Wednesday, August 25, 2021

A Lesson for Russians? Elections More Likely to Bring Down Dictatorships than All Other Events Combined, Petrachkova Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 24 – Every country has its specific features that lead it to develop in particular ways, but political scientists look for broader patterns and have found that elections while they may help an autocrat are more likely to lead to a softening or replacement of his regime than all other developments combined, Aleksandr Petrachkova says.

            Over the last 30 years, she says, 21 of the 38 countries she examined, the political scientist says, became democracies after elections. That 55 percent was more than protests, coups, or external interference combined. She points out, however, that sometimes elections bring not democracy but a new autocracy (

            In the past, autocrats ruled by force alone; but in recent decades, they rule through the management of information. “Instead of repressions [alone], they operate on propaganda and the manipulation of information instead. This has been the case in Russia until recently, Petrachkova continues.

            Dictators, especially those who rely on the management of information, decide to hold elections because they give them certain advantages despite the threat the voting brings. “Electoral autocracies exist longer than other kinds of dictatorships, not counting monarchies. And elections make the dictators more legitimate in the eyes of the world and of their citizens.”

            By holding elections, they find out who supports them and who does not, defining their agenda for repression later; and they are able to present themselves as legitimately elected presidents, exactly what Putin has been doing despite his exclusion of opposition figures and falsification of results.

            But in the short term at least, she says, elections create an element of instability” because “the opposition uses them to reach voters and to mobilize them for protests.” Putin has clearly calculated that they will achieve less than he will because he recognizes that if there were no elections, there would be an increase in “apathy” and anger.

            Consequently, having set up an electoral system, the Kremlin leader cannot walk away from it despite the risks that he will not do as well as he hopes or as well as he believes he can present the outcome. And if the vote goes against him too much, that by itself will put pressure on him to liberalize his regime.

            Because all this is true, a lot is riding on next month’s Duma elections, Petrachkova says, even though just about everyone assumes they know what the results will be. But because Putin can’t cancel them, even small changes in the voting patterns can mean a lot and point to larger changes ahead.

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