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Why Do Authoritarian Regimes Love Elections?


At openDemocracy, Egyptian journalist Amro Ali examines the paradoxical fact that modern authoritarian regimes love to hold sham elections. Focusing on the regime of Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Ali argues that elections create for a dictator the veneer of legitimacy, and also provide a pretext for shuffling cabinet positions and regional leadership. But sham elections aren’t without risk for authoritarian leaders, says Ali; they also give opposition forces something to unite around. Read an excerpt from Ali’s article below, or the full text here.

Rigged elections come in all varieties: ballot-stuffing, the arrest of opposition figures, intimidation of opposition supporters and miscounting of votes, among other imaginative techniques. Yet at the heart of it all remains a consistent factor — the regime views elections not as an institutionalized mechanism within an accountable governance process, but as a carefully orchestrated event wrapped in a spectacle to reinforce the regime’s strength and test the oppositional waters.

By the very nature of their positions, authoritarian leaders project extreme insecurity, as their legitimacy is not reaped from popular representation and democratic accountability, but from the support of elites and the security establishment. This type of support is extremely precarious, as it is not only suspended above responsible political cycles, but also makes for potentially messy endings such as coups, revolutions and imprisonment. Therefore, elections are often a safety valve to manage threats.

Image: Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Via Newsweek.