Document Type


Date of Degree

Fall 2013

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Political Science

First Advisor

Hesli, Vicki L.

Second Advisor

Mitchell, Sara B.

First Committee Member

Covington, Cary

Second Committee Member

Dion, Douglas

Third Committee Member

Greenough, Paul R.


This dissertation is about major natural disasters, and how they contribute to legitimacy crises of governments. Three major factors explain the emergence of a legitimacy crisis in a post-disaster context: the frequency of disaster occurrence, the quality of the government response to disasters, and the type of regime within which the government operates. Employing a large-N statistical analysis of data on major natural disasters and anti-government domestic political activities for the years between 1990 and 2010, I show that higher counts of disasters, as a rule, increase the risks of anti-government demonstrations, revolutions, riots, guerrilla warfare, and intrastate conflict. The disaster-political opposition relationship is conditional upon the characteristics of political regimes. No regime is entirely free from the political dangers of disasters. Consolidated autocracies and well established democracies are less likely than mixed regimes to observe political crises in the context of a higher frequency of natural disasters.

To evaluate the quality of government response and how it mediates the disaster-legitimacy relationship, I conduct a qualitative analysis of news reports on four major disaster events in South Asia - cyclone Sidr of 2007 and cyclone Aila of 2009 in Bangladesh and cyclone Aila and the Kashmir earthquake of 2005 in India. The case studies reveal that poor preparedness and inadequate immediate and long-term response of a government invite public criticism of the incumbent, antigovernment protest movements, and anti-incumbent voting in elections. When opposition parties translate this public frustration into broader political mobilization, the moral claim of the incumbent to remain in power diminishes substantially, sometimes causing a legitimacy crisis. As opposed to common expectations, democracy may not provide the best political environment for effective disaster response. The quality of government response is influenced rather by a regime's security concerns, the level of administrative efficacy and corruption, the military's role in the disaster response process, socio-economic conditions of the affected people, and leadership competition over the disaster management process.

This study has broader implications for understanding the kinds of political strains that disasters create in a society and how governments function in Bangladesh and India. Much of these governments' energy is devoted to managing disasters, which diminishes their capacity to govern. Political elites in Bangladesh and India use disaster events as opportunities to strengthen clientelism and exclude political opposition in the affected areas


Bangladesh, Disaster, Government Response, India, Legitimacy, Political Crisis


xv, 403 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 360-403).


Copyright © Jan 1 2013 Zahid Choudhury