Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Autocratic elections — procedural democracy

Are even autocratic elections (or is procedural democracy) good for a country? Debate amongst yourselves. (And check out the original article for more references.)

The author is Michael K. Miller an Assistant Professor of Political Science at George Washington University.

The surprising benefits of autocratic elections
After a bitterly contested election campaign and several controversial postponements, Muhammadu Buhari engineered an upset of Nigeria’s incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan… while two other African countries, Sudan and Togo, are also scheduled to hold elections… Besides the coincidence in electoral timing, these countries share another surprising link—all three are generally recognized as autocracies.

The marriage of autocracy with contested elections is, in fact, the norm nowadays. All but five autocracies have held a national election since 2000, with about three in four allowing multiparty competition. What makes these regimes autocratic is that the elections fail to meet democratic standards, typically with state power being used to favor the ruling party. Prominent examples include Singapore, Russia, Jordan and Venezuela…

[T]he spread of multiparty elections is largely a result of international pressure, norms and conditions on foreign aid. As many authors have pointed out, the end product of “democracy promotion” (on which the United States annually spends around a billion dollars) is more often electoral autocracy than real democracy. The fear is that we are encouraging elections that are either pointless window-dressing or, in some cases, may even damage governance and bolster autocratic stability.

Electoral autocracies may be less desirable than true democracies, but they still have a range of positive consequences. As Nigeria demonstrates, it’s a mistake to assume that manipulation makes autocratic elections uncompetitive and meaningless… The result is a series of benefits that make them clearly superior to non-electoral autocracy.

A first consequence is a country’s long-term chances for democracy… If there is an effect, it’s a small one…

A forthcoming paper of mine confirms that democracies are much more likely to survive if they have a history of autocratic elections. This shouldn’t be too surprising, as today’s strongest democracies all passed through a prolonged period of unfair or limited-suffrage elections. Over time, even highly imperfect elections tend to improve a country’s political institutions, allow strong political parties to develop, and give citizens a taste for voting and political activism.

A second benefit of autocratic elections relates to health and education outcomes…

A long-term electoral autocracy should expect roughly one-third fewer infant deaths and an additional 10-25 percent of its population to be literate… this modernization effect improves the conditions for future democratic stability…

[A]utocratic elections often exhibit a meaningful degree of policy responsiveness. Specifically, when ruling parties start losing votes, they often increase their social and education spending following the elections…

[T]he findings further support the benefits of political competition and liberalization. Yet we should recognize that establishing democracy is often not a realistic option…

There’s a sense in which many autocrats are playing a cynical con by embracing elections, reaping the rewards, and then using these elections to magnify their own power.

Yet democracy promoters are arguably playing the longer con, getting dictators to accept the very institutions that, over time, make countries inhospitable to dictatorship…

Teaching Comparative blog entries are indexed. Use the search box to look for country names or concept labels attached to each entry.

Just The Facts! is a concise guide to concepts, terminology, and examples that will appear on May's exam.

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