Ruadhán Mac Cormaic: Why dictators like elections

Sham elections tell autocrats as much about their friends as their enemies

Supporters of Egyptian president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi celebrate in Cairo’s Tahrir square on Monday following his re-election for a second term. Photograph: Mohamed el-Shahed/AFP/Getty Images

Supporters of Egyptian president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi celebrate in Cairo’s Tahrir square on Monday following his re-election for a second term. Photograph: Mohamed el-Shahed/AFP/Getty Images

 

Egyptians were no doubt glued to their televisions, gripped with suspense, as they awaited the results of their presidential election last week.

Would the strongman president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who since taking power in a coup in 2013 had stifled critical media, jailed opponents and outlawed the most popular rival party, overcome the odds and somehow prevail? Or would he be pipped to the post by his only challenger – an obscure politician who opted not to campaign and is a self-declared fervent supporter of the president?

In the end, Sisi won a second term with more than 97 per cent of the vote – a result that puts him in the same category of sham poll-toppers as Turkmenistan’s Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, who was elected with an identical score in 2012, but leaves him lagging behind such democratic torch-bearers as Bashar al-Assad of Syria (98 per cent) and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un (100 per cent). By these standards, Vladimir Putin’s 77 per cent of the vote in the Russian presidential election last month looks like a decidedly lukewarm endorsement.

We know why autocrats rig elections, but Sisi’s victory raises another question: why do they bother to submit themselves to the polls at all, especially when everyone knows the contest is fixed? Even the most entrenched despots feel the need to hold periodic elections to renew their legitimacy, and even popular ones, such as Sisi himself, insist on suppressing dissent, deterring opponents and rigging the system in a way that produces laughably high margins of victory.

The obvious answer – that the trappings of democracy make for useful propaganda – may be part of it. But there’s another reason: sham elections tell a dictator a lot about his friends and his enemies. As a result, in the long term, they help tighten his hold on power.

Information about opponents

As Håvard Mokleiv Nygård of the Peace Research Institute in Oslo noted in a 2012 paper on the subject, the survival of an authoritarian regime is closely linked to its ability to suppress other groups or to bring them into alliances. For that a dictator needs information about his opponents. In a closed civic space, elections are a rare invitation to opponents and sceptics to speak up.

When they do, the dictator learns who he should fear and where he is weak. He also gathers important information about his own regime – a very useful thing, given that many leaders are surrounded by sycophants who routinely tell them what they want to hear.

A dictator who commands total control has the luxury of picking his final score

Nygård has an example: if a dictator has asked to get 95 per cent of the votes in a particular constituency but only gets 78 per cent, he will know that the local apparatus in that area, for whatever reason, is less effective than it should be. This may be one of the reasons why Sisi appeared so anxious in the run-up an election he was guaranteed to win. According to reports from Cairo, the election revealed signs of discontent inside the security establishment – a bedrock of Sisi’s regime.

In a system where there is no political competition, a dictator’s party machine can quickly rust. Elections are an invaluable opportunity to build up an efficient apparatus and mobilise supporters. A canny autocrat knows that if he ever does face a challenge – a military coup, for example – he might well need to call those supporters out on to the streets.

Destabilising effect

For all these reasons, sham elections make long-term sense. But they bring short-term hazards. Campaign season can produce regime-threatening protests or coup attempts by opening a window for opponents to organise and co-ordinate.

That destabilising effect was underlined in a paper in the journal World Politics in December 2016. In it, Nygård, along with Carl Henrik Knutsen and Tore Wig of the University of Oslo, collated data from 259 autocratic regimes across the world, from 1946 to 2008 and found that half of these regimes collapsed in election years. Their statistical model suggested the risk of regime breakdown in an election year was five times higher than if the last election happened two to five years earlier.

And what about those victory margins? Again, the numbers can give us useful insights. A declining, or respectable-but-not-implausible, showing can suggest that the regime’s local branches are weakening. Hosni Mubarak fell below 90 per cent in 2005, and within six years he had been toppled. The Soviet Communist Party won 100 per cent in every legislative election until 1984, when its vote fell to 71.5 per cent. Seven years later, the Soviet Union dissolved.

A dictator who commands total control and a strong organisation has the luxury of picking his final score. Here, the 90 per cent mark is a useful indicator of how he wishes to be seen. Anything less suggests a desire to uphold the pretence that democratic norms exist – suggesting the ruler cares about the world’s perception of him. Conversely, a dictator who gives himself 100 per cent couldn’t care less.

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