Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Monday, March 20, 2017

Procedural elections

Three Norwegian political scientists try to explain why dictators hold elections. Does what they say apply to China? to Iran? to Mexico? to Russia? to Nigeria?

You’d think dictators would avoid elections. Here’s why they don’t.
Elections are a hallmark of democracy. So why do dictatorships around the world also hold them? While autocratic elections are often characterized as “sham elections,” with the official vote winner clear beforehand, elections in fact have systematic and substantial effects on the durability of dictatorships.

In a recent article in World Politics, we examine 389 elections in 259 dictatorships…

Elections often bring regime-threatening protests or coup d’etats — and that’s why they’re so dangerous to autocratic regimes. But autocrats also gain something from holding elections… Elections confer long-term benefits. The regime can co-opt members of the opposition, for instance, or learn more about the strength of the opposition. Elections also help dictators build a strong organizational apparatus and signal their strength to intimidate potential opponents.

The flip side… is that elections also can produce short-term instability by enabling opposition groups to coordinate their actions right around when the election takes place…

We find clear evidence that the period around and right after an autocratic election — and during the election year in particular — is associated with a greatly increased risk of regime breakdown…

There’s also some evidence, although not as clear-cut, that holding elections makes for more stable dictatorships in the long term…

Here’s how these long-term benefits played out in Mexico’s autocratic regimes from 1929 to 2000. The party in power, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, for decades managed to conduct elections without seeing major threats to its grip on power.

In fact, studies by political scientists argue that the PRI used these elections as a device to prolong its rule. The party used elections to selectively co-opt supporters — but deter opponents by displaying organizational strength and broad public appeal. These stabilizing effects continued long past election day…

Our research indicates that opposition actors in autocratic regimes may find a unique window for dissent around election time, when autocratic incumbents are particularly vulnerable…

Authors: Carl Henrik Knutsen is professor of political science at the University of Oslo, Håvard Mokleiv Nygård is a senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), and Tore Wig is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Political Science at the University of Oslo.

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