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Can political stability hurt economic growth?

Zahid Hussain's picture

Mumbai traffic, India. Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank
The standard definition of political instability is the propensity of a government collapse either because of conflicts or rampant competition between various political parties. Also, the occurrence of a government change increases the likelihood of subsequent changes. Political instability tends to be persistent.
 
Economic growth and political stability are deeply interconnected. On the one hand, the uncertainty associated with an unstable political environment may reduce investment and the pace of economic development. On the other hand, poor economic performance may lead to government collapse and political unrest. However, political stability can be achieved through oppression or through having a political party in place that does not have to compete to be re-elected. In these cases, political stability is a double edged sword. While the peaceful environment that political stability may offer is a desideratum, it could easily become a breeding ground for cronyism with impunity. Such is the dilemma that many countries with a fragile political order have to face.  
 
Political stability is by no means the norm in human history. Democratic regimes, like all political regimes, are fragile. Irrespective of political regimes, if a country does not need to worry about conflicts and radical changes of regimes, the people can concentrate on working, saving, and investing. The recent empirical literature on corruption has identified a long list of variables that correlate significantly with corruption. Among the factors found to reduce corruption are decades-long tradition of democracy and political stability. In today’s world, however, there are many countries that combine one of these two robust determinants of corruption with the opposite of the other: politically stable autocracies or newly formed and unstable democracies.

Some see political stability as a condition that not only precludes any form of change, but also demoralizes the public.  Innovation and ingenuity take a backseat. Many seek change in all sectors of life--politics, business, culture--in order to have a brighter future through better opportunities. Of course change is always risky. Yet it is necessary. Political stability can take the form of complacency and stagnation that does not allow competition.  The principles of competition do not only apply to business. Competition can be applied in everything – political systems, education, business, innovation, even arts. Political stability in this case refers to the lack of real competition for the governing elite. The ‘politically stable’ system enforces stringent barriers to personal freedoms. Similarly, other freedoms such as freedom of press, freedom of religion, access to the internet, and political dissent are also truncated. This breeds abuse of power and corruption.

Vietnam, for example, is controlled entirely by the ruling party. The economy is one of the most volatile in Asia.  What once was thought of being a promising economy has recently been in distress. Vietnam’s macro economy was relatively stable in the 1997-2006 period, with low inflation, a 7 to 9 percent total output expansion annually and a moderate level of trade deficit. But Vietnam could not weather the adverse impact from the 1997-98 Asian financial turmoil, which partly curbed the FDI flow into its economy. Starting in late 2006, both public and private sector firms began to experience structural problems, rising inefficiency, and waste of resources. The daunting problem of inflation recurred, peaking at an annualized 23 percent level for that year.

Nepal's Paradox: When Good is Not Good Enough

Johannes Zutt's picture

Nepal needs to fix its budget process, remove hurdles to infrastructure development and cut down excess liquidiity.



At first glance Nepal’s economic fundamentals appear sound. Economic growth this year is expected to recover to 4.5%, after a lackluster FY13. On the fiscal and external fronts, indicators are well in the green. This year again, Nepal is likely to be the only country in South Asia to post a budget surplus (0.3% of GDP). Continued growth in revenue mobilization and higher grants will more than make up for the increase in government spending. In FY14, public debt is expected to fall below 30% of GDP, and Nepal’s risk of debt distress may fall from a “moderate” rating to “low”.

Unlike other South Asian countries, Nepal has remained largely unscathed by global monetary tightening, reflecting its limited integration into global financial markets as well as its healthy external balances. Nepali analysts often highlight the growing trade deficit as a cause for concern, but remittances (projected at over 30% of GDP) should push the current account to a comfortable surplus position of 2.4% of GDP.

The only apparent dark spot is inflation, which remains stubbornly high. With inflation close to double digits in January (year-over-year), it appears unlikely that the NRB’s target of 8.5% will be reached.

In short, Nepal appears to be doing well.  Many European countries today can only dream of posting similar growth, fiscal or debt numbers. So what is the problem?

Economic growth and elections in Bangladesh

Zahid Hussain's picture

Bangladesh has turned the political business cycle phenomenon upside down.
 
Political business cycles are cycles in macroeconomic variables – output, unemployment, inflation – induced by the electoral cycle. This type of business cycle results primarily from the manipulation of policy tools by incumbent politicians hoping to stimulate the economy just prior to an election and thereby improve their reelection chances. 
 
Expansionary monetary and fiscal policies have politically palatable consequences in the short run. When pursued to excess, these very policies can also have very unpleasant consequences in the longer term in the form of accelerating inflation, decreasing savings, worsening foreign trade balance, and long-term expansion of government's share of the GDP at the expense of private consumption and investment. So immediately after the election, politicians tend to “bite the bullet” and reverse course by raising taxes, cutting spending, slowing the growth of the money supply, and allowing interest rates to rise. As a result, the regular holding of elections tends to produce a boom-and-bust pattern in the economy because of the on-again-off-again pattern of government stimulus and restraint to induce an artificial boom at every election time.
 
Bangladesh’s experience also shows the existence of a political business cycle in GDP growth, albeit with exactly the opposite pattern of boom and bust. GDP growth has consistently declined in each of the last five election years. It happened in 1991, 1996, 2002, 2007 (an election year without election) and 2009 (Figure 1). From the perspective of Western political business cycle theory these growth tendencies appear suicidal for the incumbent. Instead of expanding the economy faster to gain votes, the incumbents appear to be shooting themselves in the foot by allowing the pace of expansion to slow in the election year!
 
Is this another case of the Bangladesh paradox?