If a government wants to be considered a respectable democracy on the world stage, it must pass a litmus test: holding multi-party elections.
But while more elections are being held around the world than ever before, the average quality of democracy around the world has fallen for the last ten years.
The reason is that authoritarian leaders have learned how to rig elections.
When we started researching this phenomenon, we expected to find the elections these leaders held were vulnerable to manipulation.
Looking into flawed elections in countries such as Belarus, Kenya, Thailand, Uganda, Tunisia, and Zimbabwe, we’ve come across all kinds of rigging strategies, from excluding opposition candidates from the ballot to getting the dead to vote.
But what we show in our new book, How to Rig an Election, is much more startling.
Elections aren’t just failing to remove unpopular autocrats from power; they can actually make it easier for dictators to maintain political control.
In other words, authoritarian regimes that hold elections are more stable than those that don’t.
When confronted with the possibility of multi-party elections, authoritarian leaders typically fight against it tooth and nail.
Many only relent when they are forced to do so by the weight of domestic opposition or an international ultimatum.
But once elections get underway, it’s easier for these leaders to rig them and see them through than it is not to hold them at all.
Elections can make autocrats’ lives easier in several ways.
When personal dictatorships and one-party states get into political difficulties, they risk uniting different opposition groups into broad pro-reform coalitions; after all, people find it easier to unite against a common enemy.
But once a dictator allows multi-party elections, it becomes relatively easy to divide and rule, manipulating personal, ethnic or religious tensions to split and weaken the opposition.
Equally, autocrats who refuse to hold elections often find it difficult to access the funding they need to sustain their regimes, especially if Western governments punish human rights abuses by turning off the aid tap.
But once elections are held, the tap is usually turned back on – even if the elections aren’t exactly high-quality.
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