Why voters elect ‘criminals’
Awareness campaigns for voters or debates on campaign finance can only have a limited effect
This election season, there has once again been a great deal of debate on the reasons that lead to so many known or suspected “criminals” being elected in India. Two questions have been asked: Why do political parties field so many “criminals”? Why do voters then select “criminals” when they go to the polls?
While both questions are worth addressing, this article will focus on the latter. Two explanations have been put forth as the cause of the choices that Indian voters make. For some, the relative lack of information among the electorate is important: because many voters simply do not know who has been convicted of serious offences, let alone who is suspected of such offences, they continue to vote for poor characters. This is in part the logic that motivates the efforts of civil society organisations such as the Association of Democratic Reforms and National Election Watch. If information is the problem, a solution may be to ensure that voters know whom they are voting for when they go to the polls. The second, frequently proposed, explanation emphasises the “demand” for criminal politicians: because strongmen and other “Robin Hood” type figures may be able to bend the rules and better serve their constituents — even if this is done at the expense of social welfare — some voters may value criminality.
There is certainly some truth to these explanations. Other arguments may also be proposed. The commonly held perception among voters that criminal charges are political in nature — understandable in a judicial system prone to so much undue influence — likely does not help. As a consequence, even well-publicised criminal charges may not necessarily damage a candidate’s reputation. More importantly, voters may not always perceive that they actually have alternatives. In a climate coloured by general distrust of the political class, voters may doubt that a presumably virtuous candidate — one who has not incurred criminal charges — would in the long run turn out to be a more virtuous representative than a “criminal” they are already familiar with. Moreover, some voters will not even have to contemplate such a choice when they go to the polls this election season, insofar as the two or three main candidates they will be choosing from may all be facing criminal charges.
Yet these arguments may be missing an important point. Whether voters select virtuous representatives is only partially related to the information to which they have access, to how they react to criminality and to the alternatives they face. continued…