Abundant research in political science seeks to understand the relationship between citizens and their government by explaining why voters behave the way they do in established democracies. Only recently have scholars started to study voter behavior under electoral authoritarianism. The limited extant work on voter calculations at the ballot box in authoritarian settings engenders little consensus, and offers a dizzying array of conclusions that are rarely generalizable beyond a single case. For example, the scholarly literature on electoral politics in the Middle East makes a number of blanket statements about the motivations behind voter behavior, highlighting the importance of Islamism, tribalism, and patronage yet failing to distinguish systematically the degree to which each of these motivations is actually relevant in different contexts.

The project directly tests hypotheses and observes causal processes relating to the determinants of voter behavior in the authoritarian Middle East. Why do citizens in authoritarian settings vote in elections? Do tribal or religious appeals confer varying advantages on different candidates? What types of patronage or policies do voters expect from different candidates?

To address these questions, the project conducts an in-field voting simulation experiment paired with a follow-up survey, cross-national analyses of historical election outcomes, and an ethnographic inquiry into voter and candidate behavior. All methods will be used to test the effects of religious ideology, ethnic identification, and patronage on voting behavior in two different contexts, Jordan and Kuwait.

The intellectual merit of the project lies in its ability to advance knowledge of voter decisions and candidate strategy in elections that are at first blush quite puzzling. In non-democracies, elections do not determine who governs. Understanding why citizens vote and how candidates interact with voters in such a setting is important, all the more so in the Middle East.

The study has broader implications as well. Understanding the motivations behind voter behavior in the Middle East sheds light on governance in the region. If voters support co-ethnic tribal leaders out of pride or honor, rather than considering their performance in office, then elections are nothing more than "ethnic censuses" in which candidates are not held accountable for their actions in office and quality of governance is irrelevant. Voting for targeted patronage leads candidates to divert government resources from public goods provision, which benefits the country as a whole, toward favored segments of the citizenry. The selective distribution of government resources to supporters and away from the opposition in turn undermines meaningful competition for power. Most broadly, this project may contribute to understanding the conditions for regime survival and change in the Arab world, a subject of obvious importance to US national security.

Project Report

Electoral systems are becoming an increasingly common characteristic of governments throughout the world. My research seeks to understand the use of different types of electoral systems to favor or hinder various types of voting coalitions as well as the implications of such practices on governance. To do so, I employ a mixed-method approach to gather and analyze original data from two countries in order to develop a theory of electoral institutions, voter coalitions, and democratic representation in ethnically divided societies. Elections in Jordan and Kuwait have undergone a series of important institutional shifts, providing leverage in understanding how electoral systems can reinforce ethnic cleavages and splinter opposition coalitions. Both countries began with a regular multiple-vote, multiple-member system in which voters had as many votes as there were seats up for contestation in their district. However, Jordan quickly shifted to an unusual electoral system employing a single vote while maintaining multi-member districts, while Kuwait continued to rely on various different versions of the multiple-vote system. After years in which the opposition was increasingly able to create large voting blocks culminated in a parliament dominated by the opposition, Kuwait’s ruler decided to call for new elections and move the country to the single-vote system of Jordan, which has resulted in regime-compliant Jordanian legislatures throughout its electoral history. Though Jordan and Kuwait are both cases of electoral authoritarianism, my research will demonstrate that the implications of electoral institutions on the types of voting coalitions formed within a society are systematic and structured, providing meaningful lessons for understanding politics in both democracies and non-democracies alike. Through semi-structured interviews with Members of Parliament (MP) and surveys of voters, I have collected information on the largest ethnic and ideological voting coalitions from all the districts in Jordan. I will have completed the same process in Kuwait by the end of my fieldwork. Specifically, I find out whether or not electoral agreements are made both within tribes or religious groups and across these groups, as well as the strength and discipline of other ideological coalitions. Moreover, I investigate how different sorts of electoral systems shape incentives for parliamentarians to provide particularistic benefits versus public goods through content analysis of parliamentarian "casework" correspondences with the Government on behalf of their constituents. These letters detail the types of services sought, whether or not the Government approved the services, and the names of the beneficiaries over periods ranging from six months to a year. I have three cases from Jordan and one from Kuwait, with more on the way. Preliminary analyses indicate that MPs in these settings are consumed by requests for personal services, which they fulfill for both their tribal members and non-members alike and more than 50% of the cases were carried out for non-members in all cases. Furthermore, in Jordan, from among the most common types of requests, over 85% of petitions for financial aid to constituents from the government and 45% of public sector employment applications were approved. This casework seems to be overrunning their capacity for creating national legislation and provision of public goods, as well as creating a conflict of interest in fulfilling their duty of monitoring governmental budgets and ministry affairs. To deepen my understanding of politics at the district level, I collected voter registration data for 2010 and 2012 in Jordan, as well as 2012 in Kuwait. To the best of my knowledge, my research will be the first to make use of these data. I will use the information from my interviews and various books detailing the family names of branches within different tribes and religious groups in conjunction with historical election data, to construct a database of ethnic magnitude within voting districts. This database will allow me to statistically analyze the conditions under which intra-ethnic as well as inter-ethnic cooperation versus competition can be expected. Moreover, I will consider how different social cleavage structures in combination with various electoral institutions either succeed or fail in corresponding vote share to seat share. The various combinations of electoral institutions and social cleavages in Jordan and Kuwait throughout history will allow me to study mechanisms of cohesion and cooperation both within and across different ethnic and ideological groups, voting within as well as across different voting districts. This information will provide meaningful insight into understanding what sorts of institutions serve best in terms of fair representation of ethnically divided populations in elected legislatures, which has deep implications for governance and further affects the economic growth, security, and general wellbeing of the citizenry of a country. My hope is that a detailed study of these two countries in the Middle East, a severely under-studied region in the field of electoral politics, can provide important insights into the strengthening and promotion of democratic institutions for reformers and development workers around the world.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Brian D. Humes
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University of California Los Angeles
Los Angeles
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