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date: 21 October 2018

Natural Hazards and Voting Behavior

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Natural Hazard Science. Please check back later for the full article.

Natural hazards have repercussions that reverberate to the political level. Their adverse socioeconomic impacts could undermine political support from key fractions in society. In democracies, voters can punish governments that do not do their utmost to ease the adverse impacts of natural hazards, which is why government responsiveness in the wake of disasters appears stronger in more pluralistic political systems.

State-of-the-art research into the political implications of natural hazards overwhelmingly suggests that voters behave retrospectively and electorally punish governments for inadequate disaster management. Natural hazards will often initially be a liability for governments due to blind voting retrospection where voters punish the incumbent government at the ballot box for any adverse impacts they encounter, regardless of whether the government is to blame or not. However, natural hazards can also be turned into an electoral advantage if dealt with appropriately due to mediated voting retrospection where voters evaluate the incumbent government based on its disaster management policies. Risk-averse governments, aware of this voting behavior, have been found to pursue proactive disaster policies, especially in highly competitive Western democracies and close to elections.

Empirical evidence that encompasses more diverse political configurations from around the world points to some caveats. Most importantly, it appears that voters are not always capable of mounting political pressure in the wake of natural hazards. Different political dynamics might be at play under diverse political regimes—the most obvious one being limited electoral pressure in more authoritarian settings. But even in situations where voters can mount a strong political pressure, it does not necessarily follow that the government will pursue effective disaster management policies. A humanitarian disaster is not necessarily a political disaster. Much depends on the symbols, images, and narratives that emerge in the wake of the natural hazard rather than its actual physical impact. The channels of impact from natural hazards on voting behavior, therefore, should also be understood as complex, indirect, and nonlinear rather than just causal, linear, and direct. Context-specific research based on narrative retrospection where voting behavior is formed by the dominant political narrative that emerges from the natural hazard appears to be a beneficial supplementary approach. More than their immediate impact, major natural hazards contain important symbolic and mythological power that could end up shaping political landscapes for years to come.