Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The rationality of not voting in Mexico

According to the document The Electoral Process 2009, published by the Center of Social and Public Opinion Studies of the Mexican House of Representatives, 7 out of 10 voters will not go to the polls on July 5th. The practical explanations for such behavior are diverse. For instance, some potential voters argue that the next elections are not trustworthy; some believe that after the election a political conflict will arise; others argue that the economic crisis has disenfranchised so many people that going to the polls is a waste of time; still others believe that there is deep crisis of representation in Mexico. Surely the true answer lies somewhere in a combination of the above factors.

Economists have long argued that voter ignorance is a predictable response to the fact that one vote does not matter to the ultimate election outcome. Why spend time getting information about the issues if my vote cannot alter the outcome? A vote has so small a probability of changing the electoral outcome that a realistic egoist pays no attention to politics, he chooses to be rationally ignorant. This type of ignorance means voters going to the polls without valuable information about the different choices they have, thus voting for the choices they naively believe to be better. In the face of this rational ignorance, the issue is then to explain the decision- making process of a non voter.

As in the specific case of Mexican politics, international pundits often blame citizens´apathy on the elections´exceptionally insipid candidates. According to economist Bryan Caplan, "deeper thinkers, who notice that apathy persists year after year, blame voters´ ignorance on lack of democracy itself". Robert Kuttner spells out one version of the story: "The essence of political democracy has eroded, as voting and face to face politics give way to campaign-finance plutocracy... there is a direct connection between the domination of politics by special interest money, paid attack ads, strategies driven by polling and focus groups -and the desertion of citizens."

Such aspects outlined above may well be the cause of the anticipated apathy of Mexican voters this year. There is a general perception in the population that parties and candidates have failed in fulfilling campaign promises in the past; there is also a bitter war between the ruling party (PAN) and the main opposition party (PRI), the former accusing the later of having negotiated with drug cartels in the past, and the later accusing the former of not having experience and wisdom to govern; plus, the leftist party (PRD) is engaged in an internal war over the control of the party and the public funding. To these ingredients we have to add a deep economic crisis -a contraction of 7 percent of the GDP in the first three months of 2009, plus the effects of the epidemic emergency due to the Influenza virus that caused a further .5 percent contraction of the GDP. Within this context, unfortunately not a single party or candidate seem to have clear and straightforward proposals to solve the most pressing problems.

Using the theoretical framework developed by George Akerlof and Robert Shiller in their Animal Spirits book, one can argue that the reason people go to the polls at all is not policy or economic rationality but rather the irrational impulse of confidence. According to the authors, confidence -implying behavior that goes beyond a rational approach to decision-making- plays a mayor role in macroeconomics. I argue that the very same impacts of confidence can be applied in voting behavior. At the level of the macroeconomy, in the aggregate, confidence comes and goes. Sometimes it is justified, sometimes it is not.

In terms of confidence and voting behavior Mexico is in a political recession. The lack of trust in the political system is creating a lack-of-confidence multiplier. I mean, people will not vote because they know so many people that have decided not to do so. The difference between an economic and a political recession is that in the former we have developed many policy tools to overcome the problem, such as Keynesian counter-cyclical measures based on public expending. However, in the later case it is not clear how our country will restore the confidence in the political institutions, or more important, how long will it take to rebuild the lost trust. A general notion in social psychology is that when trust is lost, it is highly difficult to restore. The historically high percentage of voting apathy projected for this election is perhaps sending the message that the political system is on the verge of collapse; perhaps our country needs shock therapy in the redesign of our political institutions.

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