Autocratic Elections: Decoding Modern Authoritarianism

The book delves into the intricate world of autocratic regimes, shedding light on the complexities of electoral manipulation, economic maneuvering, and political stability in contemporary dictatorships.

Masaaki Higashijima
Masaaki Higashijima
Nursultan Nazarbayev, former President of Kazakhstan (1991-2019), at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. Elections during his tenure were criticized for not meeting the standards of free and fair elections. Photo by Violaine Martin.

Unmasking Autocracies

When we think of dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, images often come to mind of leaders ruling through violence and repression, reminiscent of historical figures such as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Zedong. However, it’s crucial to recognize that many contemporary autocratic leaders maintain a facade of democracy, allowing the participation of opposition parties in elections. In my book The Dictator’s Dilemma at the Ballot Box, I delve into the phenomenon of  “autocracies disguised as democracies,” analyzing autocratic elections to illuminate this complex dynamic.

The infringement of human rights and civil liberties is a hallmark of modern autocracies, yet these regimes often cleverly veil their authoritarian nature under the guise of democratic processes. By permitting a semblance of political competition, autocrats not only sustain their grip on power but also project an image of legitimacy to the outside world. The book explores how these leaders navigate the intricate balance between maintaining authoritarian control and the appearance of democratic norms. It examines the strategies they employ to manipulate elections and the impact of these elections on the political landscape of their countries.

At the national level, the dilemma revolves around controlling the populace while retaining a veneer of democratic legitimacy.

Through this analysis, we gain insights into the subtleties of modern autocracies, where the line between outright dictatorship and pseudo-democratic governance is often blurred. The exploration offers a critical understanding of the political mechanisms at play in these regimes, providing a nuanced view of contemporary authoritarian politics.

The Electoral Dilemma in Dictatorships

Dictators face a significant challenge in governing their countries solely through coercive means. In the contemporary world, where there is much more international scrutiny of their actions, relying on violence and repression incurs significant international costs. Moreover, domestically, coercion raises the stakes, making it difficult to secure substantial victories in elections. When citizens fear repression, they hesitate to express their opinions, hindering autocrats’ access to credible information crucial for efficient governance. Excessive repression can also fuel popular discontent, sparking anti-government collective actions that threaten autocratic stability. On the other hand, if autocrats opt for political reforms, such as minimizing electoral fraud and enhancing proportional representation, they risk losing their ability to secure overwhelming victories in elections.

The book identifies two primary types of electoral manipulation: blatant electoral fraud and institutional manipulation.

This complex landscape creates an electoral dilemma for dictators. To maintain power, they must carefully balance the use of force with the need to appear legitimately elected. The international community’s focus on human rights and democratic norms means that blatant autocratic behavior can lead to sanctions, isolation, or even intervention. This external pressure forces dictators to adopt more sophisticated methods of control.

At the national level, the dilemma revolves around controlling the populace while retaining a veneer of democratic legitimacy. Coercion can only go so far before it backfires, either by alienating the citizenry or by drawing too much international attention. Consequently, many modern autocrats have turned to subtler forms of manipulation. These include controlling media narratives, using economic incentives to buy loyalty, and co-opting opposition parties.

The result is a form of governance that can be more insidious than overt dictatorship. Elections in such regimes are not about choosing leaders but about reinforcing the power structures already in place. The semblance of choice and participation gives the regime a façade of legitimacy, both domestically and internationally, complicating the efforts of those who seek genuine democratic reform. The book explores these strategies in depth, analyzing how modern dictators navigate this electoral tightrope and the implications for the future of global politics.

Electoral Design Strategies

Dictators utilize a plethora of measures to manipulate elections, a process that fundamentally alters the electoral results from the public’s voting preferences to favor the regime. The book identifies two primary types of electoral manipulation: blatant electoral fraud and institutional manipulation.

Blatant electoral fraud encompasses coercive tactics, including both violent and non-violent intimidation of voters and opposition candidates, extreme media bias favoring the ruling party, and the deregistration of opposition parties, among others.

Institutional manipulation, on the other hand, involves subtler, yet equally effective, tactics. These include altering electoral laws and processes to favor the incumbent, gerrymandering, changing electoral district boundaries, and adjusting the size of electoral districts to skew results in favor of the ruling party. For instance, in authoritarian regimes with high incumbency advantages, single-member district systems can enable the ruling party to secure a disproportionate share of seats with fewer votes. This institutional mechanism significantly biases election outcomes in favor of the regime, thereby consolidating power without the overt appearance of electoral fraud.

Furthermore, institutional manipulation might also involve the strategic design of electoral systems themselves. For example, proportional representation (PR) systems can be adopted by dictators with strong mobilization capabilities who are less likely to resort to blatant electoral fraud. Conversely, systems that inherently favor the ruling party might be chosen in scenarios where the dictatorship feels less secure.

This book delves into the sophisticated interplay of these strategies, illustrating how dictators not only engineer election outcomes but also shape the very structures that underpin electoral processes. By understanding these strategies, one gains insight into how autocrats maintain power while navigating the delicate balance between appearing democratically legitimate and exercising authoritarian control. These strategies, while diverse in their application, share the common goal of perpetuating autocratic rule under the guise of democratic procedures.

Effects and Consequences of Autocratic Elections

In examining variations in electoral institutions and focusing on dictators’ capacity to garner popular support through extensive economic distribution, it becomes evident how autocrats can secure overwhelming victories in elections without resorting to blatant electoral fraud or manipulation of electoral systems. This strategy, often referred to as economic maneuvering, involves dictators manipulating macroeconomic policies before elections to secure clear victories while ensuring the perceived legitimacy of elections. Such tactics include targeted social spending, economic stimulus, and distribution of resources to key demographic groups to cultivate a base of popular support.

The way autocrats manage the opposition reflects their broader governance strategy.

However, this approach is not without risks. If autocrats fail to effectively address the electoral dilemma, elections can backfire with significant repercussions. In situations where dictators rely excessively on electoral manipulation, they may inadvertently reveal their regime’s vulnerabilities. This can lead to a range of destabilizing outcomes, including coups d’état, popular protests, or unexpected electoral successes by opposition parties. In extreme cases, overt manipulation might provoke international condemnation or sanctions, further jeopardizing the regime’s stability.

Moreover, the book contends that when dictators deviate from a balanced approach to managing the electoral dilemma, they destabilize authoritarian rule. Excessive electoral manipulation can harm the benefits of elections, making it difficult for opposition leaders to accurately gauge the dictator’s true strength. This misperception can provoke popular grievance and lead to mass protests. Conversely, insufficient electoral manipulation according to the regime’s needs might expose the autocrat’s weaknesses, encouraging defections from the ruling elite or even emboldening the opposition to seize power.

These dynamics underscore a key paradox: while autocratic elections are designed to reinforce regime stability, they also contain the potential for significant political upheaval. The book’s analysis of these outcomes illuminates the delicate balance autocrats must strike in designing elections, offering a nuanced understanding of the intricate interplay between electoral manipulation, economic strategies, and political stability in authoritarian regimes.

Autocracies Versus the Opposition

Autocrats strategically navigate their relationship with the opposition, employing various tactics based on their level of control and public support. When their mobilization capabilities are weaker, autocrats may shy away from blatant electoral manipulation, opting instead for electoral institutions that promote proportionality. This approach can include allowing for fairer representation of opposition parties in legislative bodies, which, on the surface, appears to conform to democratic norms.

Both blatant electoral fraud and institutional manipulation, however, serve the primary purpose of skewing election results in favor of dictators and their parties. While these strategies can secure dominant victories for autocrats, they also risk undermining the perceived legitimacy of the elections. The more election results are artificially produced through force and fraud, the less beneficial the elections become in terms of providing a credible mandate and public support.

Moreover, the use of these strategies has a significant impact on the opposition’s role and strategies. In regimes where electoral manipulation is rampant, opposition parties often face significant challenges in mobilizing support and gaining traction with the electorate. They may resort to forming coalitions or seeking international support to counteract the autocratic advantages. In some cases, this can lead to a more unified and potent opposition movement, potentially posing a substantial threat to the autocratic regime.

In addition, the way autocrats manage the opposition reflects their broader governance strategy. Those who opt for less manipulation may be attempting to project an image of tolerance and moderation, both to their citizens and the international community. Conversely, heavy-handed manipulation can indicate a regime feeling threatened and seeking to consolidate power at all costs.

The book explores these dynamics, examining how autocrats’ strategies towards the opposition reflect their overall approach to maintaining power. It discusses the fine line autocrats walk between suppressing the opposition enough to maintain control and pushing too far, which can lead to increased resistance, both domestically and internationally. Understanding this balance is crucial for comprehending the complex nature of modern autocracies and their interactions with opposition forces.

Implications for Contemporary Authoritarian Politics

This book illuminates a critical paradox at the heart of modern dictatorships: the necessity for political leaders, even in authoritarian regimes, to secure political legitimacy by garnering the support of their citizens. Autocratic rulers strategically use elections, weighing the power dynamics within their nations. Failing to adeptly balance these dynamics endangers the very stability of their regimes.

The analysis presented in the book underscores the evolving nature of authoritarian governance. Modern dictators often operate under the guise of democratic practices, manipulating electoral processes to maintain a semblance of legitimacy while ensuring their continued dominance. This strategy, however, is fraught with risks, as over-manipulation can lead to loss of credibility, both domestically and internationally, and under-manipulation can expose weaknesses and embolden opposition.

Moreover, the book reveals the complexities and nuances of autocratic strategies in dealing with opposition forces, highlighting the delicate balance between suppression and concession. The strategies employed by autocrats not only reflect their immediate political needs but also have broader implications for their long-term survival and the stability of their regimes.

In conclusion, understanding these dynamics is crucial for comprehensively grasping the nature of contemporary authoritarianism. The book’s insights are particularly relevant in a global landscape where the distinction between democratic and autocratic governance is increasingly blurred. For scholars, policymakers, and anyone interested in the future trajectory of global politics, the lessons drawn from this analysis provide a critical framework for understanding the challenges and intricacies of authoritarian rule in the 21st century.

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Associate Professor of Comparative Politics at the Institute of Social Science, University of Tokyo. His research interests include comparative political economy, autocratic politics, democratization, and Central Asia. His first book, The Dictator’s Dilemma at the Ballot Box (University of Michigan Press, 2022) received several academic awards. He earned a Ph.D. in Political Science at Michigan State University.