Kerala 2021: Will LDF break the state’s anti-incumbency cycle?

Note: The original version of the article was published on March 10th in “The Daily Guardian”

Photo by Creative Commons

With the announcement of election dates in West Bengal, Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Puducherry, national and state parties across the country have begun campaigning extensively. The Assembly Election in Kerala scheduled to be held on April 6, is going to be a two-pronged contest between the incumbent Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) and Indian National Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF). Traditionally, while the state has never had the same government re-elected to power for two terms, it would seem that the incumbent LDF has an edge as the elections inch closer. While the state continues to deal with the Coronavirus pandemic, both the incumbent government and Chief Minister continue to enjoy high approval ratings. However, news of the gold smuggling scandal, the backdoor appointments in government departments and various religious issues, such as the Sabarimala issue and the issue of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church are likely to affect both the alliances’ chances of victory.

Out of the 5 poll-bound states/UTs, Kerala is the only state where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which had only managed to secure one seat in the 2016 Assembly election, is likely not to make an impact this year as well. However, the BJP, much like it did in West Bengal in 2016, is not contesting in Kerala to win, but rather to prepare their cadre base and on-ground machinery with their eye on the 2026 Assembly elections.

A Tale of 2 Alliances: LDF vs UDF

Since 1980 (from the First E. K. Nayanar ministry) the two alliances (UDF and LDF) have been alternatively voted to power in the state. Unlike other states in the country where alliances between parties shift with every election, alliances in Kerala have stabilized in a strong manner, and apart from rare exceptions, most coalition partners maintain loyalty with their alliance partners. Since 1979, power in the state has constantly alternated between the two parties, with neither government being able to gain re-election for a second term.

In 2016, the LDF won the elections with Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, bagging 91 of the 140 seats in the state legislature and a vote share of 43.48%. The incumbent UDF, led by the Indian National Congress had only managed to secure 47 seats with a vote share of 38.81% in the state. The BJP, which had been surging in other parts of the country, only managed to secure 1 seat, while it still managed to secure 14.96% of the vote share. An independent candidate, P.C. George from Poonjar assembly constituency, who later formed the party Kerala Janapaksham (Secular) also won a seat.

During local body elections held in the state last year, the LDF won in more than half of all gram panchayats, two thirds of district panchayats and in four out of six municipal corporations. As per opinion polls and local body polls held in the state last year, it seems to be that the 2021 Assembly Elections might be the first time in the history of the state that a government will win re-election for the first time in the state. However, in light of the events of the gold smuggling scandal, the allegations of the backdoor appointments made by the LDF government, and the overall impact of the handling of the Coronavirus pandemic, this could perhaps change.

LDF-led Kerala Again: Opinion Polls

With less than a month to go to the Assembly Elections in the state, various opinion polls have predicted a victory for the CPI(M) led LDF government. As per the ABP News-CVoter opinion poll, the LDF is slated to win between 83–91 seats, with a vote share of about 40%. Meanwhile, the poll also states that the INC led UDF is likely to win 47–55 seats, while the BJP, which won 1 seat in the last Assembly Elections is again likely to win 0–2 seats. Similarly, as per the Times Now-C-Voter Poll Survey, the LDF is likely to win 82 seats, while the UDF is likely to grab 56 seats, and the BJP is likely to win just one seat again.

Two major television news channels from the states- Asianet News and 24 News- have both predicted an LDF victory as well. The Kerala Legislative Assembly has 140 seats and 71 seats are needed to secure a simple majority in the state legislature. While Asianet News has given the LDF between 72–78 seats, 24 News predicts around 68–72 seats for the LDF. However, it is important to note that both these channels are considered pro-left in varying degrees.

Although traditionally, the state of Kerala has had high anti-incumbency and has almost always alternated between an LDF and UDF led government, the current LDF government is enjoying significantly high approval ratings. As per the Times Now-C-Voter Poll Survey, 42.34% of people are very much satisfied with the performance of the incumbent Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. 36.36% of respondents also said that they are very much satisfied with the performance of the state government, while an additional 39.66% said they are satisfied to some extent with the state government’s performance.

Similarly, another survey conducted by the MCV Network & Spick Media Group shows that 39.13% of respondents are very satisfied with the work of the Chief Minister, while an additional 39.13% are satisfied with his work. As per the same survey, 41.54% of respondents said they would prefer to see Pinarayi Vijayan as Chief Minister again.

From Gold Smuggling to Sabarimala: Issues affecting electoral behaviour in Kerala

As the elections inch closer, there are several issues from the past months, which are likely to affect the electoral dynamics in the state. As the state continues to battle the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic, several experts and analysts have criticized the LDF government’s handling of the crisis, where case counts have been rising and testing rates have been lower compared to other parts of the country.

The gold smuggling scandal and the allegations of backdoor appointments by the LDF have both been covered extensively in the media and projected as evidence of the corruption in the LDF led government. In July 2020, 30 kilograms of gold worth Rs 14.82 crores was caught being smuggled in a consignment camouflaged as diplomatic baggage, leading to widespread protests across the state demanding the resignation of key leaders. As per the survey conducted by the MCV Network & Spick Media Group, 53.65% of respondents believe the allegations made against the state government in this case. In addition to this, the opposition has also alleged that the maximum number of illegal and backdoor appointments are in the IT department which is handled by the Chief Minister himself. The state government has also been under attack over the protest of Public Service Commission rank holders in Thiruvananthapuram.

In addition to this, religious and communal issues, including the entry of women into the Sabarimala temple and the power tussle of the Orthodox and Jacobite factions of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church could also impact the electoral fate of the state. 42.33% of respondents said that the issue of the Sabarimala is likely to have an impact on the upcoming elections. Even in the recent local body elections held in the state, Christians, who have traditionally been Congress voters shifted their allegiance towards the LDF. This is being attributed to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s efforts to develop a relationship with some prominent church heads. Along with the shifting of Jose K Mani’s Kerala Congress (M) faction, which enjoys considerable Christian support in central Kerala, to the LDF.

While a myriad of issues and controversies surround the incumbent LDF government, opinion polls, local body results and approval ratings do suggest that for the first time in the history of the state, a government is likely to be re-elected into power for the second consecutive time.

-Shesh Narain Singh & Shreya Maskara /New Delhi

Contributing Reports by Damini Mehta, Ishita Sehgal and Raunaq Sharma

From Polstrat, a non-partisan political consultancy which aims to shift the narrative of political discourse in the country from a problem-centric to a solutions-oriented approach.

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Polstrat is a political consultancy aiming to shift the narrative of political discourse in the country from a problem-centric to a solutions-oriented approach.