Since elections are repetitively organized in democratic systems, politicians are incentivized to think about their electoral prospects. Political science provides ample evidence that incumbents try to distribute public budgets in a way that aims to improve their chances to be re-elected. However, public resources are not unlimited and hence politicians cannot please everyone, therefore a good question is how they decide where to direct the financial flow? Scholars of divided societies and new democracies have observed that, in these contexts, clientelism and ethno-politics appear to go hand in hand and politicians often direct the public funds predominantly towards the ethnic group closest to their own background, because its members are already inclined to cast a ballot along this ethnic link.
Though, prioritizing one’s own social group (or ingroup, if you will) constitutes an apparently unfair and partial strategy. On the one hand, members of the benefiting group may experience an important psychological boost deriving from being treated well. On the other hand, evolutionary psychology suggests that individuals have aversion to political leaders who are believed to act from their own selfish ambition, and thus endanger the interest of the larger group. These two conflicting lines of thinking impose a question: Does shared ethnicity between an individual and a decision-maker constitute a bond strong enough so the individuals tend to become less critical when they evaluate politicians’ pork barrel practices?
In our recent article in Politics, we present results of an original survey experiment in ethnically heterogeneous Slovakia (whose population includes 8.5% Hungarians). Our respondents were randomly presented with one of the scenarios in which the newly designated EU funding scheme included either Slovakia or Hungary as a result of either partial or impartial decision of a Slovak or a Hungarian decision-maker.
When we compared responses of Slovaks and Hungarians in our sample, the results revealed that shared ethnicity makes individuals less critical of the decision-makers who implement pork barrel practices. Hungarians were comparably likely to trust and willing to vote for both Slovak and Hungarian decision-makers even though the decision by the Hungarian politician to direct the funds to Hungary brings them no benefit (because all our respondents resided in Slovakia). This is in stark contrast to Slovaks, whose trust level and willingness to vote drop once the resources are assigned by a Hungarian decision-maker to Hungary. Hence, Hungarians remained positive in their evaluation of ethnically close decision-maker even though his decision brought them no benefit.
However, this applies only to the personal evaluation of the decision-maker. When we asked respondents how much they support such a distribution policy, Slovaks and Hungarians alike were less likely to support biased distribution of public resources. Therefore, individuals may be more favourable in their evaluation of decision-makers with whom they share ethnic origins, but shared ethnicity does not blind their perception of “pork barrel” practices and they are less likely to support such policies.
Miroslav Nemčok, Olivera Komar, Nemanja Batrićević, Michal Tóth & Peter Spáč