How do voters perceive changes to the rules of the game? Evidence from the 2014 Hungarian elections

At the heart of most theories of democratic accountability is the idea that voters retrospectively evaluate politicians and their actions (Downs, 1957Achen, Bartels, 2016Fiorina, 1981Healy, Malhotra, 2013). This sanctioning role of voters is always important, but it plays a distinctive role where democratic incumbents seek to use transitory majorities to alter not only policy but also political institutions in ways that perpetuate their grip on office (Aghion, Alesina, Trebbi, 2004Calvo, Micozzi, 2005Acemoglu, 2003Greif, Kingston, 2011). In most such instances, coalition politics and constitutional rules may impose limits, including a need to bargain with other parties in the legislature (Benoit and Hayden, 2004). Existing scholarship on political information, partisanship, and voter behavior focuses on voters’ evaluations of policy or politicians, holding institutions fixed (Ashworth and Bueno De Mesquita, 2014). However, there are important instances in which formal constitutional rules are themselves at stake. If the incumbent successfully removes counter-majoritarian checks, the constraining effect of constitutional rules matters less and the sanctioning role of voters as a potential restraint on power becomes especially critical (Acemoglu, 2017). To punish politicians’ transgressions of democratic norms voters must be aware of institutional changes, come to view them as illegitimate, and coordinate in their punishment strategy. In this paper we focus on the second of these: when do voters perceive institutional reforms that entrench an incumbent as illegitimate, i.e., as a violation of norms, outside the bounds of acceptable democratic political competition?

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