Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Electoral Authoritarian Regimes Cannot Be Ousted by Voting But They Can Be De-Legitimized, Gelman Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 15 – Russia and Belarus are regimes of “electoral authoritarianism,” Vladimir Gelman says, ones in which elections are organized to legitimate those in power and not allow the opposition to come to power. But if voters cannot hope to overthrow them at the ballot box, they can de-legitimate them by their votes.

            “Electoral authoritarianism” is a special form of authoritarianism, the Moscow political analyst says, one that allow for competitive elections but ensures that only those the regime wants can win, thus exploiting voting to legitimate those in power (

            This distinguishes them from “those authoritarian regimes which do not allow elections at all or in which elections are obvious non-competitive as was the case in the USSR before 1989,” Gelman continues. And at the same time, it means that “overthrowing electoral authoritarianism via elections is impossible.”

            But voters can inflict serious harm on regimes of “electoral authoritarianism,” he argues. They can do so by voting for candidates which look to be the most likely to serve as an alternative to the regime because they have a chance to get more votes than do those of the regime.

                What is happening in Belarus shows that rulers who use this system must be careful. Lukashenka clearly thought he could win without difficulty even if he allowed Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya to be on the ballot. Had he kept her off, the August vote likely would have been a repetition of the 2015 election. He would have “won” and there wouldn’t have been protests.

            The Belarusian dictator failed to recognize how angry Belarusians are at him and how many were prepared to vote “not so much for her as against him.” 

            “In Russia today,” Gelman says, “the situation with regard to elections is approximately that of the one in Belarus before August 9.” The regime has managed the situation better, but voters have, by using “smart voting,” inflicted harm on its reputation and thus its legitimacy as such.

            Those Russians who live in districts where they can vote for a good candidate in this cause have it easy, but even if the candidates on offer do not include anyone like that, the voters benefit and the regime loses if they vote for anyone even someone who appears noxious whom the regime doesn’t like.

            They aren’t going to overthrow the regime, but they are going to weaken it, as the events in Belarus and in Khabarovsk show.  That is one of the side effects of relying on this form of dictatorship. And it is one that imposes special responsibilities on rulers and on those who would like to see them changed.

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