good politicans pakistan politics

Getting good politicians into politics


Published 11.04.24

Emphasising the ability to support and assist one’s community through elected office encouraged ordinary citizens to run for office in Pakistan which improved subsequent policy outcomes

“Bad” politicians have paraded across the historical arc of democracy. Indeed, the act of simply running for elected office is regularly associated with self-interest. In 2022, Gallup Pakistan conducted a nationally representative survey wherein 81% of respondents agreed with the statement that “people enter politics to gain influence and status.” Such perceptions can determine who decides to enter politics, perhaps leading to a preponderance of “bad” politicians, who imbue governance with Machiavellian policy, fealty to pecuniary rewards or scorn for their constituency.

The field study investigating the encouragement of “good” politicians

In our research (Gulzar and Khan 2024), we conducted a field study in Pakistan that provides the promise of fruitful engagement with potential political candidates, curbing the tireless cycle of public mistrust and less-than-ideal self-selection for civic office. Rather than examining how incentivising currently elected politicians may improve democracy, we ask if portraying political office as enabling prosocial behavior can, instead, encourage “good” politicians to emerge into the political class. Although the behaviour that defines a politician as “good” is itself a huge debate, for us “good” politicians institute policy more aligned with the preferences of their citizens.

The 2015 local government reform in Pakistan provides a fertile testing ground. Bereft of a formal role for political parties and an influential donor class, political entry decisions at the local level provide evidence on how to broaden the composition and performance of the political class, potentially nurturing “good” politicians at the outset of a civic career.

Seeking political office for personal gain or community welfare?

We randomly sample 9,310 citizens across 192 villages and encourage them to consider running for new village councils. In our conversations with them we vary how political office is portrayed.

In “personal villages” the selected citizens are encouraged to run for status-quo motivations of personal benefits via public office, such as enhanced status, respect, and influence. This may be recognised as boilerplate persuasion to launch a political career across a range of contexts. In contrast to these personal returns, the ability to support and assist one’s community through elected office is emphasised in “social villages.”  By comparing the two arms, the effect of approaching and conversing with people is held fixed, offering insight into how social versus status quo personal perceptions of office influence people’s decisions to enter politics as candidates, how voters choose to elect them, and whether changes occur to the alignment of policy with voter preferences.

Findings reveal that political cynicism need not remain a default setting

Would people be open to a portrayal of political office that diverges significantly from the status quo so starkly displayed in the Gallup poll response above? In villages where politics is portrayed as enabling community-minded policy, relative to those receiving a portrayal of personal benefits, people in the experimental sample are 1.8 percentage points more likely to run for office. This is about an 86% increase in their status quo rates of seeking office – remember that only a small portion of people run for office.

This result demonstrates that how politics is perceived among ordinary citizens influences who steps up to candidacy.

The next crucible encountered by fledgling candidates is a question of electability. Will voters insist on electing “good” politicians who prioritise their interests, as suggested above, or will they persist in supporting status quo candidates, possibly favouring more conventional or established options? Once again, we find that the chance someone is elected to political office increases with prosocial versus personal encouragements. This result suggests that prosocially encouraged candidates are indeed electable while at the same time voters may not possess the ability to put them into office in the status quo because they are unlikely to step forward as candidates.

Alignment of policy outcomes with citizen preference

Electability is important, an encouraging first step. It does not, however, ensure good governance; it remains unclear if well-intentioned politicians can make a difference on their own once they’re in office. Our research next examines if social encouragement also improves the alignment of policy outcomes with citizens’ preferences.

We measure citizen preferences for budgetary spending – a key decision made by these local politicians – as well as the actual allocation of the budget a year after elections. By benchmarking real policy decisions made by elected politicians against citizens’ preferences, we can investigate if social versus personal messaging aligns or widens the gap between policy adoption and community demand.

Again, we find that in villages where people are encouraged to run to lift up their community instead of themselves, official budgetary spending is significantly more aligned with citizen preferences. These results serve up persuasive evidence that social versus personal encouragement yields “good” politicians to office and buoys citizen satisfaction with policy choices while fostering a more positive view of the political landscape and the state.

How public perceptions shapes political entry

The setting in which encouragement reaches potential officeholders plays an important role in candidacy decisions. Each of the 72 social and 72 personal villages are further randomised to receive one of three encouragement environments: only in private one-on-one meetings, only in public village meetings, or in both private and public meetings.

Social versus personal encouragement in a public setting alters the landscape across the board, increasing candidacy, election, and policy alignment. In contrast, encouragements only in private meetings produce no discernable changes in candidacy decisions. These results demonstrate that how people regard politics and one’s reasons for candidacy may powerfully shape who decides to run for office.

How prosocial political entry improves policy

What were the channels of change for policy alignment? We answer this question by measuring what new candidates did once in office. We show that prosocial encouragements increased the likelihood that ordinary people got elected to positions of power and influence – they were more likely to be formal leaders on the council or be appointed to village committees that form key policies for the council. In addition, these people were also more likely to proactively propose projects that were eventually formally adopted by the entire council. Together, these results suggest that prosocial encouragements brought political candidates to office who were more effective at converting citizens preferences into policy outcomes.

A scaffolding to support the recruitment of “good” politicians

To our knowledge, this is the first field experiment that mobilises politicians and examines subsequent policy responsiveness, while adding to the understudied examination of prosocial motivation in service of political recruitment. Broadly speaking, and contrary to the folk theory that people are primarily selfish, this examination adds to a large body of literature arguing that intrinsic motivations such as prosociality can shape civic and cooperative behavior.

Field experimental evidence demonstrates how messaging on prosocial features of political office can enhance coordination among voters around prosocial candidates, constructing a scaffolding to support a pipeline of “good” politicians ready to ascend the political ladder and affect change directly aligned with community demand. Perceptions of politics as enabling personal gain in the status-quo may be a particularly inhibiting factor in bringing ordinary, “good” politicians, to office.


Gulzar, S, M Y Khan (2024), "Good Politicians: Experimental Evidence on Motivations for Political Candidacy and Government Performance", The Review of Economic Studies