This post is based on a recent publication, “How political trust matters in emergent democracies: evidence from East and Southeast Asia,” available at the Journal of Public Policy
How does political trust matter in emergent democracies? Studies suggest that political trust may potentially buffer against public pressures for performance. For emergent democracies that are under pressure to perform on the competing fronts of policy and political performance, the promise of political trust providing policy or political leeway is useful to help with prioritization of the tasks of nation-building. In particular, studies show governments in emergent democracies to be under considerable pressure to deliver on policy performance to broaden support for political survival; meanwhile, the nascent institutions in these democracies need further development to regularize facilities and capacities that will deliver political goods and inspire stalwart “democrats” to uphold democratic processes in the face of poor policy performance.
Unfortunately, limited empirical evidence exists for whether political trust provides such a leeway, and even fewer studies examine the possibility in emergent democracies. This neglect reflects that much of the literature has built around mature democracies, where the trade-off for policy performance versus political performance is unlikely to upend long-standing democratic practices and institutions.
This paper addresses that critical question: it considers if political trust provides political or policy leeway or both in emergent democracies, through assessments of how political trust displaces economic performance in explaining incumbent-approval or system-support. We use economic performance to take into account findings from economic voting studies that consistently show economic achievements to be integral to support for the government or the political system; consequently, if results show that political trust displaces economic performance in explaining public support for the government or the democratizing system, then they are strongly indicative of how political trust directed at incumbent-approval or system-support may provide leeway against public demands for economic performance. If political trust does not provide the political or policy leeway as suggested, then the government and the political system remain hostage to policy performance; if, however, political trust displaces policy-performance, it follows that voters may remain committed to the incumbent or political system or both despite poor policy performance.
The data are drawn from Asian Barometer Survey for the East and Southeast Asia countries of South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand, i.e., three presidential, one semi-presidential, and one (previously) parliamentary systems. The countries for East and Southeast Asia are interesting for examination: they vary in terms of democratic age and economic levels and, importantly, were countries with high economic achievements. More so than other countries, then, the public in the East and Southeast Asian countries may be inclined towards economic performance over political ones; consequently, if the results indicate that political trust displaces the economic performance in these countries to explain support, the results are likely to be highly generalizable.
Three results from successive waves of survey from the Asian Barometer are informative. First, they show that where political trust is statistically significant in explaining democratic support, economic performance is not relevant. That is, the results show where political trust is directed at system-support, it displaces economic performance to buffer political systems from the pressures of economic performance. Second, for incumbent-approval, both political trust and economic performance are relevant explanators; thus, political trust does not displace economic performance to explain incumbent-approval. Third, in conjunction, the results clarify that an economic focus in the respective countries may keep a government in office but political trust undergirds the political system. This emphasizes the priority of building political trust to deepen peace and stability in the region.
These results are particularly relevant for expanding study and understanding of the political trust literature to issues of democratic progression and consolidation that are unique to emergent democracies. By these results, recent events in the emergent democracies of East and Southeast Asia – where governments have prioritized growth over institution-building – are cause for concern. In particular, the results show that the pursuing growth in place of institution-building undermines long-term political peace and social stability. Thus, even for governments with primary interests in office-tenure, the results highlight an overlooked consideration: the long-term benefits of institution-building that helps build political trust in the emergent democracies.
 These arguments of the effects of political trust align with Easton (1975)’s framing of specific and diffuse support. See Easton, D. 1975. “A Re-assessment of the Concept of Political Support.” British Journal of Political Science no. 5 (4):435-457. doi: 10.1017/S0007123400008309.