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Nuanced Accountability: Voter Responses to Service Delivery in Southern Africa

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 December 2017


Various theories of democratic governance posit that citizens should vote for incumbent politicians when they provide good service, and vote for the opposition when service delivery is poor. But does electoral accountability work as theorized, especially in developing country contexts? Studying Southern African democracies, where infrastructural investment in basic services has expanded widely but not universally, we contribute a new empirical answer to this question. Analyzing the relationship between service provision and voting, we find a surprising negative relationship: improvements in service provision predict decreases in support for dominant party incumbents. Though stronger in areas where opposition parties control local government, the negative relationship persists even in those areas where local government is run by the nationally dominant party. Survey data provide suggestive evidence that citizen concerns about corruption and ratcheting preferences for service delivery may be driving citizen attitudes and behaviors. Voters may thus be responsive to service delivery, but perhaps in ways that are more nuanced than extant theories previously recognized.

© Cambridge University Press 2017 

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Assistant Professor, UC Merced Political Science (email:; graduate student at MIT when article was accepted). Total Professor of Political Science and Contemporary Africa, MIT Political Science (email: Author names are listed alphabetically. Thank you to Michael Bratton, Gary King, Beatriz Magaloni-Kerpel and Melissa Sands for detailed commentary. We are grateful to Jessica Grody and Blair Read for research assistance; to Afrobarometer, Stats SA (Helene Verhoef) and the IEC (James Aphane) for sharing data; to members of the Harvard Research Workshop on Comparative Politics, OSU Comparative Politics Seminar, the MIT Poverty, Violence and Development working group, Boston-area Working Group on African Political Economy and discussants at numerous conferences for valuable feedback. A supplementary appendix and replication archive are available online. Data replication sets are available in Harvard Dataverse at: and online appendices at


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