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Does the PF’s failure to fulfil promises matter?

If failing to fulfil election promises was all that mattered, Edgar Lungu and the Patriotic Front would be wasting their time and money contesting the 2021 elections.

As Youth Development Organization executive director Partner Siabutuba says, “The failure by the PF government to fulfill its election campaign promises has made it to abandon its development agenda of the country and now has opted for a dangerous path for political survival. How else can you explain a situation where none of their promises has even been realised? They went as far as abandoning a national development plan in the name of Sixth National Development Plan and revised it to Seventh National Development Plan all in the name of aligning the national plan to suit their party manifesto. Did they achieve anything? No! PF promised lower taxes, more money in people’s pockets, more jobs, among other promises. How many taxes do we have today? Do we have jobs for the youths? No! Do we have more money in our pockets? No! What has PF been doing after realising that they can’t deliver on their promises and that reality is catching up with them that they lied to the voters? They have embarked on political survival project by suffocating democratic tenants and values. They don’t want any political competition, they don’t even want citizens who voted for them to ask right and relevant questions about their promises. All we see is ever increasing debt to unsustainable levels. What is this money borrowed used for when our poverty levels are on the rise? Education is poor, health services are poor and in many places they are completely absent…”

One function of elections is to enable voters to provide their individual and collective judgement of the incumbent political party and leadership. In making this judgement, it seems reasonable to assume that the government’s policy record – its successes and moreover its failures – will play a role. However, whether or not voters reward or penalise parties for delivering or failing to deliver on their policy promises is likely to depend on at least two factors. Firstly, all things being equal, a policy success or failure is more likely to matter when the policy in question is publicly visible and widely known. If a party is able to obscure its poor record on a particular issue – for example by highlighting other issues – or if its record has not been widely debated and scrutinised through the mass media, then it is more likely to escape electoral punishment. Secondly, and related to the previous point, policy success or failure is more likely to matter if it relates to an issue that voters care about. In other words, a government’s record will matter more on issues that are highly salient and about which voters express clear and strong preferences.

Actually, under certain circumstances an incumbent’s failure to achieve its policy goals, even on a highly salient issue, cannot only not matter, but may even contribute towards electoral success. It may sometimes be to the advantage of an incumbent party to set themselves up to fail, or at least be at ease with their apparent failure, if they can see a positive political externality. Of course, all of this depends on the caveat ‘under certain conditions’, which in this case involved an insurgent party increasingly campaigning on the issue where the incumbent party had “failed”, but where voter concern was concentrated among core supporters of the opposition party. This is, of course, a rather specific set of circumstances. And while it is possible to be wise after the fact, the implications were far from certain in real-time, as they depended on how unpredictable party political dynamics and issue salience would influence voter behaviour.

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