Electoral accountability – the notion that citizens use the vote to influence government action – is a central tenet of democratic theory (Downs, 1957; Fearon, 1999). It continues to inform active scholarly and policy debates about the quality of government, including how to devise policies to improve the well-being of poor people in poor countries (Przeworski, Alvarez, Cheibub, & Limongi, 2000; Gerring, Thacker, & Alfaro, 2011). But does democracy work as theorized? Do citizens actually use their vote to hold politicians accountable for delivering, or failing to deliver, much-needed goods and services? Despite the centrality of this question, surprisingly little high-quality empirical evidence has been brought to bear on it, particularly in developing country contexts. In this paper, we contribute a new (and surprising) empirical answer and explore mechanisms that account for our findings.
We test the accountability hypothesis in its purest form: Do dramatic improvements in key basic infrastructural service areas – water provision, sewerage, and refuse collection – lead to increased electoral returns to the incumbent? We consider four southern African democracies and present two primary sets of empirical tests of whether accountability works as commonly assumed or hoped. First, we exploit extensive aggregate-level variation in the degree of change in service delivery coverage between 2001 and 2011 in South Africa, the largest democracy in southern Africa. Combining data from the 1999 and 2009 national elections, 2000 and 2011 local elections, and 2001 and 2011 censuses, we study how variation in the change of provision across these three different services relates to changes in voting for the incumbent party.
Graph: Levels of South African service provision: 2001 and 2011