Within Dahl’s theoretical framework, elections are just one component within a successful democracy. It can’t be left out, but it is not enough on its own to foster democratic governance. Without freedom of speech and the rule of law, elections will become an empty institution. Of course, bad elections will sour a democracy and ruin the aims of the entire political system. It’s like a recipe where each ingredient must remain fresh and each step done right to produce the final product. Elections are an important ingredient like flour in bread. But flour isn’t bread before it is combined with the other ingredients and even then, it takes a lot of steps to transform it into the final product.
This breakdown of democracy affects the interpretation of elections. An undemocratic election becomes a spoiled ingredient. Just as an inexperienced cook may ruin a recipe, the third wave democracies make mistakes in the administration of their elections. The mistakes and missteps affect democratic governance, but they can gradually improve through experience and guidance. Consolidated Democracies mentored new democracies so they could improve their political systems. Election monitoring was for the benefit of those monitored so they could develop the tools while they gained essential experience.
The proliferation of elections was tied to the proliferation of democratic governance. Undemocratic elections simply failed to deliver democracy. But over time undemocratic elections became a vital institution within authoritarian political frameworks. Steven Levistsky and Lucian Way have documented the emergence of Competitive Authoritarianism where leaders are vulnerable to electoral outcomes, but the deck is largely stacked in their favor. But even hegemonic authoritarian governments have incorporated elections into their political systems. The difference is the political leaders experience no risk from competition because the outcome is entirely predetermined.
Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas recently wrote a work detailing the methods and tools authoritarian leaders use to manipulate elections. Their book How to Rig an Election explains the varied ways elections fail to represent the democratic process. Indeed, their critique is not limited to authoritarian governments. Gerrymandering within the United States represents an invisible rigging because the outcome is determined long before the election begins. Cheeseman and Klaas establish five ways elections are redirected away from the democratic process.
- Unfair Election Rules and Laws
- Misinformation, Propaganda and Censorship
- Manipulation of Results
It is important to note the actual manipulation of the vote count is a last resort. Cheeseman and Klaas emphasize sophisticated leaders rarely resort to ballot box stuffing. Election observers struggle to condemn an election where there is no fraudulent activity within the election process. But the reality is the election was rigged before election day. The outcome has been predetermined. This casts a dark cloud over many nations widely regarded as democratic but whom exist on its periphery. Many of these governments are called ‘Partly Free’ by Freedom House. A nebulous distinction somewhere between democracy and dictatorship.
Cheeseman and Klaas described rigged electoral outcomes as Potemkin elections. This term establishes a motive. They believe rigged elections are designed to fool the West. Leaders earn international legitimacy, maintain alliances and sometimes receive aid through the demonstration of regular elections. But the leaders have corrupted the institution in order hold onto power.
Jennifer Gandhi and Adam Przeworski offer an alternative explanation. Their paper “Authoritarian Institutions and the Survival of Autocrats” is not about elections. It focuses on legislative assemblies within autocratic or authoritarian political systems. But they redefine these institutions from a corrupt mirage into an opportunity to coopt the political opposition and manage dissent. The autocratic regimes who develop multi-party assemblies last longer. Traditionally, concessions from autocrats have been a sign of instability. Instead, they find they stabilize their rule.
The competitive authoritarian model redefines elections as a tool of authoritarianism. The election is no longer a sham, but it is not designed to incorporate democratic values. Instead, the election becomes an institution of legitimation for rulers who lack fundamental legitimacy for their governance. Christopher Carothers has argued these regimes lack long-term stability. After just ten years, most of the competitive authoritarian regimes in the initial study have either democratized, decayed or transformed into a new competitive authoritarian regime. Carothers goes farther in asserting authoritarian leaders do not embrace elections as an institution. “Rather, they are treating these institutions as threats to their rule, though perhaps ones with which they cannot dispense entirely—at least not yet.”
But in this critique Carothers admits there is a social commitment to the presence of elections. Institutions are rarely chosen by the existing political leadership. Rather, they are inherited from past traditions and developments. Change takes time. But the evolution of the norms and customs of these institutions can change their function within the political system. It is misguided to assume any institutions are “empty” until they have been dispensed with entirely. Until then, they must play a role within the political system even if it has been redefined or corrupted from its original intent.
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