Is it Strange that Dictators Hold Elections?

Why do dictators hold elections that merely play to the gallery?

On 11 October, Alexander Lukashenko was re-elected as president of Belarus with an impressive 84 per cent share of the vote. The election was anything but free and fair. According to the OSCE, Belarusian law makes it impossible for the will of the people to be realized and, as if that were not enough, the election itself was characterized by fraud. Lukashenko’s regime had invested significant resources in preventing the election from being meaningful. So what was the point of holding it? Why do dictators hold elections that merely play to the gallery?

Alexander Lukashenko during this year’s 7th BRICS summit in UFA. PHOTO: CC BY 4.0

The fact that regimes like Lukashenko’s hold elections is even more surprising when one takes into account the fact that doing so is often extremely hazardous for a regime. Recent research conducted by myself, in collaboration with Carl Henrik Knutsen and Tore Wig of the University of Oslo, showed that around three times as many regimes fall in the year after an election as in the year before.

Coordination Problems

The main reason for this phenomenon – that is, increased regime failures in the year after an election – is linked to the effect that an election has on resolving so-called “coordination problems”. Coordination problems arise when individuals can realize a gain without contributing to the process of realising it. The democratic system of government is a classic example of a coordination problem – East Germans who stayed at home in 1989 and watched the demonstrations against Erich Honecker’s regime are today benefiting from German democracy on a par with those who participated actively in the demonstrations.

Active participation in demonstrations, however, comes at a price. First of all, you may lose a day’s work, but the main risk lies in the fact that participating in such demonstrations is often directly hazardous for your health. Dictators use violence to suppress movements within civil society.

As a demonstrator, you risk being beaten up, imprisoned, tortured and, in extreme cases, killed – simply for having joined a demonstration. Accordingly, a key problem for anyone who wants to topple a regime is quite simply how to mobilize enough people.

Mobilizing enough people is critical. If you are lucky enough to be among a group of half a million demonstrators, you are relatively safe: there is safety in numbers. But if you are among a group of 50, a jail cell awaits. Or, as Honecker’s security chief Erich Mielke apparently told his namesake: “Erich, we can’t beat up hundreds of thousands of people!”

The Election as a Meeting Point

This is where elections are of crucial importance. In authoritarian regimes it is always dangerous, and often impossible, for different groups of revolutionaries and opinion-makers to communicate and make plans.

In this respect, elections are crucial because they represent a single, concentrated event around which these groups and individuals can focus their attempts to mobilize people. The importance of an election as this type of meeting point is that it makes it possible for groups to coordinate themselves around acting on a specific date – the election – without having agreed to do so in advance.

In addition to being meeting points that resolve coordination problems, elections are also dangerous for dictators when they reveal vulnerability. A surprising election result may show a country’s population that the regime is not as strong as people believed. This may in turn make it easier to resolve coordination problems.

Worth the Risk

Consequently, everything suggests that it is dangerous for a dictator to hold an election. So why do around 80 per cent of dictators hold elections nonetheless? To answer this question, it is necessary to distinguish between elections as events and elections as institutions. The actual election event is extremely hazardous for a dictator. Nonetheless, it is advantageous for a dictator to be able to take advantage of the effects of the institutional aspects of an election. On balance, it seems that a dictator will be willing to take the short-term risk represented by holding an election, because this will bring with it a set of institutions that will have a strong tendency to stabilize and increase the lifetime of the regime in the longer term.

The survival of an authoritarian regime depends highly on its ability effectively to suppress other groups in society or to incorporate them into the its own alliances. Dictators who understand when a group should be suppressed and when it should be incorporated within the regime will stay in power longer than dictators who either blindly suppress all groups or undermine their own position by bringing too many groups into the regime.

This is where elections are important. Elections reveal information about potential opponents and challengers who are particularly strong, and accordingly where a dictator should concentrate his resources. Similarly, an election reveals information about the effectiveness of the dictator’s own organization. A key problem for a dictator is that he may quickly find himself in a situation where he no longer receives reliable information from his underlings. If a dictator has asked to get 95 per cent of the votes in a particular constituency but only gets 78 per cent, he will know that his local apparatus in that area is less effective than it claims to be. Such information is invaluable for any leader.

Optimizing Electoral Fraud

Holding an election requires a dictator to build up an efficient and complex organization. This is not so much for administering the election, but for mobilizing enough of the dictator’s own supporters on the election day, and ensuring an optimal level of electoral fraud. An election therefore represents an excellent opportunity for a dictator to enhance his own supporters’ capacity to mobilize and act effectively on behalf of the regime – if one day the dictator faces a serious challenge, this capacity may be decisive.

Last, but not least, an election will often result in the allocation of seats in some form of parliament. Such parliaments are useful for giving specific groups that form part of the regime a forum for conducting organized and structured negotiations, and for arriving at compromises among themselves. In a dictatorship, this is important for the regime’s survival.

Obviously there are other factors that may be important, but the main reason why dictators, often enthusiastically, hold elections are thus quite simply that they make it easier to establish a stable regime in the long term.

The risks of the period immediately before, during and after an election are more than outweighed by the positive – for the dictator – effects of the election as an institution.

Share this: