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Why Do Autocrats Like Putin Bother to Hold Elections?

The elections in Russia earlier this month were widely condemned as a performance that fell somewhere between tragedy and farce. Although President Vladimir Putin does have substantial public support, the vote was stage-managed to ensure that he would be “re-elected” with more than 87 percent of the vote.

And the result was fixed long before Russians even arrived at polling stations: The political opposition has been ruthlessly crushed, independent media has been silenced and public protesters have been given draconian prison sentences. Russia’s most prominent opposition politician, Aleksei Navalny, died in prison last month.

All of which raises an interesting question: Why do autocratic leaders bother holding rigged elections at all?

It can be helpful to think of elections in autocratic states as an exercise in propaganda, targeted at multiple audiences. Fixing a vote can be a way for an incumbent like Putin to demonstrate his control over the levers of power: there is value in demonstrating that bureaucratic agencies, local governments, security forces and the media are loyal (or cowed) enough to participate in such a substantial, expensive and complex project.

That performance of control can also serve as a warning to the opposition and any of its potential allies, underlining the apparent futility of protest. “If you have an 87 percent victory, it’s like, ‘Do I really want to die, when this is just pointless because he’s got such an iron grip on power?’” Brian Klaas, a political scientist at University College London who coauthored the book “How to Rig an Election.” “Part of that is to basically exhibit dominance over the domestic sphere and deter opposition.”

The public might know that the election has been rigged, but not know by how much. So even a manipulated election can contribute to the image of a leader’s popularity, especially if the press is already heavily loyal, Klaas said.

Foreign audiences matter, too. Just as human rights-violating states often create sham justice tribunals to create the illusion of accountability, making it less embarrassing for allies to continue propping them up, autocratic regimes sometimes use rigged elections to allow their allies to claim they are supporting an “elected” government.

That is probably less of a consideration for Russia, which was heavily sanctioned by Western nations after it launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, and now looks to autocratic states like China and North Korea for support. But for countries that are more reliant on aid from democratic allies, holding some form of elections can be a crucial element of maintaining that support.

Elections can also be a vital source of information. “Dictators are victims of their own repression because no one tells them the truth,” Klaas said. “So one thing that dictators do is they use elections as a proxy to figure out how popular they genuinely are.”

Allowing some campaigning and a few other names on the ballot paper can offer a window into a leader’s actual appeal — even if the government then tweaks the results to prevent the real information from ever becoming public.

The process can also help leaders identify opposition figures who might become threats. Putin, for instance, cracked down on the nascent opposition and protest movement that formed around the 2011 Russian elections, using arrests, forced exile and other repressive methods to further concentrate power in his own hands.

But that method can occasionally backfire. Researchers have found that simply holding elections can open a door to eventual regime change, even when they were intended to do the opposite.

Research by Beatriz Magaloni, a Stanford political scientist, shows that stolen elections can sometimes lead to “civil revolutions,” in which the attempted manipulation leads to mass protests, which then prompt the military and other elite allies to defect from the incumbent regime, forcing it from office. That was what happened in Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution” in 2004, for instance, and Georgia’s “Rose Revolution” in 2003.

Of course that remains a fairly unusual outcome. Ukraine and Georgia had a far more substantial political opposition, for example, than in Russia, where Putin has ruthlessly prevented opposition figures like Navalny from even making it onto the ballot. Attempts to spark a similar revolution in Russia after the 2011 elections fizzled, and the crackdown on dissent that followed would make such a movement far more difficult to form now.

Sometimes, if the opposition unites, a vote intended as a rigged performance can become a real contest. Yahya Jammeh ruled Gambia for decades, using repression and torture to silence dissent and crush political opposition. He was accustomed to “winning” elections with more than 70 percent of the vote and expected the same result in 2016. But instead he lost.

The opposition managed to coalesce around one candidate, Adama Barrow, a real-estate company owner. The large Gambian diaspora abroad gave his campaign the resources it needed, and some of the rigging methods that Jammeh was apparently relying on failed: A warehouse believed to contain false voter IDs intended to aid electoral manipulation was burned down in an arson attack right before the election, leaving too little time to make more. When it became clear that the voting tally favored the opposition, the head of the electoral commission reported the results despite government pressure to stop.

And while foreign allies might be willing to look the other way when elections are manipulated or rigged, there are much stronger norms against actually overturning results. Jammeh’s appeal to other African leaders to keep him in office fell on deaf ears, and they backed Barrow instead. A few weeks after the election, foreign troops from ECOWAS, a regional organization of West African nations, entered the country to help force him from office.

But such electoral revolutions are rare, and perhaps becoming more so. Recent decades, Klaas said, have amounted to a period of “authoritarian learning,” in which autocratic leaders have become increasingly skilled at electoral manipulation.

“Only amateurs steal elections on Election Day,” he said. “The pros are really doing it in advance, through a series of much more savvy, subtle ways.”

  • The War Lawyers: The United States, Israel, and Juridical Warfare,” by Craig Jones, is a deeply researched study of the role that lawyers play in warfare, particularly aerial bombardments. Although the book, which was published in January 2021, predates the current military operation in Gaza, the legal and operational issues that Jones discusses remain highly relevant.

  • Rules of Civility,” by Amor Towles. I’d somehow never read anything by Towles, despite devoting an entire summer to novels of snobbery last year. (Many of you recommended his work, so I only have myself to blame.) I enjoyed the prose very much, and the gently twisting story line, but in the end it felt a bit hollow. Perhaps that was the point?

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