Chapter 1: Elections
Validating Autocracy through the Ballot
A major difference between modern authoritarian systems and traditional dictatorships lies in the role of elections for parliament and head of state.
Twentieth-century dictatorships often dispensed with elections entirely or conducted them under blatantly fraudulent conditions. In the Soviet bloc, elections were a pointless ritual in which citizens were pressured to go to a polling place and cast ballots for the Communist Party candidate, the only one permitted to compete. Military and postcolonial dictatorships often canceled elections on spurious “national emergency” grounds, or rigged the outcome through crude ballot-stuffing and open intimidation.
At a certain point in the 1980s, however, the strongmen, juntas, and revolutionary councils of the era realized that reasonably fair elections could no longer be avoided. Sometimes a ruling group understood that this would likely lead to an opposition victory. But usually, the incumbent leaders—and often foreign journalists and diplomats—presumed that voters in repressive settings preferred stability to uncertainty and would 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 ruling party in Poland, or the stunning setback suffered by Chile’s Augusto 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 1990 local elections.1
Elections became a key force behind the wave of democratization that engulfed much of the world during that decade. Today, the obligation to hold some form of multiparty balloting is felt by nearly all governments.
The illusion of pluralism
Yet just as with other democratic institutions, modern authoritarians have mastered the techniques of control over the electoral process, maintaining political dominance behind a screen of false diversity.
They 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 are 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.
In most countries, 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 change the outcome, and independent election observers are allowed to monitor the proceedings. For 2015, Freedom in the World placed the number of electoral democracies at 125, around 64 percent of the world’s sovereign states.2 By historical standards, this is an impressive figure. Still, there are 70 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 dishonest.
Yet even in systems where elections are tainted or fixed outright, authoritarian leaders often claim legitimacy from the ballot box. Of the countries assessed in this study, only China rejects elections as part of the leadership’s strategy for political control. In Russia, Turkey, Venezuela, and elsewhere, the leadership invokes victory at the polls as a mandate for government, including the adoption of policies that are in fact deeply unpopular.
In some authoritarian states, elections are neither free nor fair, with heavy manipulation that directly ensures the ruling party’s dominance. But in other settings, elections are held under conditions that are relatively free but effectively unfair. That is, the electoral playing field is tilted to favor the incumbents, though the balloting itself is not fixed and remains somewhat unpredictable. In illiberal environments like Hungary and Turkey over the past five years, prospects for an opposition victory are remote, but not out of the question. Even in a quasi-dictatorship like Venezuela, the opposition can score impressive victories in parliamentary elections and mobilize competitive campaigns for the presidency.
A display of supremacy
In December 2011, members of the Russian opposition obtained video evidence of ballot stuffing committed by operatives from Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party in that month’s parliamentary elections. A series of unusually large protests ensued. Putin weathered the furor and went on to win a presidential poll the following year. But for a brief period, Putin lost control of Russia’s political narrative and was placed on the defensive. He seemed angry and rattled, and subsequently blamed the turmoil on the United States, claiming that statements by then secretary of state Hillary Clinton were meant as a signal to the opposition to launch a color revolution in Russia. (The theme of Clinton as the puppet master behind a plot aimed at regime change in Russia was revived during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, when the Russian media displayed a clear preference for Republican candidate Donald Trump and disdain for Clinton.3)
For Putin, the events of late 2011 and early 2012 were evidence of weakness and political incompetence. A ruling party whose triumph requires that party members be ferried by bus from one voting district to another to cast multiple ballots is, by today’s authoritarian standards, a party that has grown careless and lazy. Authoritarian rulers today seek to fix outcomes well before election day through laws and policies that embed unfairness at every level.
These leaders take a measure of pride in election victories, even if the results were secured through dishonest methods. They are held up as demonstrations of political mastery rather than neutral measurements of public preference. Putin’s victories at the polls enable him to reject comparisons with Leonid Brezhnev and other doddering, defensive Soviet-era leaders. Likewise, Hugo Chávez boasted that unlike the colonels and generals who ruled over South American dictatorships during the 20th century, his tenure as president of Venezuela was sanctified by no fewer than 17 elections, including a number of referendums. Chávez won all but one.4
There are, of course, examples of elections whose outcome resembles the obviously rigged results in totalitarian or junta-like settings. Eurasian presidents such as Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev and Belarus’s Alyaksandr Lukashenka have repeatedly won elections with over 80 percent of the vote, and others have easily broken the 90 percent barrier. The ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) won every seat in the most recent parliamentary polling.5
However, more sophisticated autocracies try to manage elections so as to maintain a pluralist façade and hide evidence of systematic fraud or intimidation. In Russia, nominal opposition parties usually garner a significant share of parliamentary seats. But all defer to Putin as the country’s unchallenged leader and typically vote according to his wishes on key issues.6 Genuine opposition forces that seek to win political power are not tolerated, particularly if they champion liberal values. Putin has long sought to prevent the rise of a democratic opposition that could raise embarrassing questions about systemic corruption, foreign interventions, or economic stagnation.
State media and state resources
Predetermining ballot results depends both on the rules and regulations that govern the administration of elections and on the regime’s control of other assets that can influence the outcome.
Control of the media is crucial. The methods of modern censorship are examined in more detail in another section of this report. But when a would-be authoritarian leader assumes power, one of the first goals is to secure domination over whichever sector of the media has the greatest impact on public opinion and therefore on voting behavior.
The first clear indicator of Putin’s authoritarian bent was his aggressive move to eliminate independent ownership of Russia’s major television stations. Through various forms of intimidation, the new president persuaded private media moguls to surrender ownership to the state, state-owned corporations, or political cronies. Television thus became a propaganda vehicle for Putin and a potent weapon against his critics, who have since been mocked, vilified, or ignored on the nation’s most important medium. All this occurred within a few years after his election as president in 2000.
In Venezuela, Chávez used his authority over media licensing to destroy Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), a popular broadcast station that was aligned with the opposition. Other critical voices in television and print media later faced legal suits, regulatory harassment, and withdrawal of advertising revenue until the owners agreed to sell their holdings to business interests that were on more friendly terms with the regime.7
A prominent theme that runs through authoritarian media is the imperfect nature of electoral processes in the leading democracies, especially the United States. The goal is less to portray elections in Russia, Venezuela, or Iran as paragons of democratic practice than to muddy the waters—to make the case that countries like the United States have no right to lecture others on democracy, and that perhaps all elections are equally flawed. The Kremlin’s chief propagandist described the 2016 U.S. election as “so horribly noxious that it only engenders disgust towards what is still inexplicably called a ‘democracy.’”8
A second important instrument in authoritarians’ election toolbox is the state itself. During his period as Venezuela’s president, Chávez became a master at using state money and manpower to ensure voter loyalty. In the 2012 election, the last before his death, Chávez is estimated to have invested billions of dollars in state resources, including giveaways of household goods to ordinary citizens, in a rather unsubtle vote-buying campaign.
That election vividly illustrated the powerful interplay of state media and state resources in undemocratic settings, and it is worth examining in greater detail. Superficially, it seemed reasonably consistent with democratic standards. The voting itself took place without serious violence or major complaints of irregularities. But to a substantial degree, the results were shaped by the regime’s actions well before the ballots were cast.
Chávez had by that time secured an iron grip on the media. Through the state or political allies, he controlled six of the eight national television stations and about half of the country’s radio stations. In some regions, he commanded a virtual information monopoly. The opposition was effectively shut out of the Chávez-aligned outlets, earning mention only as cartoonish villains.
The incumbent benefited especially from a practice whereby all radio and television stations are obliged to preempt normal programming to accommodate the president’s speeches to the nation. During 2012, Chávez took advantage of this tool to fill 100 hours of broadcasting, 47 of them in the 90 days prior to the election. Aurelio Concheso, an analyst with Transparency Venezuela, placed the value of this free airtime at $1.8 billion. Another government mandate required radio and television stations to broadcast 10 state messages of 30 seconds each on a daily basis; the messages, not surprisingly, dovetailed with the arguments of the Chávez campaign. Concheso estimated the value of this free airtime at $292 million. In addition, the government spent an estimated $200 million on advertising with private radio and television stations. By contrast, the opposition had access to five minutes of airtime a day, at a cost of $102 million. The opposition was thus limited to an incredible 4 percent of the airtime enjoyed by Chávez.
Meanwhile, according to Concheso, the state oil company spent some $20 billion on gifts of home durable goods, apartments, and outright cash subsidies to purchase the allegiance of Venezuelan voters and underscore the message that without Chávez, this largesse would dry up.
Finally, a measure of fear was introduced through a campaign suggesting that although the balloting was secret, the government had ways of ascertaining a voter’s choice. The threat had a special effect given public memories of an episode in 2004, in which those who signed a petition for a referendum to remove Chávez from office were blacklisted and excluded from government jobs, benefits, and contracts.
The following are among the other tactics deployed by modern authoritarians to ensure success at the polls:
- Intimidating the opposition: Opposition leaders are only occasionally targeted for assassination. But they can face a variety of other cruel fates. Wealthy businessman and opposition supporter Mikhail Khodorkovsky was dispatched to a Russian prison for 10 years for daring to challenge Putin. In 2017, anticorruption campaigner Andrei Navalny, widely regarded as the most serious challenger to Putin, was effectively eliminated from the 2018 presidential contest after being convicted in a trumped-up embezzlement case.9 In Malaysia, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has twice been convicted and jailed on sodomy charges. Prominent political figures have also been jailed in Belarus, Venezuela, Iran, Ethiopia, Turkey, and Egypt, among many others. 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.
- Marginalizing the opposition: As noted above, authoritarian leaders 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.
- 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.
- Criminalizing protest: The crippling of formal opposition parties leads 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 adopting harsher laws on public assembly, enabling them to jail protest leaders and even ordinary participants for vaguely defined offenses like disturbing public order and gathering without a permit. Protesters can also be imprisoned on trumped-up charges, such as assaulting a police officer or possessing a weapon. This discourages others from joining the civic movements and prevents them from growing into organized political forces.
- Discarding term limits: Term limits designed to prevent the concentration of power in one individual have been rolled back, circumvented, or removed altogether in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and many other countries over the past 15 years.10 Endless incumbency denies opposition forces an opportunity to win over both voters and elements of the ruling establishment that may be ready for new leadership. It also promotes personal loyalty at the expense of public service, stunts the development of possible successors, reinforces the impression that only the current leader is fit to govern, and feeds a self-perpetuating fear of political change.
Returning to old habits
While modern authoritarian regimes have generally maintained some illusion of pluralism as one of their main concessions to the post–Cold War international order, a number of governments have been less attentive to this priority, drifting back toward the electoral tactics, and lopsided results, of 20th-century dictatorships.
In Belarus, the election of just two members of the opposition to the rubber-stamp parliament in 2016 was actually regarded as a step forward from the 2004, 2008, and 2012 balloting, in which no opposition candidates won seats. Lukashenka, in power since 1994, was accused of directing an assassination squad prior to the 2001 presidential election. Four politicians and journalists who had been critical of the incumbent disappeared prior to the vote. After Lukashenka won another term in a deeply flawed 2010 election, the authorities arrested over 700 protesters, including seven of the nine opposition presidential candidates. The regime later sentenced three of the former candidates to prison terms.11
Ethiopian opposition members were beaten and arrested during the 2015 electoral campaign. The Semayawi Party reported that more than 50 of its members were arrested ahead of the polls, and nearly half of Semayawi candidates were deregistered on administrative grounds. The ruling EPRDF and its allies took all 547 seats in the lower house. The 2010 elections were also tightly controlled, with local officials or neighborhood militia going door to door and verifying that residents had registered as members of the EPRDF. Voters were threatened with the loss of their jobs, homes, or government services if they did not turn out for the party. The most charismatic opposition figure, the leader of the Unity and Justice Party, Birtukan Mideksa, remained in prison during the election, in which opposition candidates took only two seats.12
The possible motivations for retrograde electoral abuses vary from country to country, but authoritarians may feel emboldened to drop their quasi-democratic camouflage due to the lack of diplomatic repercussions for such actions. The European Union and the United States have criticized Belarus as “Europe’s last dictatorship,” but they always seem willing to give Lukashenka another chance to improve relations based on the thinnest hopes of reform. Democratic powers have treated Ethiopia as a counterterrorism ally and a model of rapid economic development, granting it billions of dollars in foreign assistance.
Elections and democratic renewal
Whether through blatant repression or less obvious methods, modern authoritarians seek to control the outcome of elections. They need to hold votes to validate their rule, but they also recognize the risk involved, as elections remain a potent instrument of democratic renewal even in deeply troubled societies.
The events of late 2014 and 2015 include vivid reminders of the power of the ballot. In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country and largest economy, voters who were fed up with governmental complacency, terrorism, and graft rejected the incumbent president, Goodluck Jonathan, and elected Muhammadu Buhari to replace him. In Myanmar, a huge turnout produced an overwhelming victory in parliamentary elections for longtime opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD), a remarkable turnaround in a country that until recently ranked among the world’s most repressive.
Voters in Sri Lanka ousted their increasingly authoritarian and divisive president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, in favor of Maithripala Sirisena. Upon taking office, Sirisena immediately overturned some of Rajapaksa’s repressive policies and began repairing relations with both the country’s Tamil minority and the international community. And in Argentina, opposition candidate Mauricio Macri won the presidency by defeating the nominee of incumbent Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who with her late husband, Néstor Kirchner, had dominated the executive branch for over a decade. Combined with a victory for the democratic opposition in Venezuela’s parliamentary elections, Macri’s victory may have been the beginning of a rollback of Latin America’s populist movements, which had previously made impressive gains across the region.13
Voters in these countries retained faith in the democratic process even after experiencing hardship after hardship, including military rule (Myanmar), civil war and authoritarian rule (Sri Lanka), a terrorist scourge (Nigeria), economic collapse and political repression (Venezuela), and economic setback and unaccountable government (Argentina). They prevailed despite, in some cases, an electoral playing field tilted sharply against the opposition; in other cases, a history of political violence; and in still other cases, apprehensions about what lies ahead when dictatorships give way to normal politics.
Some of these voters were also rejecting political figures who had publicly disdained the world’s democracies and drawn closer to authoritarian powers like Russia, China, and Iran. They were willing to listen to candidates who talked about the rule of law, freedom of expression, and the right to be free of payoffs and bribes, and they were unimpressed by those who blamed every step backward on foreign plots.
There will always be dictators and would-be leaders for life who grow overconfident, lose touch with the mood of their people, and fail to do what it takes to ensure victory at the polls, as apparently occurred in The Gambia in late 2016. But the rest can be expected to learn from such mistakes and invest the necessary resources in a false mockery of democratic suffrage.
1 Arch Puddington, “The Rise of Virtual Elections,” Freedom at Issue, October 10, 2014, https://freedomhouse.org/blog/rise-virtual-elections.
2 Freedom in the World 2016 (New York: Freedom House, 2016), https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/freedom-world-2016.
4 Javier Corrales, “Autocratic Legalism in Venezuela,” Journal of Democracy 26, no. 2 (April 2015): 37–51, http://www.journalofdemocracy.org/sites/default/files/Corrales-26-2.pdf.
5 “Ethiopia,” in Freedom in the World 2016.
6 “Russia,” in Freedom in the World 2016.
7 “Venezuela,” in Freedom of the Press 2015 (New York: Freedom House, 2015), https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/2015/venezuela.
8 “Whoever Wins the American Presidential Election, Russia Comes Out Ahead,” Economist, November 8, 2016, http://www.economist.com/news/europe/21709892-americas-campaign-has-served-vladimir-putins-purpose-discrediting-democracy-whoever-wins.
9 Neil MacFarquhar and Ivan Nechepurenko, “Aleksei Navalny, Viable Putin Rival, Is Barred from a Presidential Run,” New York Times, February 8, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/08/world/europe/russia-aleksei-navalny-putin.html?_r=0.
11 “Belarus,” in Freedom in the World 2011 (New York: Freedom House, 2011), https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2011/belarus.
12 “Ethiopia,” in Freedom in the World 2016; “Ethiopia,” in Freedom in the World 2011 (New York: Freedom House, 2011), https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2011/ethiopia.
13 “Anxious Dictators, Wavering Democracies,” in Freedom in the World 2016.