Kerala Assembly Elections | How the Left Front bucked a decades-old trend in Kerala
Welfare measures, the Pinarayi factor and good governance helped the LDF overcome allegations of corruption
For almost four decades, power in Kerala has alternated between the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF). If this practice had continued, the UDF should have been voted to power in the just-concluded elections. But the voters gave a clear mandate for a second term to the LDF. For the LDF this was a key success in the wider context of national politics in general and the future of the Left parties in particular. For the UDF, this election has given it a second term in the Opposition and has proven to be a setback for the Congress, which was hoping to find a pathway for national recovery. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led was hoping to emerge as an important third force, but it was left without a representative in the newly elected Assembly.
The LDF won a decisive mandate, clinching 99 seats and surpassing its tally in the previous House. It also saw an increase in its vote share compared to five years ago. The UDF won only 41 seats (a decline of six seats) but managed to retain more or less the same vote share that it had secured in the last Assembly elections (Table 1). The BJP-led alliance lost the one seat it had and only saw a marginal increase in its vote share. While the BJP’s vote share rose marginally, the vote share of its alliance partner, the Bharath Dharma Jana Sena, fell by 2.8%.
A second chance
In the Lokniti-CSDS post-poll survey, when asked whether the LDF should get another term, 51% of the respondents categorically stated that it should, 27% were of the view that it should not, and 22% did not respond to the question. Five years ago, the Lokniti-CSDS post-poll survey showed that 49% did not favour a second term for the incumbent UDF government and only 42% supported a second term for the sitting UDF.
The post-poll data clearly indicate that the second term for the LDF was a by-product of the public perception that the Chief Minister and the government had done a reasonably good job. Three-fourths of the respondents (73%) expressed satisfaction with the work done by the government. This was much higher than the satisfaction levels with the UDF government five years ago (59%). The net satisfaction (those fully satisfied minus those fully dissatisfied) with the LDF government was 23% as opposed to -6% in the case of the UDF government in 2016 (Table 2).
In a separate question, voters were asked to compare the present LDF government with the previous UDF government. Close to half the respondents (45%) rated the LDF government better, whereas only three of every 10 respondents (28%) rated the UDF government as better. Two of every 10 felt that both were equally good or bad (Table 3).
The data further reveal that the respondents rated the LDF government high on most parameters (Table 4).
In his five-year tenure, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had to face two floods as well as the Nipah outbreak and the COVID-19 pandemic. The welfare schemes launched by his government to give relief to the people during the national lockdown also appeared to bring the ruling alliance closer to the people. All but 6% of the respondents claimed to have benefited from the free food kits distributed by the government.
Due to his government’s work, Mr. Vijayan remained extremely popular and he was the preferred chief ministerial choice for 36% of the respondents. Former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy secured a distant second place with the support of 18%. No other leader in the State was able to secure even 5% of the total support for the chief ministerial candidate. State Health Minister K.K. Shailaja was placed third, with 3% supporting her. The Opposition leader, Ramesh Chennithala, was the choice for 3% of the respondents. The BJP’s move of roping in E. Sreedharan, the ‘Metro man’, did not work well; he was a choice for only 2% of the voters.
The Opposition parties had mounted an attack on the CPI(M)-led Left government for the various scams that had taken place during its time in power. However, there is little evidence of any negative impact of these scams on voting preferences. People’s awareness about these scams seemed to be low. Given the literacy rates in Kerala and the high level of public awareness in general, the fact that a huge proportion of voters had either not heard of the scams or did not know whether the accusations were correct or not (41%-51%) is indicative of the limited impact of these accusations (Table 5). The data show that the Left was the preferred vote choice for many of these voters as well. The scams failed to negatively impact the LDF and the people focused more on welfare schemes such as free food kits and other measures. Corruption and scams was an election issue for a mere 2% of the voters.
Party or candidate?
Given the traditional rivalry between the LDF and UDF and the entry of the BJP as a third force, it was interesting to observe whether the party or candidate was more critical in defining electoral choice. Six of every 10 respondents (61%) said that they voted on the basis of party, while three in every 10 (29%) said they voted on the basis of the candidate.
Mr. Vijayan was seen asking people to vote for the Left in the name of development. When people were asked what was the main voting issue in these elections, development emerged as the biggest issue. Development was also the biggest issue in 2016, with a much larger proportion of voters saying it was a issue for them back then (17%). Though the BJP tried hard, it failed to capitalise on the Sabarimala issue; this was a crucial factor for a mere 1% of the people. Surprisingly, close to seven of every 10 voters did not respond to the question on what constituted the biggest issue for them.
The Left also had an edge among first-time voters and the poor. In fact, the biggest issue reported by the first-time voters was not development but the government’s performance in the State. On the caste front, though the LDF lost some of its Nair votes (as compared to 2016), possibly due to how the government handled the Sabarimala issue, it gained votes in the Ezhava community (53% of their vote). The election saw an increase in support for the LDF among both Muslims and Christians.
In terms of reaching out to people during the election campaign, the data show that six in every 10 voters reported being approached by all the three alliances, which is a clear testimony that all the parties were making sure that no stone was left unturned in terms of campaigning and visibility. However, among those who were approached by all the three alliances, the LDF clearly had an advantage as 44% voted for the party, 37% voted for the UDF and 16% for the National Democratic Alliance.
The LDF’s victory is a strong endorsement of the performance of its government and leadership. The UDF was not able to present a chief ministerial face and the BJP failed to move beyond the margins in what continues to be an intense two alliance competition.
K.M. Sajad Ibrahim is Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Kerala; R. Girish Kumar is Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Kerala; Vibha Attri is Research Associate, Lokniti-CSDS; and Sandeep Shastri is Vice Chancellor, Jagran Lakecity University Bhopal and the National Co-ordinator of the Lokniti network