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Electoral Authoritarianism Revisited (I-CONnect Column)

Aslı Bâli, UCLA School of Law

[Editor’s note: This is one of our biweekly I-CONnect columns. Columns, while scholarly in accordance with the tone of the blog and about the same length as a normal blog post, are a bit more “op-ed” in nature than standard posts. For more information about our four columnists for 2017, see here.]

The field of comparative politics has been grappling with questions related to electoral authoritarianism for some fifteen years at least. For those of us interested in the Middle East, this led to an examination of how the one-party states of the region had adopted the trappings of elections to satisfy international demands without undertaking any actual liberalization. Scholars proposed new concepts to explain how authoritarians had adapted ostensibly democratic institutions to their purposes. From Fareed Zakaria’s early warning about the rise of “illiberal democracy,”[1] to the concepts of hybrid regimes,[2] competitive authoritarianism[3] and the phrase “electoral authoritarianism” itself,[4] new terms proliferated. This terminology defined a set of factors that distinguished countries transitioning, however imperfectly, to democracy (or democratizing) from those that had appropriated aspects of democratic practice to fashion new forms of durable authoritarianism. A prime example in the region at the time was Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian rule in Egypt, punctuated by regular elections in which the dominant NDP party would win overwhelming majorities. On election day, little might distinguish Egyptian voting booths from those in Turkey in the early 2000s, but the electoral authoritarianism literature enabled students of the two countries to identify salient differences. On this account, Turkey was firmly in the democratizing camp at the time, Egypt was not and the distinction seemed clear.

Returning to that literature, much of which followed from an influential 2002 issue of the Journal of Democracy, the distinction between imperfect democracies and the deliberate manipulation of democratic means to illiberal ends now seems more blurred. Zakaria’s lament about the rise of illiberal democracy in the United States is one indicator that there has been considerable democratic erosion across all regime types. Similarly, anxieties about the rise of nativist parties and populist leaders across Europe attest to new challenges in consolidated democracies not anticipated by the earlier literature. And the distinction between Turkey and Egypt that seemed so clear fifteen years ago has given way to increasing convergence. The durability of authoritarianism in Egypt was perhaps overstated in light of the popular uprising in 2011 that ousted Mubarak. Yet, that uprising gave way in two short years to a vicious counter-revolution that has, if anything, increased the repressive capacity of the state. At the same time, Turkey, which was celebrated fifteen years ago for democratizing,[5] has now upended democratic theory with its dramatic reversal of course, as Jason Brownlee has argued.

The Kenyan presidential election saga over the last three months raises in another context the question of how best to theorize the distinctions between democratization and electoral authoritarianism. When are reforms properly understood to put a country on a democratizing path and when are they better understood as a tactic that may also serve authoritarian ends? As Aziz Rana has pointed out, the Kenyan case is an example of the ways in which twentieth century electoral authoritarianism with strongman dictators rigging votes has given way to a more sophisticated repertoire. Moreover, transnational learning curves mean that elites in different countries borrow from each other’s playbooks on managing electoral processes. Thus, opposition campaigns are intimidated and impeded, with levels of repression carefully calibrated to avoid drawing attention internationally. Vote tallies themselves may be subtly altered, but only at the margins producing victories that appear largely credible. Mechanisms to contest results may be available, though even where pursued the remedies afforded are limited. And in the end a deeply uneven playing field yields narrow electoral victories that avoid the appearance of “crude vote manipulation,” in Rana’s words, while in effect deepening a form of competitive authoritarianism.

The success of this strategy is apparent in the international coverage of the Kenyan election. Despite the murder of an official charged with ensuring the fairness of the new voting system days before the initial vote was to be held, the outcome was at first embraced by international election monitors suggesting no foul play on election day. Indeed, the opposition leader, Raila Odinga, was widely derided for allegedly fanning the flames of ethnic conflict for questioning the result. Only after the Kenyan Supreme Court nullified the results of the elections were Odinga’s complaints rehabilitated and treated as valid. Thereafter, however, he was once again cast as irresponsibly throwing an historic election into “turmoil” when he withdrew his candidacy on the grounds that none of the sources of the irregularities in August had been addressed in time for the second election in October. Odinga’s complaint was plainly vindicated when a bodyguard of the deputy chief justice of the Kenyan Supreme Court was shot and injured in advance of a scheduled hearing at which the court would determine whether to delay the election to leave time to address irregularities. In the end the court was unable to convene enough judges to issue a decision, as five out of seven members of the court failed to appear, possibly out of fear for their safety. The electoral commission’s chairman, Wafula Chebukati, commented publicly that too few changes had been adopted to enable a free, fair and credible election. Meanwhile, another commission member, Roselyn Akombe, fled the country worried too about her physical safety, and eventually quit the commission, issuing a statement in New York that she was not willing to “be party to such a mockery to election integrity.” The election rerun occurred on Thursday, October 26th and by the weekend it was clear that irregularities were rampant.

The Kenyan election offers two important lessons. First, incumbents have many subtle tools at their disposal to rig the system, producing an uneven playing field without generating much international criticism. In the end, Odinga—the opposition leader whose complaints have been validated in each round—is cast as a sore loser. The international priority to avoid post-election violence is understandable but the call for stability favors incumbents in ways that are not fully taken into account. Second, a decade and a half after comparative politics scholars turned their attention to competitive authoritarianism, there remain few conceptual tools to determine when democratization has given way to democratic erosion. One can easily identify that the 2017 Kenyan elections represent, in the word of the New York Times, a challenge to the country’s “young democracy,” but are the electoral irregularities and the harassment and violence directed at election officials sufficient to conclude that the country is no longer “democratizing”? Kenya’s 2010 constitutional reforms were widely praised for decentralizing power, ensuring judicial independence and strengthening political and social rights. While those were important accomplishments, the lag between international support for democratization in Kenya and recognition of democratic erosion is worrying.

Nor are these questions confined to the category of “democratizing” countries. Democratic erosion is a term that is also applicable to countries that have long been considered consolidated democracies. In the wake of the election of Donald Trump, much was made of polling data indicating declining commitment to democracy among citizens in countries like the United States, Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden, Australia and New Zealand. While such polls provide one metric for judging whether consolidated democracies are at risk of democratic erosion, the more telling development has to do with the use of elected office to produce uneven electoral playing fields in established democracies. Gerrymandering and voter suppression efforts currently underway in the U.S. are rarely discussed as evidence of de-democratization. Yet I see little reason to treat the American variants differently than the Kenyan. Anti-democratic practices cloaked in electoral garb are difficult to identify in both cases. Parties claim a majoritarian mandate based on carefully choreographed elections that deliver at best a plurality of the electorate (but translate into a majority of seats). Elected officials use a series of voter suppression tactics to produce favorable outcomes. Again, whether in Kenya or the U.S., such tactics skew electoral competition producing distorted outcomes. Rather than ranking countries by degree of freedom, perhaps we need to focus on better frameworks for assessing when ostensibly democratic practices are deployed tactically to serve anti-democratic ends across the whole spectrum of regimes.

Suggested citation: Aslı Bâli, Electoral Authoritarianism Revisited, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Nov. 1, 2017, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2017/11/electoral-authoritarianism-revisited-i-connect-column/.


[1] Zakaria made the argument first in a 1997 article in Foreign Affairs and later in a book, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (Norton & Co, 2003).

[2] Larry Diamond, “Thinking About Hybrid Regimes,” 13(2) Journal of Democracy 21-35 (2002).

[3] Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way, “The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism,” 13(2) Journal of Democracy 51-65 (2002).

[4] Andreas Schedler, “The Menu of Manipulation,” 13(2) Journal of Democracy 36-50 (2002).

[5] See, e.g., Müge Aknur, ed., Democratic Consolidation in Turkey (Universal, 2012).

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Published on November 1, 2017
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