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Strategic Re-framing as a Vote Winner: Why Vote-seeking Governments Pursue Unpopular Reforms



Most political science accounts assume that governments in Western democracies avoid unpopular reforms to protect their re-election chances. Nevertheless, governments sometimes embark on electorally risky reforms – even in times when they have no slack in the polls. In this article, it is argued that pursuing unpopular reforms can be a perfectly rational strategy for vote-seeking governments. Based on a simple game theoretical model that compares strategic framing with the classic blame avoidance strategy, it is demonstrated that unpopular policy reforms allow governments to pursue gains of both policy and votes by opting for a highly visible strategy of reframing the substantive reform issue in question. This general argument is illustrated with the substantial 2011 retrenchment of Danish early retirement benefits. This particular welfare state programme was highly popular. Nevertheless, the incumbent Liberal prime minister proposed to abolish it only a few months prior to a national election while his government was trailing significantly in the polls.