, and voting intentions.
Voters who receive services may in fact be more likely to punish the incumbent than those who receive fewer services. On the one hand, this seems to be because increases in service delivery raise voter expectations. On the other, it also appears to be driven by relative deprivation, wherein voters care less about what they have and more about what they have relative to others. Once voters are provided with basic services, they may revise their expectations of government provision and seek out alternatives in other parties. Further, increases in service delivery appear to heighten citizens’ awareness of, and exposure to, corruption. Such exposure may induce change in voting behaviour.
These findings suggest that the notion of straightforward accountability, whereby feedback loops are established between voters and politicians are not an inherently positive thing for citizens. While it could be the case that incumbent parties will work even harder to keep their voters happy and meet increased demands in a timely manner, there are also peverse incentives for those in power to maintain the status quo. Further, if corruption is undermining the effect of electoral gains from service delivery, perhaps parties in power will work harder to control such behaviour. Additional research is needed to more definitively address why voters have behaved in the manner this study has found and with what consequences for government action.