Staunton, November 17 – Because of events in Georgia and Ukraine, many have postulated a close relationship between elections and revolutions in autocratic states, Margarita Zavadskaya says. But there are six widely spread assumptions behind that notion all of which are at a minimum far less true than outside observers, participants, and governments believe.
First, the St. Petersburg European University political scientist says, it is not the case that “protests are triggered by the most obviously rigged elections.” She adds that “in regimes where accountability is problematic, falsifications and violations rarely lead to protests.” According to her estimates, “only 25 percent of elections in authoritarian regimes sparked protests” between 1990 and 2011” (ridl.io/ru/shest-mifov-o-vyborah-i-protestah-v-avtokratijah/).
“Protests,” she says, “take place mostly where people know how to detect violations and what kind of violations to expect; where they believe violations are likely, and where they are willing to spread the news about violations. The first two conditions are necessary but not sufficient.”
Second, Zavadskaya continues, it is not true that “protests can be controlled or sparked from the outside.” While it is true that most protests are “not fully spontaneous,” they seldom can be provoked by outsiders but must reflect the views of a large number of people in the countries in question.
Third, it is also not the case that “only opposition figures and idealists protest against unfair elections.” They may form the core, but they are joined in most cases and in all cases where the protests effectively challenge the entrenched regimes by others who have “pragmatic” reasons for taking to the streets.
Fourth, Zavadskaya continues, the data do not confirm the notion that “if voters take part in ‘bad’ elections on a regular basis, they will gradually learn how to use them and the elections will thereby eventually become normal.” In fact, if the regime denies opponents the chance to run for office, this will not happen; and people will have to choose between passivity and revolt.
Fifth, it is not true that “given existing institutions, it makes no sense for dissenters to take part in elections.” Not taking part as a form of boycott may even help the incumbent powers because “it demobilizes the protesting electorate and reduces the costs of ensuring that the right result is achieved.”
And sixth, it is not the case that “electronic voting will make the process more open and accessible.” If alternative candidates and parties are not allowed, Zavadskaya says, “no additional technological tricks can make the election process more open, let alone more democratic.”
All these misconceptions must be recognized and rejected as observers predict what it likely to happen in the upcoming Duma elections in the Russian Federation. United Russia is unpopular and likely will lose seats, but Moscow won’t let serious opposition figures and groups in, and any protests will thus depend largely on what the opposition decides and is able to do.