(Image Credit: Markus Winkler | Unsplash.com)

Democracy in Name Only 

Reflections on why autocrats hold elections

With the most recent presidential election in Russia  concluding just as I am writing this, Vladimir Putin has officially secured another 6 year term. I can’t help but ask myself ‘Why would a dictator need to hold an election?’ Why would he allow a ‘democratic’ election in order to secure the power that he has already consolidated? I am certainly not the only person to have asked this question; academic scholars have written excellent articles that explain the utility of invoking democratic institutions within authoritarian regimes. 

Asking questions is a useful tool for sociological inquiry, even seemingly simple ones that you think you know the answers to. As a sociologist of law, it’s common for me to ask questions about the public references to legal institutions. I debated what to write for this article, but after reading about the Russian elections I thought it might be interesting to explore my question about what connects autocrats and elections. 

I think many of my fellow UPF members would agree that what happened in Russia was not a free and fair election. But elections are expensive to run, they take time to coordinate, and they can certainly cause more trouble than good for autocrats, right? Well after doing some digging, I see a couple of possible reasons why elections are actually useful for authoritarian regimes. They provide valuable information about dissents, legitimacy, and can suss out internal malaise.

Before we dig deeper into the findings, I should clarify what makes a democracy a democracy. How would you describe a democracy to someone who has never voted? I tend to agree with the democracy scholar Larry Diamond at Stanford that democracies all ought to have four things: A political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections, The active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life; Protection of the human rights of all citizens, A rule of law in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens. Elections play a central part in the passing of power from one authorized user to another. So by having elections, authoritarians can consolidate their image of popularity while targeting opposition leaders— but it’s not always that straightforward. 

Elections can also be catalysts for a coup d’etat or widespread protests, which can contribute to authoritarians shutting down social media, deploying security forces, and losing sleep. One of the main reasons why a dictator would still want to hold an election is access to information. By allowing a controlled level of disenchanted civilians to organize and protest around an election, the authorities are able to identify who is doing the organizing, who is protesting, and who is challenging the powers that be. This information serves useful to authoritarian systems as it enables the powers to account for (and crackdown on)  civil discontent and protests. Unilateral, systemic pressure to quash political opposition requires control of state systems which can take dozens of years to establish and consolidate. For newer authoritarian systems, these systems are not as evolved and a semblance of ‘democracy’ can be a useful way to spread control under false pretenses. 

Elections can also be used by authoritarians to measure the status levels of their control on their country. This is again part of the information seeking that leaders seek to partake in. Narratives can be tested, discontent measured, and dissidents identified. Even if elections are undemocratic and will not change who holds power, authorities can nonetheless gain useful insights from insisting on having elections. Not all regimes are created equally either, the less secure a regime the less likely there will be elections. Mixed regimes that combine elements of democracy and autocracy are less stable and frequently have more civil wars than those that are mostly autocratic or democratic— which would partially explain why the autocracies are motivated to become further autocratic.

Protesters gathered in central Moscow in 2011 to express their discontent with recent parliamentary elections, which observers say were tainted by ballot-stuffing and fraud on behalf of Mr. President Vladimir Putin’s party, United Russia. (Image Credit: Voice Of America, Yuli Weeks | Unsplash.com | US Public Domain)

Regimes use elections as bargaining opportunities between opposition and the dictators in power to avoid bloody armed conflicts, allowing information between the regime and opposition to flow without direct contact but rather through political speech events. In addition to gaining valuable information, regimes can also build legitimacy both internally and externally by holding elections. While they are not free and fair, they help to measure the popular acceptance of the leader’s power while in the same action showcasing the power of the leader to meddle in elections. It’s the very act of slanting elections in their favor that demonstrates their power to discombobulate democratic rule of law. 

Authoritarians that use the language of democracy equate their power consolidating projects with political pluralist governments. Regimes can gain and project valuable information, building their legitimacy through ballot boxes even when those votes are neither free nor fair. By holding elections, Putin ultimately weaponizes democracy by identifying dissent and controlling his opposition. We should be wary that authoritarianism will continue to co-opt democratic institutions as long as it serves their dogmatic ends.   

By Freeman Elliott Gunnell, Vice President of UPF Lund

April 2, 2024

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