Does turnout indicate which way the political winds blow?

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Does turnout indicate which way the political winds blow?

Sometime around mid-afternoon on Saturday, as lakhs of electors had already cast their votes, two major political parties set off theories that a “higher” voter turnout means their party — the Congress or the BJP — will be elected.

The logic used by politicians, party workers and supporters is that a high turnout in constituencies implies either anti-incumbency and voting out of anger, or an affirmation of the works done by incumbents — both touted with equal confidence depending on the party supported.

While the final figures have come somewhat as a dampener, there were at least 18 constituencies where voter turnout was 5% more than that in the previous elections, while another 11 saw voter turnout as being 5% lower than that in 2013 elections. What do fluctuations in turnout mean for political parties?

A commonly held belief is that any surge in voting is a sign of anti-incumbency, with electors making their way to the polling booth to announce their displeasure against the local MLA or the State government.

Historically, this is not supported by election data. In the four decades of elections, on average, only 33% of constituencies have ended up retaining their incumbent parties. The Hindu’s analysis of elections in 1,568 constituencies since 1978 (considering only the parties elected and not the candidates) shows that when there is a surge in voting turnout by more than 5%, the percentage of incumbent parties holding on to their seats increases marginally to 36. Similarly, when voting decreases by more than 5%, nearly 45% of incumbent parties retain their seats. This time around, a majority of the constituencies (100 in all) have seen a difference in turnout ranging from 2% increase to 2% decrease since the previous elections. This, shows the experience of 502 constituencies since 1978, results in nearly 72% of all the constituencies seeing a change of party.

A 2018 study by U.S.-based researchers Milan Vaishnav and Johnathan Guy, published in the Journal Studies in Indian Politics, concludes with their analysis of Assembly elections in 18 States that a surge in turnout showed no statistical correlation with incumbent re-election. Karnataka, however, may not follow the rules of history.

A. Narayana, who teaches Political Philosophy and Indian Politics at Azim Premji University, said any increase or decrease in rural voting does not translate into advantage to any national party. “This election too follows the trend of increased voting in rural areas. This may be happening as the relationship between the voter and the contestants is changing into one of obligation. This is either through direct payment of money to voters by candidates, or incrementally, with the contestant having done works for the voter which have to be repaid with voting … This sort of thing is not happening on a large scale in the cities and it is reflected in voting turnout,” he said.

Owing to the localised nature of these relationships, it is unlikely that any surge in voting turnout is a sign of anti-incumbency or appreciation of the government, he said.

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