Earthquakes open window to democracy, researcher finds

3 July 2012

Earthquakes might be the shock which democracy needs to get started but they are also rocking the career of Deakin University economics PhD candidate Muhammad Habibur Rahman.

Habib will be one of the 250 speakers at the 2012 Econometric Society Australasian in Melbourne this week (3 to 6 July) at which Nobel Prize winner for economics, Professor Dale Mortensen, will be a keynote speaker.

“I'm very excited to present one of my research findings on explaining the consequences of earthquakes on political transitions at a conference where a Nobel Laureate is participating,” Habib said.

“Indeed, it's a dream come true!”

Habib’s paper looks at whether earthquakes provide an opportunity for a democratic government to come to power or whether they enable autocrats to seize power instead.

“History has numerous examples where cities have been destroyed due to earthquakes, not only reshaping geographical settings but also realigning political powers of countries,” Habib said.

“Many ancient cities including Herculaneum and Pompeii in Italy, Sodom and Gomorrah in today’s Jordan, Bura and Helice in Greece, Lima in Peru, Copiapo in Chili were destroyed by earthquakes that in turn changed the political balances of that period.

“In more recent times earthquakes have occurred in China in 1976, Peru in 1970, Armenia in 1988, Turkey in 1999, Iran in 1990, Japan in 1995, America in 1989, Mexico in 1985, Indonesia in 2004, Haiti in 2010 and again Japan in 2011.”

“In fact between 1950 and 2009, the earth quaked catastrophically around 570 times not only killing more than two million people but affecting more than three hundred million.”

Habib said the drastic changes in economic conditions triggered by earthquakes, such as altered income levels, investment, and the distribution of resources in the rehabilitation and recovery process, had an impact on the tenure or the overall fate of the governing authority.

“In Guatemala the autocratic government failed to conduct emergency response and recovery activities right after the earthquake in 1976,” he said.

“This lack of response led to a process of democratisation through a change in the leadership of the government.

“More recently, the Haiti earthquake in 2010 left no option for the voters but to change the political regime by electing a pop-star, Michel Martelly, as the President to speed up rehabilitation and reconstruction activities.

“Similarly, the earthquake and tsunami in the northeast of Japan in 2011 resulted in the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant crisis as a collateral disaster, which necessitated the incumbent government to step down.”

Habib’s research looked at the effects of earthquakes in 188 countries over 1950 to 2007.

“We found that earthquake shocks open a new democratic window of opportunity, but this window is narrowed by improved economic conditions,” Habib said.

“On the one hand, earthquakes drive transitions into democracy possibly because it compels voters to channel their wrath at the incumbent government by condemning them for the failure to prepare effectively in the pre-disaster phase.

“On the other hand, earthquakes indirectly accelerate transitions into autocracy possibly because there are more employment opportunities created due to post-disaster reconstruction and rehabilitation activities boosting economic conditions of citizens.

“This increase in prosperity means citizens have a decreasing level of motivation to contest the incumbent government.”

Habib also found that the proportion of people who died in an earthquake also had an effect on democracy.

"The larger the proportion of people to total population of a country die, the better the chance of improving the quality of the democracy being established."

“So for every one thousand deaths in every one million people the quality of democracy in a country improves by around 5 percentage points.”

The impact of earthquakes is more than an academic interest.

Habib has coordinated the process of drafting the National Earthquake Contingency Plan for Bangladesh, which is executed under the Ministry of Food and Disaster Management in the Government of Bangladesh,” he said.

“Also, I have conducted a few pre-disaster loss estimation exercises in South and Southeast Asian countries.

“During this period, I have found that the governments are reluctant to publicly reveal the potential consequences of natural disasters.

“It seemed to me that they were fearful of losing the popularity or votes if their people knew of their state’s vulnerability to disaster.”

News facts
  • Paper looks at whether earthquakes provide an opportunity for a democratic government to come to power or whether they enable autocrats to seize power instead
  • Earthquake shocks open a new democratic window of opportunity, but this window is narrowed by improved economic conditions
  • The proportion of people who die in an earthquake also has an effect on democracy

Media contact

Sandra Kingston
Deakin Media Relations
03 9246 8221/ 0422 005 485

Muhammad Habibur RahmanListen to Habibur Rahman speak about the impact earthquakes have on democracy.
3.4 MB MP3


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3rd July 2012