Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas – How to Rig an Election

Before a complex topic like democracy can be mastered, it is necessary to understand elections. There is no other institution that has defined democracy like elections. There is no clearer way to understand majority sentiment than an election. And while democracy requires more than just the support of the majority, it is impossible to govern a democracy without their support. Elections matter. But they have a tarnished reputation in the twenty-first century. It is no longer enough to simply have elections. Elections must be free and fair.

The premise of this book is simple. Elections have become a tool of legitimization of authoritarian leaders. Lots has been written about elections gone wrong around the world. Recently, the Democratic People of Congo rigged the election for an opposition party candidate. Except it was not the opposition candidate who likely won. It seems Martin Fayulu won the election, but the National Independent Electoral Commission named Félix Tshisekedi as the winner. It seems Joseph Kabila felt Tshisekedi was easier to control after he realized the public and the international community were unwilling to accept his candidate as the winner.

Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas do not intend to surprise anyone with stories of rigged elections. Everyone knows they exist around the world. But their systematic approach makes us think differently about the institution itself. No longer can we consider elections as democratic institutions which authoritarian leaders corrupt through nefarious means. Elections have become a key ingredient of their legitimization. Without elections they have little right to maintain their rule.

Modernization has changed the relationship between the government and the governed in many ways. Democracy is simply one possible outcome of political modernization. Dictatorship has fundamentally changed around the world. The old Ancien Régime is lost. And with its collapse is its source of authority. Democracy has a natural source of legitimacy as the government of the people. But Dictatorship becomes unstable because there is no natural source for its authority. Elections allow authoritarian governments to rule under the pretense of democracy or rather assert the support of the people. This style of popular authoritarianism dates back to the rule of Napoleon where he held popular plebiscites to legitimize his reforms.

Cheeseman and Klaas break down the authoritarian tool kit into six different approaches. They begin with the different ways that elections are rigged before an election is announced. The state establishes the rules of the game and the participants. The law becomes weaponized to produce electoral outcomes which reinforce the strength of those in power. The American political system is not exempt. It has long set the standard for gerrymandering electoral districts.

This work gives new insights into the institution of elections. Their chapter on electoral bribery gives readers a completely different perspective on nations scholars refer to as clientelsitic. Politicians are expected to give cash payments for votes. Sometimes these are realized in the construction of basic goods or services like a new school or a hospital although usually the gifts are more modest. But the gifts cannot become too large or the public wonders why they did not receive help earlier. Cash payments are not bribes but rather the fulfillment of a promise to bring back the spoils of government resources. Too much or too little breaks this social compact and will lead to new leadership.

There are many ways to read this book. Some will understand the different ways authoritarian leaders manipulate elections and improve election monitoring programs. Some NGOs may become more sophisticated in their evaluation of election outcomes. But the theorist must rethink their thoughts on institutions. It seems purely “democratic institutions” do not exist. Jennifer Gandhi and Adam Przeworski wrote a paper in Comparative Political Studies in 2007 called “Authoritarian Institutions and the Survival of Autocrats” where they discussed the role of legislative assemblies as a tool to legitimize authoritarianism. Democracy does not emerge from the right institutions. It requires the right combination of norms, customs and traditions within those institutions. Sheri Berman in her recent work Dictatorship and Democracy in Europe shows how it takes not just time but actual missteps along the way before a successful form of liberal democracy can not just emerge but consolidate. These are powerful insights in the Age of Trump.

This is a recent work but Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas are not unknown. Cheeseman pops up on occasion in popular media like The Economist. This is a work academics will likely recognize. It gives great insights for the casual scholar but will give credibility to those who study politics as undergraduate or graduate students. The work is available on Audible making it easy to fit into a busy schedule. I listen to audiobooks at the gym, in the car and at home while I do chores. My point is it is easy to add this to your own toolkit of ideas at your disposal.

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