Lok Sabha elections 2019: The mystery behind the highest voter turnout

Published: May 16, 2019 12:22 AM

Increased voter turnout remains concentrated in BJP’s traditional bastions; these are also states where rural distress has been a key electoral issue.

The 2019 election is on track to achieve record voter turnout, but both theoretical and empirical studies have struggled to find causality between voter turnout and election outcomes. (Representational image)The 2019 election is on track to achieve record voter turnout, but both theoretical and empirical studies have struggled to find causality between voter turnout and election outcomes. (Representational image)

By Sonal Varma & Aurodeep Nandi

With six of the seven phases of the general elections now complete, we estimate voter turnout in 2019 is likely to average ~67%, on track to break the previous record of 66.4% in the 2014 elections. This translates into ~55-56 million new voters (relative to the 2014 polls) making their way to the ballot box this year.

What explains the increased participation? Are these primarily newly registered voters? Not necessarily. Of the registered voters, only 15 million were found to be in the 18-19 year-old cohort (i.e., newly eligible to vote). Even assuming full electoral participation by this bloc, this leaves ~40-41mn voters, who must therefore be older and are not newly registered, freshly participating in these elections. On the one hand, increased voter turnout may indicate a strong sense of dissatisfaction that has led to voters coalescing to boot out the incumbent, although studies have disputed this causality in previous elections. On the other hand, high voter turnout could reflect active participation at the grass roots level, with the party cadre coaxing citizens to vote. It may also be indicative of more structural, party-agnostic trends, wherein increased social media outreach, general political awareness and ease of voting contribute to participation of previously dormant registered voters.

What does increased voter turnout mean?
Unfortunately, both theory and empirical analyses fall short of unequivocal conclusions. There are studies that cast statistical doubts on the extent to which increased voter turnout is associated with anti-incumbency. On the flip side, there has been analysis that suggests the BJP may have benefited from lower voter turnout in 1999 and 2004 (when it was an incumbent), but benefited from higher turnout in 2014 (when BJP was the challenger).

Roy and Sopariwala, in their new book, The Verdict – Decoding India’s Elections, held a different view. They asserted that the BJP and its allies tended to perform better in constituencies with lower voter turnout. We study the link between changes in voter turnout and anti-incumbency at the national level in general elections. It is difficult to extrapolate a trend; governments have changed during both high and low voter turnout election years. Even if we exclude the 1989-1998 period of unstable coalition governments from our sample, recent trends are still hazy. The Indian National Congress (INC)-led coalition, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), upstaged the BJP-led government in the 2004 elections, despite lower turnout. Also, despite increased turnout in the 2009 elections, the BJP-led coalition, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), failed to topple the UPA government. However, in the 2014 general elections, the increase in voter turnout was larger than all other elections since 1962 and, contrary to 2004, it corresponded with a landslide victory for the NDA. Based on these trends, it is difficult to be certain whether the ~0.7 percentage point increase in voter turnout this year indicates an anti- or pro-incumbency shift.
Our observations so far for the 2019 elections

We trawled through the constituency-wise voter turnout across states and studied the performance difference versus the 2014 elections in the first four phases, which comprised ~69% of the Lower House seats. The increased turnout is not pan-India. Instead, it is primarily concentrated in the key BJP battlegrounds of Rajasthan, MP, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Assam, Karnataka and Gujarat. The two outliers were Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, where BJP’s prospects have traditionally been weak.

What does this mean?
First, with the exception of Gujarat, these states are primarily agrarian. Rural distress has been a key electoral issue across these states and this issue could resonate with the surge of new voters. It was already a key contributory factor to the BJP’s recent drubbing in the assembly elections in these states, although state level results in the past have not been reliable leading indicators for general election outcomes.

Nevertheless, our analysis suggests that increased voter turnout seems to be concentrated in states where the voters have been at the forefront of the ongoing rural distress and have recently expressed anti-incumbency views against the BJP. These states form the ‘Hindi heartland’ states for the BJP, and opinion polls suggest that they remain central to its hopes of returning to power. This underlines the make-or-break importance of what the increased voter turnout means for the BJP’s prospects.

The 2019 election is on track to achieve record voter turnout, but both theoretical and empirical studies have struggled to find causality between voter turnout and election outcomes. In past Lok Sabha elections, there have been anti-incumbency outcomes during both high and low turnout elections. But we find it striking that the incremental turnout is turning out to be concentrated in states that form the BJP’s ‘Hindi heartland’ vote bank and remain crucial to its hopes of returning to power. Our base case remains one in which a BJP-led government returns, albeit with a reduced majority.

Edited excerpts from Nomura’s Asia Insights report dated May 13

Varma is managing director & chief India economist, and Nandi is India economist, Nomura

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