Elections have been an instrument of authoritarian control as well as a means of democratic governance. Since the early days of the “third wave” of global democratisation, it has become clear that transitions from authoritarian rule can lead anywhere. How do we understand electoral authoritarian regimes which neither practice democracy nor resort regularly to naked repression?
This paper, published in the Journal of Democracy, points out that the idea of democracy has become so closely identified with elections that we are in danger of forgetting that representative elections have been an instrument of authoritarian control as well as a means of democratic governance. The paper argues that electoral authoritarian regimes try to obtain a semblance of democratic legitimacy, hoping to satisfy external as well as internal actors. At the same time, however, by placing elections under tight authoritarian controls they try to cement their continued power. Conceptually, the paper fills in the gap between the opposite poles of liberal democracy and closed authoritarianism with two systematic categories: Electoral democracy and electoral authoritarianism.
The distinction between electoral democracy and electoral authoritarianism builds upon the affirmation that democracy requires elections, but not just any kind of election: Elections must be ‘free and fair’. The conditions for effective democratic choice are : ‘Empowerment’, ‘freedom of supply’, ‘freedom of demand’, ‘inclusion’, ‘insulation’, ‘integrity’, and ‘irreversability’. Other findings of the paper are that:
- Authoritarian rulers may pre-empt potential threats emanating from popular elections by circumscribing the scope of elective office through the use of ‘reserved positions’
- At times, authoritarian incumbents can become victorious at transitional elections thanks to the ineptitude of their opponents
- To prevent voters from acquiring fair knowledge about available choices, incumbents may strive to prevent opposition forces from disseminating their campaign messages
- While democracy is a system in which parties lose elections, electoral authoritarianism is a system in which opposition parties lose elections
- Democratic elections involve the delegation of decision-making authority
- Elections without consequences do not qualify as democratic.
For elections to qualify as democratic, they must take place in an open environment where civil and political liberties are not subject to repression. The democratic ideal of equality demands that votes are weighed equally.
Other suggestions of the paper are that:
- Citizens must be free to form, join, and support conflicting parties, candidates, and policies
- Citizens must be able to learn about available electoral alternatives through access to alternative sources of information
- Citizens must be free to express their electoral preferences.