The Rise of Virtual Elections

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Distinguished Fellow for Democracy Studies

With the exception of China and a few other leftover Marxist dictatorships, nearly all countries today permit multiparty elections for national office.

In most countries, these elections are largely “free and fair,” meaning the playing field is reasonably level, there is an honest tabulation of the ballots, vote buying and ballot stuffing do not affect the outcome, and independent election observers are allowed to monitor the proceedings. Freedom in the World places the number of electoral democracies at 122, over 60 percent of the world’s sovereign states. By historical standards, this is an impressive figure. Still, there are 73 countries that do not qualify as electoral democracies. In all but a few of these settings, elections are indeed held, but they are either badly flawed or patently fraudulent.

Is it a step forward that elections are conducted at all in countries like Russia, Azerbaijan, or Iran? During the Cold War, most authoritarian governments either held symbolic votes for the single legal party or dispensed with the ballot altogether, declaring their leaders to be president for life. In societies where the military took power on the pretext of ensuring order or national salvation, elections were often suspended amid indefinite states of emergency.

At a certain point, however, the strongmen, juntas, and revolutionary councils of that era decided that reasonably fair elections could no longer be avoided. Sometimes a ruling group understood that its actions would likely lead to an opposition victory. But usually, the incumbent leaders—and often foreign journalists and diplomats as well—presumed that voters in repressive settings preferred stability to uncertainty and would thus opt for the reassuring faces of authority.

These calculations proved wildly misplaced. Opposition parties swept to victory in country after country—in Uruguay, Argentina, Nicaragua, South Korea, the Philippines, Poland. The word “stunning” made a frequent appearance in news accounts, as in the stunning rejection of the Communist Party in Poland, or the stunning setback suffered by Chile’s General Pinochet in a referendum on the continuation of his dictatorship. Or, perhaps most astonishing, the stunning defeat of Communist Party stalwarts in a number of Soviet cities in local elections that took place in 1990.

Elections became a key force behind the wave of democratization that engulfed much of the world during the 1980s. Today, the obligation to hold some form of multiparty balloting is felt by nearly all governments, much like the obligation to declare a commitment to the rule of law.

Yet just as modern authoritarians bend the law to suit their goals in practice, so have they mastered the techniques of control over the electoral process. The methods are occasionally ham-handed throwbacks, as with the blatant cases of ballot stuffing during the Russian parliamentary elections in 2011. But authoritarians have adapted in many ways to the age of the internet and the expectations of a better-informed public. In the most sophisticated authoritarian states, professional political operatives—in Russia they’re called “political technologists”—work just as hard as their counterparts in the United States. Their goal, however, is not to defeat opposition candidates in a competitive setting, but rather to organize a system that creates the illusion of competition while squelching it in reality.

Here are a few keys to the system:

  1. Near-total control of mainstream media: Vladimir Putin wrote the playbook for modern media domination. First he engineered control of national television channels through state seizures or buyouts by cronies. Important newspapers were taken over. More recently, government-friendly businessmen have tightened their grip on online news outlets, and the parliament has passed a series of laws restricting internet freedom, with more of the same to come. Other countries, including in Latin America, have followed the Russian pattern. Crucially, the co-opted media typically maintain a slick commercial appearance while carefully manipulating news content.
  2. Intimidating the opposition: Opposition leaders are only occasionally the targets of assassination. But they can face a variety of other cruel fates. Mikhail Khodorkovsky was dispatched to a Russian prison for 10 years for daring to challenge Putin. In Malaysia, Anwar Ibrahim has twice been prosecuted for sodomy. Less prominent figures, such as human rights activists and bloggers, are also subject to harassment and persecution. They are frequently jailed on trumped-up charges of defamation, tax fraud, or drug trafficking, among others.
  3. Marginalizing the opposition: Authoritarian leaders increasingly use their media power to paint critics as knaves or buffoons. Especially through television coverage, opposition figures are presented as clownish, effeminate, shady, elitist, or enslaved by foreign interests. The message is pounded home day after day, until the image of the opposition as small and unfit to rule is fixed in the public’s mind.
  4. Tolerating the pseudo-opposition: Having jailed, exiled, or silenced potentially competitive opposition figures, authoritarians tolerate nominal opposition parties that are effectively controlled by the regime. These groups have accepted the supremacy of the incumbent leadership and settled into their roles in a stage-managed democracy.
  5. Criminalizing protest: The crippling of formal opposition parties has led many voters to channel their dissent into loosely organized civic activism, often relying on protests to mobilize support and reach the broader public despite state control of the media. Authoritarian governments have responded by turning again to the use of criminal prosecution, among other tactics. Harsher laws have enabled officials to jail protest leaders and even ordinary participants for vaguely defined offenses like disturbing public order. This discourages others from joining the movements and prevents them from growing into organized political forces.

The goal then is to carry out the ritual of democratic elections without the real stuff of democracy—and to impress upon potential opponents that politics is a dangerous business, that those who challenge the ruling elites can be imprisoned, forced to flee, publicly humiliated, or reduced to a pauper’s status.

A Brazilian ruler of the mid-20th century is believed to have coined the phrase “for my friends, anything; for my enemies, the law.” The institutions and methods devised by modern authoritarians are meant to take this crude governing philosophy—especially the latter component—and make it relevant to 21st-century conditions. It is an insidious phenomenon, and until we recognize it as such, we will have little success in stemming the erosion of democratic standards that is affecting a disturbing number of societies around the world.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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