Democrats today, facing autocratic governments, have an advantage over their predecessors of ten or twenty years ago. Political scientists have studied transitions from authoritarianism and there are many lessons that can be learned from around the world—and applied. Dictators’ political engineers are surely learning too, so the democrats should try at least to be a step ahead.
Let me reflect on some of the main conclusions from a recent edited volume on this subject, Staffan Lindberg’s Democratization by Elections: A New Mode of Transition.
Democratic transitions are complicated affairs. There are many routes from authoritarianism to liberal democracy, including long struggles, repeated partial transitions, blind alleys, reversals and occasional shortcuts. Elections are a pivotal mechanism—perhaps the single most important instrument—of democratization. They don’t always work, but, as Larry Diamond summarizes the case in the book’s foreword, ‘Even deficient elections [are] worth holding and engaging because they [can] advance real democratic change.’ (p. xiii).
The central hypothesis, as formulated by Lindberg, is that ‘De jure competitive elections provide a set of institutions, rights, and processes stacking up incentives and costs in ways that tend to further democratization.’ (p. 9)
Andreas Schedler poses what he calls ‘the opposition dilemma,’ (p. 187) which takes the form: ‘They wish to extract democratic concessions without legitimizing the authoritarian manipulation of elections.’ Each specific situation needs careful analysis, but some general principles can be derived.
Lindberg describes various ways in which elections can serve the process of democratization, even against the intent and organized effort of an authoritarian ruler. For example, a dictator may call for elections confident that he will win, but find that the opposition is far greater than he expected. In trying to rig an election, he may end up discrediting himself even more, but in the meantime the population has been mobilized for peaceful change, and mass protest then forces that change. More commonly, as the key institutions of electoral democracy are put in place, they open up the space for civic pluralism, freedom of expression, and political competition so that, over multiple elections, there is step-by-step democratic transformation.
Ghana is a paradigmatic example: a country which was a ‘closed authoritarian’ system in the wake of the 1981 Rawlings coup and moved by stages to become a fully accredited liberal democracy. The process began with a tentative and limited process of non-party competitive local elections in 1987 (moving through hegemonic authoritarian to competitive authoritarian government). In 1992 there was a new constitution followed by multiparty elections, which fell short of being free and fair, but marked a shift towards electoral democracy. The 1996 second elections were freer, and the 2000 were won by the opposition. With two subsequent free and fair elections, including the peaceful alternation of power and the entrenchment of civil liberties, Ghana qualified as a liberal democracy.
At the other end of the spectrum, elections can be repeatedly rigged, manipulated, or bought. In an excellent chapter in the volume, Ellen Lust-Okar analyzes why elections in many Middle East and North African countries consistently yield conservative outcomes, returning hegemonic authoritarian governments to power. She attributes this to ‘competitive clientelism,’ namely the function of elections as a process whereby communities select individuals to perform the function of wasta, mediators in access to state resources. Candidates will campaign on the basis of their ability to work with the ruler and direct services and jobs to their constituents, and voters will choose accordingly.
In between, there are examples of African states in which the ruling party holds a significant advantage over the opposition but cannot achieve the sustained dominance of their Middle Eastern counterparts. Lise Rakner and Nicolas van der Walle describe African electoral dynamics, noting for example the high turnover of parliamentarians in dominant party systems in which presidents remain in office for a long period. Opposition parties, they explain, tend to be weak and fragment easily, often serving as little more than platforms for the presidential ambitions of their leaders. They note how many candidates run as independents because this allows them to negotiate entry to the winning party, and thereby obtain access to state resources after the election. An interesting section describes how an opposition leader can use executive office at mayoral level as the basis for launching a bid for the presidency (successfully in Madagascar and Benin, unsuccessfully in Uganda). Control of a municipal authority, or a state in a federal system, provides an opportunity (including patronage and funds) for an ambitious individual to build a campaign to challenge for the presidency.
Valerie Bunce and Sharon Wolchik describe and analyze the ‘electoral model’ for a transition from dictatorship in Europe and Asia. The ‘electoral model’ is winning presidential power at the polls, removing an autocrat in one shot. Key to success, they find, are a number of factors. Most important is a unified opposition. ‘Opposition leaders must put aside their own individual ambitions and desires for power to work together and, in most successful cases, agree on a common candidate to support. Such agreement is generally extremely difficult to achieve.’ (p. 262) Other factors include rigorous election monitoring, voter registration drives and ‘get out the vote’ campaigns, organizing parallel reporting mechanisms for electoral results (based on tabulating polling station results one by one), and preparing for non-violent civic protest (which included consulting with the security forces prior to the demonstrations).
Schedler writes that ‘my empirical conclusions invite a couple of practical recommendations’ to a democratic opposition facing the dilemma of whether to ‘legitimize’ flawed elections or to extract small democratic concessions through participating (pp 200-1). These are:
‘First, don’t boycott. Protest instead. Build up mobilizational capacities and take your followers onto the streets. Withdrawing from the electoral arena hurts you in the short run (which hurts a lot) and probably over the long haul (where everything is more uncertain). Counteracting authoritarian manipulation through active protest, by contrast, pays tangible benefits within one electoral cycle. Second, in preparing for presidential elections, fight for media freedom and an open field of competitors. Censorship and exclusion, more than anything else, are likely to debilitate you in the personalist competition for the presidential office. Third, take legislative elections seriously…. Your relative immunity to manipulation in the legislative arena provides golden opportunities for conquering congressional positions of power and publicity. All in all, even if weather conditions look less than inviting, keep protesting in the rain.’