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The Incumbency Curse: Weak Parties, Term Limits, and Unfulfilled Accountability



We study how representation works in a context where accountability to voters is restricted because of term limits and accountability to parties is limited because of party weakness. Analyzing all Brazilian mayoral elections between 1996 and 2012 using a regression discontinuity design, we show that becoming the incumbent party results in large subsequent electoral losses. We theorize that the presence of term limits, combined with political parties to which politicians are only weakly attached, affects the incentives and behavior of individual politicians in such a way that their parties’ suffer systematic losses. A descriptive analysis of an original dataset on the career paths of Brazilian mayors suggests that our assumptions are an accurate description of Brazil’s political context, and we find support for three central empirical implications of our theoretical explanation. Moreover, based on an analysis of additional data from Mexico, Peru, Chile, Costa Rica, and Colombia, we show that the negative effects found in Brazil also exist in other democracies.


Corresponding author

Marko Klašnja is Assistant Professor, Georgetown University, School of Foreign Service and Department of Government, ICC 593, 3700 O St NW, Washington, DC 20057 (; Web:
Rocío Titiunik is James Orin Murfin Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, 505 South State St., 5700 Haven Hall, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109 (; Web:


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This article is a major revision of—and replaces—the previous article “Incumbency Advantage in Brazil: Evidence from Municipal Mayoral Elections” (first draft: March 30, 2009). We thank our editor, John Ishiyama, and four anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback. We also thank Dan Bernhardt, Matías Cattaneo, Torun Dewan, Anna Grzymala-Busse, Simon Hix, James Hollyer, Rafael Hortala-Vallve, Gary King, Rene Lindstädt, Noam Lupu, Natalija Novta, John Patty, David Samuels; seminar participants at the London School of Economics, the University of Maryland, the University of Warwick, Washington University in St. Louis; and conference participants at the 2013 American Political Science Association annual meeting for valuable comments and discussions on recent versions of the article. We thank Henry Brady, Matías Cattaneo, Don Green, Jas Sekhon, Eric Schickler, Jonathan Wand; seminar participants at the University of Michigan, Universidad de San Andrés; and conference participants at the 2009 Midwest Political Science Association annual meeting for valuable comments and discussions on the previous article. We are grateful to Juan Camilo Castillo, Humberto Dantas, Daniel Mejía, Mónica Pachón, Pascual Restrepo, Fabio Sánchez, and Gabriel Tarriba for sharing data and sources. We thank Nicolás Idrobo for outstanding research assistance. R. Titiunik gratefully acknowledges financial support from the Institute for Business and Economic Research at U.C. Berkeley and the National Science Foundation (SES 1357561).



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