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Democracy, or Something Like It – The New York Times

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No one is fooled when authoritarian leaders carry out fake elections. So why do they bother?

This is an article from World Review: The State of Democracy, a special section that examines global policy and affairs, and is published in conjunction with the annual Athens Democracy Forum.
The Nicaraguan president, Daniel Ortega, who has most recently been in power since 2007, is running for a fourth consecutive term this year. Virtually all of his potential challengers have disappeared, been detained, or pushed into exile, while the independent media has been silenced and the main opposition party has been formally disqualified from running.
Yet Mr. Ortega continues to keep up the illusion of holding free elections, imitating the tactics of President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela. Last year, Mr. Maduro’s administration cracked down on dissident leaders, journalists and activists in Venezuela ahead of December’s parliamentary elections, which were eventually boycotted by the opposition. Mr. Maduro’s governing majority and allies won 91 percent of the seats in the National Assembly.
Nicaragua is not alone in constructing a democratic facade, but Mr. Ortega’s methods have been exceptionally striking. “This is a dramatic escalation of systemic repression which we haven’t seen in Latin America since the 1980s,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank.
“There is still a desire on the part of regimes to have a fig leaf of democracy, however not credible that is,” Mr. Shifter said. He noted that the pretense might have been the excuse Mexico and Argentina needed to avoid joining in a recent Organization of American States vote denouncing the crackdown against Mr. Ortega’s political rivals in Nicaragua.
These days, governments like those in Nicaragua, Venezuela and elsewhere that reject political pluralism are ready to go to great lengths to pretend to embrace democracy — primarily by imitating the crucial rituals of periodic elections.
When election time comes around, authoritarians allow a certain amount of political campaigning, vet candidates (barring or even arresting those deemed too critical of the government), then make a show of counting ballots, all the while intending to hold on to power.
But faking elections can be a tricky business. Too big a victory can draw suspicion and encourage an angry populace to gather on the streets, as happened after the 2020 presidential election in Belarus. Too big a loss can be difficult to falsify, as was the case in Zambia in August when, despite the incumbent’s overt attempts at voter intimidation, the challenger, Hakainde Hichilema, managed to win the presidency by more than a million votes.
Authoritarians have learned that they must carefully weigh how and when to interfere. Too much pre-election excitement can encourage too big a turnout, drawing more votes for the opposition. A low turnout is safer, because authoritarians have ways of making sure their voters get to the polls.
Such intrigues require preparation, skill and money, all for an exercise that most citizens know is a sham.
So why bother to pretend?
Elections, even flawed ones, serve a purpose. The goal for autocrat and democrat alike is legitimacy — a right to rule that, in the views of most citizens in the 21st century, can be bestowed only by a popular vote, or at least the semblance of one.
In other eras, and even now in some parts of the world, the right to rule could be inherited by a monarch, blessed by religious faith or sustained by an iron-fisted ideology like Communism. But where those options have been exhausted, democracy — or something resembling it — seems to be the best, and maybe the only, option for maintaining a monopoly on power short of outright dictatorship.
“In the contemporary world, there are, practically speaking, no alternative ideologies,” Dmitri Furman, a Russian political scientist, wrote in New Left Review in 2008. He used the term “imitation democracy” to describe the combination of democratic forms and authoritarian reality then in place across most of the former Soviet Union.
This formula was recently perfected in Russia, 20 years into Vladimir V. Putin’s rule, ahead of parliamentary elections last month.
There never was any doubt that United Russia, the party backed by Mr. Putin, would come out on top. And indeed, the final vote gave the party 324 of the Duma’s 450 seats, more than enough to guarantee a constitutional, or two-thirds, majority (but fewer than the 343 seats United Russia took in 2016).
Still, Mr. Putin and his allies took no chances, deploying heavy-handed measures to keep his critics off the ballot, while giving generous handouts to sway apathetic voters. Pensioners and military personnel, two crucial constituencies, received one-off pre-election bonuses, at an estimated cost of $6.7 billion to the federal government.
Followers of the jailed opposition figure Alexei Navalny, now legally labeled “extremists,” were barred from running, and some were put in jail or forced to flee the country. Popular candidates from Russia’s legal parliamentary parties — including the liberal centrist party Yabloko and the Communist Party — were pushed off the ballot under thinly veiled pretenses, ranging from faulty paperwork to allegations of criminal offenses. In St. Petersburg, a well-known Yabloko candidate found himself running against two people who had recently adopted not only his name but also his appearance.
The Kremlin also took on independent media outlets, declaring that many journalists were foreign agents. And yet news still leaked about local officials who went to great lengths to gin up the vote for United Russia. Election officials were reportedly caught on tape discussing vote targets of 42 percent to 45 percent, presumably for United Russia, and government officials complained of being pressured by their employers to vote. In today’s Russia, these advantages are called “administrative resources,” all of which tipped the scales in United Russia’s favor.
Similar tactics have worked in the past. In Russia’s 2016 parliamentary elections, officials in the city of Saratov did not take any risks. In about 100 of the city’s 373 electoral districts, the results were exactly the same: 62.2 percent for United Russia, 11.8 percent for the Communist Party, and on down the list. A local electoral commission official dismissed the suspicious results as a mere coincidence.
Much has changed in the last five years. Unpopular pension reforms in 2018 have hurt both Mr. Putin and United Russia in opinion polls. Ahead of the September elections, the party’s popularity hit a record low, falling below 30 percent nationally, and even lower in the big cities.
“United Russia’s polling is bad, but it doesn’t really matter,” Aleksei Mukhin, director of the Center for Political Information, a Moscow think tank, told The Moscow Times in an interview in early September. A recycled Soviet-era joke made the rounds after the elections: “You pretend to hold elections, and we pretend to vote,” a retooled version of the old quip “You pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.”
But elections benefit the Putin government, according to an analysis by the political scientists Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes in their book “The Light That Failed: Why the West Is Losing the Fight for Democracy,” published last year. Elections have been turned into national rituals, spectacles that create the illusion that Russian voters can play a role in politics. They can also test the national mood, district by district, and allow the Kremlin to measure the loyalty and competence of their local officials.
“You had a hard time in post-Communist Russia finding out how local officials were behaving, figuring out who was reliable, who could turn out the vote,” Mr. Holmes said in an interview. “It is not just about loyalty, but also about who is effective. Elections give you new tools to measure performance.”
Paradoxically, “a managed democracy,” a term often used to describe the Putin system of government, is not so much about pretending to be democratic, but rather about pretending to manage, Mr. Holmes and Mr. Krastev said in their book. “Rigging an election also allowed the government to mimic the authoritarian power that it did not actually possess,” they wrote. “In Putin’s first decade in power, organizing a pseudo-election was like wearing sheep’s clothing to prove that you are a wolf.”
But most pseudo-democrats these days are reluctant to assume their inner autocratic selves: They are not sure how to be wolves. In Nicaragua, where Mr. Ortega lost an election in 1990 after five years in power, today’s government seems to have gone further than others toward becoming a police state, but most other authoritarian rulers are careful not to cross the line, at times at the risk of seeming ineffective.
Typically, they promote their hold on power as a guarantee of stability, and a protection of the nation in a hostile, unstable world. And in some cases, such leaders do in fact enjoy broad support: Mr. Putin’s popularity rating in Russia is down from a high point of 88 percent after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, but it still hovers above 60 percent, well above the ratings of leaders in Western democracies.
These days, elections may be a necessary tool for authoritarian systems to hold power, but they remain risky, as was the case in Zambia, where the opposition managed against all odds to score a victory that was too big to deny, and in Belarus where the falsification of the results was so obvious that protesters came out to the streets.
“Politics is about promising and disappointing and managing the disappointment,” Mr. Holmes said. “The special magic of democracy is that, although a lot of people may be disappointed, they have a hope that at the next election, they can bring in another group. By giving up the idea that another group can come to power, a lot of pressure builds up.”
Celestine Bohlen is a former New York Times Moscow correspondent who covered the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.