Every year, civil society organizations and financial donors spend a great deal of time/money/effort promoting democracy. But do such interventions actually work? So far, evidence has been inconclusive. This study is among the first to address this question using a randomized controlled trial of a “real” democracy promotion program.
In electoral authoritarian countries, where elections are held but the system is not democratic, can direct contact with elected representatives increase citizens’ understanding of and engagement in the political process?
The intervention was a town-hall meeting between villagers (typically 400 – 1000 from each village) and members of the Cambodian National Assembly representing the parties in power. The meetings began with remarks from a representative of the NGO, who explained the purpose of the meeting, what the national assembly is, what the representatives do, and that it is the audience’ right as citizens to demand that their representatives implement policies that support their interests. The politicians then offer brief opening remarks to the audience, before giving the floor to the villagers in order for them to raise concerns and engage in a direct dialogue. Representatives from the ruling party and at least one opposition party were present at each event.
With a recent past of genocide and civil war, Cambodia is among the least developed countries in Southeast Asia, featuring a high degree of poverty and low rates of literacy and education. Since 1993, the country has held multi-party elections widely believed to be biased in favor of the ruling party. Throughout these elections, various NGOs have sought to promote democratic practices and respect for democratic norms, with degrees of success that are difficult to measure. The present study focused on knowledge of and attitudes towards the political system in rural Cambodian villages. Such villages often have few means of communication with the outside world, and access to television and radio is rare. Consequently, villagers in such areas have limited exposure to the elected officials in the Cambodian political system, and typically do not witness political debates between representatives from the different parties. The baseline survey for this study revealed that a fifth of all respondents did not know any of the Khmer terms for “National Assembly”, the vast majority (70%) of those that did could not guess what the national assembly does.
To carry out the intervention, six Cambodian districts were selected from within three provinces. Within each of the six districts, the partner NGO nominated two candidate villages, and a coin flip decided which would receive the intervention (treatment group) and which would be in the control. Prior to the intervention, researchers distributed 120 surveys to randomly selected villagers in each of the 12 treatment and control villages, and then returned to re-interview these same respondents a week after the intervention was carried out.
The interventions had strong and encouraging effects. The meetings created a better understanding of the Cambodian political system, with those in treatment villages 18 percentage points more likely to correctly name functions of the Members of the National Assembly, and 15 percentage points more likely to claim they had a right to talk to representatives about their concerns. The meetings also caused an increase in reported willingness to participate in politics: respondents in villages that held meetings were 12 percentage points more likely to express willingness to sign a petition, and 15 percentage points more likely to claim they would attend political party events.
One area that did not appear particularly affected by the treatment was that of trust in the political system. The effects on this range of responses were too small to be estimated precisely, and seemed very close to zero. In other words, while citizens gained a better understanding of the political process and expressed a willingness to engage more thoroughly with it, they were not fooled into trusting a political system that is still in many ways very flawed.
What does a Member of the National Assembly do?
Do you have the right to talk to your representative about your concerns?
Would you or have you signed a petition?
Would you or have you attended a political party event?
It does not matter how I vote, nothing will change.
Estimates from linear probability model including village-pair fixed effects and pre-treatment outcome. Standard errors clustered at the village level. *** indicates a p-value < 0.01.
Finally, the town-hall meetings caused an increase in electoral support for the opposition in the general elections that occurred a year after the final town hall meetings in this study.
This study provides some of the first rigorous, micro-level evidence to suggest that interventions seeking to promote democracy through direct interaction with their elected representatives can successfully increase knowledge about the political system, and encourage voters to express agreement with democratic norms, even in a repressive context.
One potential concern for policy-makers interested in scaling up such interventions might be that they lead voters to develop unrealistic expectations with respect to their political system, particularly in a repressive environment. This study suggests that direct engagement with representatives does not dupe voters into blindly trusting in the political system.
Another source of concern is that such interventions might lead voters to undertake risky actions. The town-hall meetings appear to have caused a greater reported willingness to take part in all manner of political actions, some of which may be risky, so this is a real concern that policy-makers should be wary of. In certain cases, it may be irresponsible of the implementing body to encourage forms of political participation that are likely to result in serious risks to the individuals undertaking them. On the other hand, in some cases, risky actions such as protest can also be a driver of significant political liberalization.
Finally, the town-hall meetings appear to have encouraged greater political competition by changing voting behavior. This is a very promising development and suggests that experience interacting with representatives from multiple political parties may be an important tool of democracy promotion in electoral authoritarian regimes.