Authoritarian rulers can also use elections to “crack the whip” within their own parties, putting ambitious potential rivals in their place.
Campaigns are also useful devices for mobilising party activists and leaders, helping to renew stale elites and staving off political decay.
Without a cause to rally around every few years, autocrats’ vital political bases are susceptible to atrophy.
And fortunately for these sorts of leaders, elections are disappointingly easy to rig.
In the course of our research, we found that between 2012 and 2016, more than two-thirds of elections in Africa and almost half of all elections in Asia and post-Soviet Europe featured significant vote-buying.
Worse still, more than a third of elections in all of these regions saw state violence targeting opposition parties and their supporters.
Despite this, elections are rarely condemned by international monitors – in part because rigging is becoming harder and harder to detect.
Whenever monitors come up with new strategies to detect tried and true rigging tactics, dictators and despots innovate.
Authoritarian leaders do sometimes lose elections.
In Gambia in 2016, when President Yahya Jammeh lost to opposition leader Adama Barrow after 22 years in power, it kickstarted a process of international pressure and negotiation that ended with his peaceful deposition and exile. But this remains the exception, not the rule.
As a result, governments that hold elections in an authoritarian context are actually more likely to survive from one year to another than authoritarian regimes that refuse to.
This is something that we should care about whether we think that promoting democracy is a good thing or not, because poor quality polls do far more harm than just keeping bad leaders in power.
In many of the world’s new democracies, elections are such high-stakes events that rigging them can lead to political violence and harm national identity.
The exclusion of candidates of a certain ethnicity or religion may alienate entire communities from the political system, paving the way for civil conflict, as in Cote d’Ivoire.
And clear evidence of ballot box stuffing may trigger opposition clashes with the security forces, as in Kenya, whose flawed 2007 election led to more than 1 000 deaths.
At the same time, desperation to win power may encourage candidates to use violence as a means to keep rivals away from the polls, as in Kazakhstan, where the opposition alleged that one of its leaders, Zamanbek Nurkadilov, was assassinated by the government to prevent him from contesting elections in 2005.
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