The Incumbency Curse: Weak Parties, Term Limits, and Unfulfilled Accountability
by Marko Klasnja, Georgetown University & Rocío Titiunik, University of Michigan
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.