Kristen Kao

About Me




Postdoctoral Research Fellow, The Program on Governance and Local Development at the University of Gothenburg

A surprisingly large proportion of the world's dictators today hold elections, so much so that scholars have coined the term "electoral authoritarianism" to identify this oxymoronic phenomenon. Yet, the role these elections play in shaping authoritarian politics for the regime and its citizenry alike is undertheorized. Do the specific types of institutions that govern elections under authoritarianism matter? In democracies we see sustained relationships between voters and their elected representatives. Do elections shape enduring citizen-state linkages under authoritarianism or are they simply isolated events of state-society interaction? Moreover, how do electoral institutions under authoritarianism interact with salient ethnic cleavages and local political landscapes at the sub-national level? I argue that the way in which electoral institutions are structured have meaningful consequences for citizens living under authoritarianism much as they do for those living in democracies – a fact that is almost completely overlooked in the literature. Taking electoral institutions under authoritarianism seriously, my dissertation analyzes the effects of variations in electoral rules on voter behavior, parliamentarian clientelistic service provision, and ethnically-based citizen-state linkages. (To read my dissertation, click here.)

After having received my PhD in Political Science at UCLA in 2015, I moved to Sweden to take a position as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the Program on Governance and Local Development (GLD) at the University of Gothenburg. My dissertation research employs a mixed method approach and a novel dataset to explore how autocrats utilize elections to maintain ethnically splintered political support through redistribution. I analyze the full parliamentary election results of Jordan from 1989-2013, leveraging historical shifts between three different types of electoral institutions to examine their effect on the formation of successful voter coalitions. Constituent service casework logs of parliamentarians containing thousands of requests they make on behalf of their constituents to the regime and over 150 interviews collected during fieldwork in Jordan provide evidence that multimember districts are engender tribal voting and ethnic favoritism in parliamentary provision of state goods and services in contrast to single member districts where parliamentarians cobbled together more ethnically diverse support coalitions and tribalism does not explain their service provision patterns.

A nationwide survey in Jordan (N~1,500) I ran in April of 2014 in collaboration with the Governance and Local Development (GLD) Program at Yale University and Professor Ellen Lust (University of Gothenburg) and Lindsay Benstead (Portland State University) bolsters these findings demonstrating that among participants registered in multimember districts, those who have had a tribal Member of Parliament in the past are more likely to participate in elections than those who have not, whereas a tribal connection does not determine turnout in single-member districts. This research highlights the importance of political analysis at the sub-national level and debunks the myth that political organization around primordial identities in elections is inevitable in the developing world. My data demonstrates that electoral institutions play a meaningful role in shaping entrenched inequalities in access to government services and life opportunities for the citizens living under the rule of dictators.

My broader research agenda includes understanding how electoral authoritarianism works, service provision in the developing world, ethnic politics and clientelism, formal vs. informal/tribal authority structures, Middle Eastern politics, and survey methods. This research has received over $150,000 worth of funding from the National Science Foundation, the American Political Science Association, the Social Science Research Council, the American Center of Oriental Research, the National Security Education Program, the Institute of International Education, and the Project on Middle East Political Science, among others. At times, I also apply my country expertise in Jordan and Kuwait as well as training in survey methodology and statistics to work with consulting groups.

In March and April of 2016, the GLD program at Gothenburg implemented a face-to-face, tablet-based survey in Malawi, where I spent three weeks in the field managing an in-depth regional study alongside the household survey of approximately 8,000 Malawians. This survey includes the Local Governance Performance Index (LGPI) aimed at creating a metric for investigating the causes of sub-national variation in government service provision and interactions between governance and social institutions at the local level. Within this survey we also embedded a number of experiments that seek to understand sources of legitimacy for various types of leaders, different aspects of vote buying and clientelism, drivers of voter preferences, and gender dynamics as well as the effects of matrilineal versus patrilineal tribal structures on political outcomes. Please see my Research Page for more information on my upcoming research endeavors.

Skills

  • Hands-on experience executing nationwide public opinion polls in Jordan and Malawi requiring the development of following skills: survey design and analysis, project management, collaboration with international actors, communication between funders and survey providers.
  • Skilled in Stata, html, and C# programming languages, with some knowledge of R.
  • Extensive training in qualitative and quantitative research methods.
  • In-depth knowledge of tribal dynamics, local politics, and elections under authoritarianism gleaned from over 150 interviews and election monitoring in Jordan (2013) and Kuwait (2012 and 2013).
  • Native English speaker; advanced written and spoken formal and Levantine Arabic; intermediate knowledge of French; beginner's knowledge of Swedish.
  • Intimate understanding of the culture and worldview of Near Eastern and North African societies gained from years of residency in multiple countries throughout this region.