Research Political Sciences

What Life Is Like Where a Populist Mayor Is in Power

, by Umberto Platini
Debt repayment slows down, costs rise, and qualified personnel is substituted with less educated staff, according to a study in the American Journal of Political Science

Having a populist mayor leads to smaller debt repayments, a larger share of contracts with cost overruns and more voluntary departures of bureaucrats who are then substituted with less educated personnel, according to a study based on Italian data. The paper, co-authored by Bocconi Professor Massimo Morelli, Bocconi post-doc lecturer Luca Bellodi and King's College London Senior Lecturer Matia Vannoni is forthcoming in the American Journal of Political Science.

Infographic by Weiwei Chen
The so-called committed delegate model of political representation is the result of an erosion of voters' trust in politicians. In fact, voters are likely aware that politicians may be captured by powerful interest groups or economic elites and no longer trust them to enact the most appropriate policy. On the contrary, voters tend to reward those politicians who present them with simple (and possibly radical) commitments because they consider those commitments easier to monitor. However, this strategy finds complementarities with the behaviors that are commonly associated with populism, such as anti-elite rhetoric and the denigration of experts and the media. Therefore, the paper defines as populist the parties which are more likely to display those behaviors according to the PopuList Database, a collective effort of researchers to provide a map of populist parties in Europe.

Empirically, the paper analyzes the discontinuities in economic performance and bureaucratic composition between those municipalities in Italy where populists have won (and lost) by a minimal margin. To do so, the authors collected a rich dataset covering more than 20 years of mayoral elections across the country with the relative public procurement and budget data and the variation in their personnel. Some of the economic measures used in the paper are related to the fiscal sustainability of the municipal administration and are related to the accumulation and repayment of liabilities. On the other hand, the authors also collected a very large dataset recording each over-€1,000 public contract stipulated by the municipalities since 2012 and checked all those where the payment exceeded the adjudicated cost. Finally, they gathered information on the bureaucratic staff such as the period of their employment and their level of educational attainment.

The results of the analysis show that there are significant effects on economic performance of electing a populist mayor. Populist mayors do worse at repaying debts accumulated over the years, whereas the share of contracts with cost overruns increases. The effect is even greater for smaller municipalities, where mayors hold significant executive autonomy.

The turnover among public managers also increases, with a larger share of voluntary leaves that are replaced with bureaucrats that are less likely to have a university degree. This signals that populist mayors deteriorate the financial sustainability of municipalities. In an attempt to get rid of bureaucratic resistance, they are also more likely to replace expert public servants with less educated ones.

Luca Bellodi, Massimo Morelli, Mattia Vannoni, "A Costly Commitment: Populism, Economic Performance, and the Quality of Bureaucracy." Forthcoming in American Journal of Political Science. DOI: