Staunton, June 24 – Thirty-seven of the 57 authoritarian regimes which made use of elections to legitimize themselves between 1945 and 2019, Grigory Golosov says, “were not very long-lasting.” Indeed, their average life expectancy was a little more than 20 years, although there have been some which survived far longer.
The political scientist at St. Petersburg’s European University says that the most frequent cause of their collapse was a military coup. That happened in 14 of the 37 that failed. Mass protests on the other hand “put an end to seven such regimes” (ridl.io/ru/jelektoralnyj-avtoritarizm-i-predely-nauchnogo-predvidenija/).
In 13 other cases, political change was carried out by the ruling circles themselves either on their own or jointly with the cooperation of the opposition. Foreign intervention led to regime change in only one of the 57 cases, and in many places where electoral authoritarianism ended, it was replaced by a variant of itself rather than by democracy.
This suggests, Golosov says, that “the fate of electoral authoritarian regimes basically is defined by the decisions of their ruling circles and in particular by the siloviki apparatus, and the main means of change remains a military coup.” But that general pattern does not necessarily speak to any particular case. There specific features may matter more.
In assessing that, the political scientist continues, it is critical to remember that “not for any of these regimes was holding elections obligatory. They have their own means of acquiring and losing power. Thus, elections as is the case under authoritarianism play a secondary and non-essential role.”
Elections did not result in the end of a single electoral authoritarian regime, Golosov says. “In the best case, elections may serve as a comparatively suitable and secure means of giving up power for the ruling group which has already suffered defeat in its own different political battles.”
In short, he reminds, “autocracies hold elections precisely because they are useful for the autocrats. But it is also true that for any authoritarian regime, elections become a moment of turbulence and of a kind of administered political crisis.” But the Kremlin understands this and has taken steps to prevent voting becoming a problem as it was in Armenia and Guyana.
“Vladimir Putin is in good health,” and thus he can remain in power easily for another two terms, Golosov says. Moreover, he has complete control over the Russian force structures and can prevent anything like what has happened in Belarus from happening in the Russian Federation.
That suggests that pessimism about change to democracy in the case of Russia is very much warranted, the political scientist says. But at the same time, elections may matter more in Russia’s case than it would appear. The other “basic institutions” supporting the powers that be are so weak and informal that without elections people accept, problems can arise.
Indeed, without elections in the Russian case, politics becomes “a game without rules.” And such a game “as is well known” makes possible “any outcome,” even if it cannot easily be foreseen. Any participant “can become a threat which the leading player will not be able to foresee or prevent.”
Consequently, Golosov concludes, “it is theoretically possible that by reducing elections to a complete fiction, regimes of the Russian type undermines the basis of their own existence and that by minimizing current risks they open the way in the foreseeable future for their collapse.”