Elections as Democratic and as Authoritarian

A ballot box used in France.

Potemkin Villages

Catherine the Great had many lovers. Grigory Orlov led the coup d’état that brought Catherine to power. Stanisław Poniatowski became the last King of Poland. Prince Zubov, the last of her lovers, was forty years younger than her. Some of them played a part in the governance of Russia, while others merely amused her. Still, none compares to her relationship with Grigory Potemkin. It’s difficult to say whether she loved him more than the others, but he certainly commanded far more respect. Potemkin was a trusted advisor before they became intimately involved and, unlike her other lovers, he remained a key official long after their affair. 

Potemkin embraced roles as a military general, administrator, and trusted advisor. He influenced the trajectory of Russia during this period more than anyone other than Catherine herself. After the annexation of Crimea, Potemkin led its rehabilitation and integration into the Russian Empire. Catherine visited the area a few years after the annexation. Potemkin led her on a tour using a barge on the Dnieper River for transport. They stopped along the banks to visit many villages. Except the villages did not exist. Potemkin had arranged for his men to build villages overnight, dress as peasants, and play a part. As soon as Potemkin and Catherine left, they tore down the village and reassembled it downstream. 

Potemkin Elections

Some scholars dispute the historical accuracy of the “Potemkin Villages.” Nonetheless, they represent a metaphor for a facade or a deception. Today academics often refer to Potemkin Elections where leaders hold elections with a predetermined outcome. The elections exist as a show or presentation for the world rather than a legitimate political activity. The leaders manipulate the process and even the counts to ensure a coronation rather than a contest. Sometimes the government plans to manipulate the ballots beforehand. In other cases, the government faces an unexpected outcome and simply panics. Irregardless of how the manipulation happens, a Potemkin election is a fake. The leaders never intended for the people to make a decision. 

Perhaps the best example of a Potemkin election was the Azerbaijani Presidential Election of 2013. The incumbent Ilham Aliyev was widely expected to win. Of course, nobody expected a free and fair election. Authoritarians rig elections through a range of subtle tools. They declare their most popular challengers ineligible. They shape the process so their supporters have every advantage while their opponents face every obstacle. The media gives outsized access to the favored candidate, while the challenger is largely ignored. Violence is sometimes introduced to intimate the opposition. Despite all this the Azerbaijani election officials left nothing to chance. They had the official counts prepared before the voting began. We know this because the results displayed on an app they developed the day before the polls opened. The actual votes had no bearing on the results.

Elections as an Institution

An election is not an event. It has no formal beginning. Even the end is ambiguous. The winner is frequently declared before the final tally. In reality, it can take weeks before the final certification. Moreover, elections bleed into one another. Public officials begin their campaign almost immediately after the last one ends. Even when an officeholder does not plan to run for reelection, they want their party to hold onto their office. Every decision a politician makes, every vote they take always involves an examination of opinion polls and a reflection on its impact for reelection. Most theorists argue elections bring accountability into the political process. I do not disagree. Nonetheless, something has gone wrong when democracy becomes a series of elections rather than actual governance. But I digress. 

I view elections as an institution. They offer a context for norms and identities to develop. Like all institutions, elections develop different norms and identities in different political environments. An election is not necessarily democratic. Authoritarians hold elections. Indeed, many elections are neither free nor fair. It’s tempting to say these are not elections. But this overlooks the vast possibilities for elections as an institution. Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way have even shown how authoritarian regimes can hold competitive elections. They call this phenomenon ‘competitive authoritarianism.’ In these regimes, the opposition can win elections, but face enormous challenges imposed by the government. These election are neither free nor fair, but offer the possibility for a peaceful transfer of power. 

The Challenge of Elections

The reality of elections is a real challenge for any democratic theory. On the surface, democratic governance requires elections for the selection of its political leaders. Sortition is a possible alternative, but has its own theoretical problems to work out. Nonetheless, modern democracy has adopted elections for the selection of its leaders. Indeed, most theorists use the presence of elections as a requirement for democratic governance. Nonetheless, the mere presence of elections is not enough. As I already emphasized, authoritarians introduce elections as a facade to claim legitimacy. Consequently, democracy must assume the presence of a certain degree of quality in its elections. 

Of course, modern democracies have relied on constitutions to protect rights and freedoms alongside procedures for governance. But they do not guarantee democracy. Hungary may have reshaped its political system through the introduction of a new constitution, yet nothing in it is ipso facto authoritarian. Indeed, after revisions it met approval from the European Union. Viktor Orbán did not undermined democracy in Hungary through its laws so much as the administration of its law. Neither the current constitution nor its predecessor lays out many specifics for its elections. Even the composition of its parliament and the electoral procedures do not appear in the constitution. Orbán had the power to reshape parliament and gerrymander its districts under the old constitution just as much as under the new one. But the most significant step in the corruption of their elections has been the politicization of its election administration. 

Elections as Legitimation

Elections confer on democratic regimes a degree of legitimation authoritarianism lacks. So, authoritarians appeal to elections as proof of the legitimacy for their rule. It makes sense why the most unpopular tyrants manipulate the outcomes of elections. And yet, even popular autocrats find ways to rig elections. Vladimir Putin has broad support in Russia that has approached levels almost unbelievable for democratic countries. During the height of the Crimean crisis Putin saw approval ratings exceed 80%. Today Putin’s support has declined, but he likely would win an election even against a formidable opponent like Alexei Navalny. Despite all this Putin does not expose himself to genuine democratic elections. Russia has become increasingly autocratic, because of Putin’s widespread popularity. Indeed, autocrats often use their popularity as an opportunity to consolidate power rather than allow genuine competition. 

Election Interference

Traditional theories of democratic consolidation made two important assumptions proven false through recent experiences. It believes popular leaders embrace democracy, because they have little to fear from elections. At the same time, unpopular leaders lack the support to abandon elections and impose autocracy. Over time democracy becomes a virtuous cycle as it becomes “the only game in town.” Unfortunately, aspiring autocrats defy these assumptions. Widely popular leaders like Hugo Chávez, Viktor Orbán, and Evo Morales use their popularity to reshape the norms surrounding elections. They embrace polarization to consolidate their support against their critics. Indeed, polarization transforms their supporters into advocates for increasingly aggressive rules designed to keep the opposition out of power. 

When leaders interfere in elections out of fear, they expose a weakness. They invite political protests and the defection of political elites from their coalition. Far more often leaders manipulate elections from a position of strength. Historical leaders like Hitler and Mussolini brought an end to democracy through an overwhelming position of strength. Nonetheless, the authoritarianism of today is different from the fascism of the past. Jan-Werner Müller writes, “The instigators of military coups… do not officially disavow democracy. Rather, they fake democracy.” They interpret the administration of election through a partisan lens and rewrite laws for their advantage. Despite all this, they never disavow elections. Instead, they redefine the norms surrounding elections. They normalize the process step by step until the opposition has no chance. 

Changing Elections, Changing Democracy

The normalization of undemocratic election procedures does not simply change perceptions about elections, but also democracy itself. Fareed Zakaria long ago warned against the rise of illiberal democracy. His article sparked a debate over terminology and classification, but this was never his aim. Rather, Zakaria argued efforts designed to promote democracy focused too much on the presence of elections. He argued elections alone did not establish free societies. Democracies also depended on a respect for human rights and the rule of law. Indeed, their absence makes the manipulation of elections inevitable. But Zakaria’s more meaningful insight was the world largely associated the presence of multiparty elections with democracy. This low bar allows for a wide variation in electoral norms. 

Today Turkey is widely recognized as authoritarian. Freedom House classifies Turkey as Not Free. Nonetheless, Turkey has a wide variety of political parties. Its parliament has representation from five different political parties. Its most recent presidential election saw candidacies from six different parties. Moreover, opposition parties continue to win elections. In 2019, CHP candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu won the mayoral election in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city. But the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the AKP did not believe the result so they claimed election irregularities required a new election. İmamoğlu won the new election with an even wider margin of victory. In the end, the opposition candidate did win. Outcomes like these give voters the impression democracy continues to work in Turkey. Except the story does not end here. After the election, Erdoğan used presidential powers to reduce the authority of Istanbul’s mayor. 

Undemocratic Democracies?

Authoritarian governments find ways to normalize undemocratic behavior in elections. Turkey demonstrates how competitive multiparty elections do not guarantee democracy. Of course, it becomes easy to find undemocratic behavior in countries like Russia and Turkey, because we classify them as authoritarian. But democracies are not immune to undemocratic behavior. North Carolina elected a Democrat for Governor in 2016. After failing to overturn the election through the courts, the Republican controlled assembly passed legislation to limit the power of the Governor. The outgoing Republican Governor signed the legislation into law, legislation that limited the authority of his opponent from the recent election. It’s hard not to see the similarities between Turkey and North Carolina and it raises an important question. Is Turkey more democratic or is North Carolina more authoritarian?

The Role of Citizens

A few books written over the past few years highlight the importance of norms for democracy and elections. Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky emphasized the role of informal norms in democracies in their book, How Democracies Die, written in 2018. That same year Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas broke down the authoritarian toolkit used to manipulate elections in How to Rig an Election. Additional books have broken down the ways formal and informal norms determine the character of different institutions. But few works have emphasized the role of identity for the preservation of democracy.  How do citizens identify themselves in the context of an election? Are they helpless bystanders or active participants? Do they defend democracy or are they complicit in its devastation? Citizens hold power in elections through their vote, but democracy also demands responsibility for its governance. 

Elections have become the dominant political institution in modern democracy. It has empowered people, because it emphasizes their most direct influence on government. Indeed, it has introduced an important source of accountability to the people. But what do the people hold their leaders accountable for? Do we hold leaders accountable for undemocratic behavior? Not very often. Polarization has perverted accountable government into something pushing leaders into ever more extreme positions. But this is not democracy’s final incarnation. Democracy has proven its ability to progress over time. Its next evolution must reorder our political priorities so governance takes precedence over elections. This does not mean the isolation of governance from the people nor does it mean an end to elections. Rather democracy’s next evolution will find ways to bring people closer to governance without relying upon elections as an intermediary.

A Few Sources

Brian Klaas and Nic Cheeseman (2018), How to Rig an Election

Robert Massie  (2011), Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

F. Michael Wuthrich and Melvyn Ingleby (2020), “Running on “Radical Love” in Turkey,” Journal of Democracy

Fareed Zakaria (1997), The Rise of Illiberal Democracy” Foreign Affairs

Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky (2018), How Democracies Die

Democracy Paradox Podcast

Jan-Werner Müller on Democracy Rules

Nic Cheeseman and Gabrielle Lynch on the Moral Economy of Elections in Africa

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