Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The Rise and Decline of Electoral Authoritarianism in Russia

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The Rise and Decline of Electoral Authoritarianism in Russia

Article excerpt

Abstract. Many scholars argue that the political regime in contemporary Russia exemplifies the global phenomenon of electoral authoritarianism. But, what are the major features of such a regime in the case of Russia? Why and how did it proceed through a life cycle of emergence, development, and decay? And how might it evolve in the foreseeable future? This article seeks answers to these questions.

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By the 2010s, almost nobody used the term "democracy" when referring to Russia, and debates among experts were mostly focused on how far the country deviated from democratic standards. (1) While "pessimists" wrote of the consolidation of an authoritarian regime in Russia, (2) "optimists" avoided such firm claims, focusing instead on the low level of repression by Russia's political regime (3) or labeling it as a "hybrid" due to the presence of some democratic institutions. (4) To some extent, these terminological controversies reflected conceptual problems in the study of regimes globally. (5) But, beyond that, most scholars agree that Russian politics under Vladimir Putin has been marked by such pathologies as outrageously unfair and fraudulent elections, the coexistence of weak and impotent political parties with a dominant "party of power," a heavily censored (often self-censored) media, rubber-stamping legislatures at the national and sub-national levels, politically subordinated courts, arbitrary use of the economic powers of the state, and widespread corruption.

In this article, I attempt to explain the logic of the emergence and development of Russia's current political regime, identify its major features and peculiarities, reconsider its institutional foundations and mechanisms of enforcement, analyze the trajectory of the regime's "life cycle," and reflect on possible trajectories for future evolution.

Electoral Authoritarianism: Why?

If one placed post-communist Russia on the world map of political regimes, it would fit into the category of "electoral" or "competitive" authoritarianism. (6) These regimes, although authoritarian, incorporate elections that are meaningful, and stand in contrast to "classical" versions of authoritarianism, which are known for their "elections without choice." (7) However, in electoral or competitive authoritarianism, and in contrast to electoral democracies, elections are marked by an uneven playing field based on: formal and informal rules that construct prohibitively high barriers to participation; sharply unequal access of competitors to financial and media resources; abuses of power by the state apparatus for the sake of maximizing incumbent votes; and multiple instances of electoral fraud. The uneven playing field serves as a defining distinction between electoral authoritarianism and electoral democracy.

Recently, there has been a proliferation of electoral authoritarian regimes as a result of two different, although not mutually exclusive, forces. First, regular elections under tightly controlled party competition allows rulers of authoritarian regimes to effectively monitor their country's elites, the state apparatus, and the citizenry, thus averting risks of the regime's sudden collapse due to domestic political conflicts. (8) Second, autocrats across the globe hold elections as a means of legitimizing the status quo in the eyes of both domestic and international actors. (9) However, such elections have become a crucial test of survival for electoral authoritarian regimes: rulers must not only defeat their challengers in unfair elections, but also persuade both domestic and foreign audiences to acknowledge such victories and to mute criticisms about electoral unfairness. Although many electoral authoritarian regimes resolved these tasks more or less successfully, post-electoral protests following unfair elections could often become challenges to regime survival, as the experience of the "color revolutions" in post-communist states and the "Arab Spring" demonstrates. …

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