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The surprising benefits of autocratic elections

- April 2, 2015

A campaign poster of incumbent presidential candidate Goodluck Jonathan stands torn apart on a street corner in Lagos, Nigeria, on Feb. 14, 2015. (Ahmed Jallanzo/European Pressphoto Agency)
After a bitterly contested election campaign and several controversial postponements, Muhammadu Buhari engineered an upset of Nigeria’s incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan on Tuesday, the country’s first-ever case of electoral turnover. Legislative elections will follow on April 11, while two other African countries, Sudan and Togo, are also scheduled to hold elections over the next two weeks. Besides the coincidence in electoral timing, these countries share another surprising link—all three are generally recognized as autocracies.
The marriage of autocracy with contested elections is, in fact, the norm nowadays. All but five autocracies have held a national election since 2000, with about three in four allowing multiparty competition. What makes these regimes autocratic is that the elections fail to meet democratic standards, typically with state power being used to favor the ruling party. Prominent examples include Singapore, Russia, Jordan and Venezuela.
What should we think about these electoral autocracies? This is more than a theoretical question, as the spread of multiparty elections is largely a result of international pressure, norms and conditions on foreign aid. As many authors have pointed out, the end product of “democracy promotion” (on which the United States annually spends around a billion dollars) is more often electoral autocracy than real democracy. The fear is that we are encouraging elections that are either pointless window-dressing or, in some cases, may even damage governance and bolster autocratic stability.
My own research presents a more positive spin: Electoral autocracies may be less desirable than true democracies, but they still have a range of positive consequences. As Nigeria demonstrates, it’s a mistake to assume that manipulation makes autocratic elections uncompetitive and meaningless. While many are, with Sudan’s upcoming election a likely example, others are closely contested and unpredictable. The result is a series of benefits that make them clearly superior to non-electoral autocracy.
A first consequence is a country’s long-term chances for democracy. It’s been much-debated whether elections improve a country’s likelihood of democratization. If there is an effect, it’s a small one. A subtly different question is whether autocratic elections influence stability after a country democratizes.
A forthcoming paper (ungated) of mine confirms that democracies are much more likely to survive if they have a history of autocratic elections. This shouldn’t be too surprising, as today’s strongest democracies all passed through a prolonged period of unfair or limited-suffrage elections. Over time, even highly imperfect elections tend to improve a country’s political institutions, allow strong political parties to develop, and give citizens a taste for voting and political activism.
A second benefit of autocratic elections relates to health and education outcomes. A wealth of political science research shows that democracy improves human development by encouraging responsive leaders. In a forthcoming article, I find that multiparty autocracy has a similarly strong, positive effect on outcomes like infant mortality, literacy and gender equality in education.
To justify a causal interpretation, I show that the effect holds up when looking at regime history or when using instrumental variables. How large is the effect? A long-term electoral autocracy should expect roughly one-third fewer infant deaths and an additional 10-25 percent of its population to be literate (compared to non-electoral autocracy). Besides the obvious benefits for citizen welfare, this modernization effect improves the conditions for future democratic stability. This finding complements work by Jennifer Gandhi, Joseph Wright, and others showing that autocratic legislatures promote more favorable government spending, civil liberties, and economic growth.
Finally, I show in other work (ungated) that autocratic elections often exhibit a meaningful degree of policy responsiveness. Specifically, when ruling parties start losing votes, they often increase their social and education spending following the elections. Although this doesn’t compare to the responsiveness found in most democracies, the finding shows that even highly flawed elections provide openings for citizens to extract policy concessions.
To be clear, none of this questions democracy as the ideal. If anything, the findings further support the benefits of political competition and liberalization. Yet we should recognize that establishing democracy is often not a realistic option. Whereas we can usually persuade autocrats to allow mere elections (which they can control at first), it’s much harder to convince them to accept a level of free competition that threatens their political survival. The lesson is to promote authentic democracy wherever possible, but also to recognize electoral autocracy as clearly superior to old-fashioned dictatorship.
The distaste that many observers have for autocratic elections is understandable. There’s a sense in which many autocrats are playing a cynical con by embracing elections, reaping the rewards, and then using these elections to magnify their own power.
Yet democracy promoters are arguably playing the longer con, getting dictators to accept the very institutions that, over time, make countries inhospitable to dictatorship. This tension should be familiar to the newly elected Buhari, who took power in a military coup in 1983, only to see his fellow generals oust him two years later.
Even the most powerful weapons can betray their masters.
Michael K. Miller is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at George Washington University.