Elections have traditionally been interpreted as fair and competitive just as long as they were free of blatant fraud on election day. Modern authoritarians took note. Increasingly, they have developed strategies that aim to fix the outcome of political contests weeks, months, or even years before the ballots are cast. Their goal is to win elections while avoiding the brazen acts of vote rigging that inevitably trigger international opprobrium.
Burma’s parliamentary by-elections on Sunday were seen as a make or break moment for the reform process that has taken place over the last two years. The country, long ruled by one of the world most repressive authoritarian regimes, inaugurated a new parliament and a nominally civilian government in early 2011, though both are still dominated by the military and its allies. The authorities have since taken a series of other steps, such as the release of some political prisoners that were designed to improve relations with democratic powers including the United States. The international community in turn has sought to engage the new leadership and encourage further reforms.
International attention has turned to Eurasia in recent days, as Kazakhstan uses deadly violence and draconian information controls to crush widening labor unrest in its strategic oil region, and Russia faces the most serious popular challenge to its puppet-theater political system in many years. But long before the current shocks, when things were looking more placid in both countries, there was abundant evidence of trouble to come. Six months ago, Freedom House published a report that pointed to the glaring vulnerabilities of dead-end authoritarian regimes across the former Soviet Union. It noted that these entrenched authoritarian systems exhibited many of the same features that led to the collapse of their Middle Eastern counterparts in the Arab Spring.
When Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin announced last week that he intended—and had always intended—to return to the presidency, he effectively tore down a flimsy veil of constitutional rectitude that had separated Russia from the autocracies of Central Asia. For over four years, Russians were invited to believe that unlike the perpetual presidents in those countries, their leader would uphold the rule of law and make way for new blood in the form of his chosen successor, Dmitri Medvedev. Now, however, it appears that Medvedev’s entire presidency was an artifice designed to circumvent the ban on more than two consecutive terms.