Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Electoral Sources of Authoritarian Resilience in Russia: Varieties of Electoral Malpractice, 2007-2016

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Electoral Sources of Authoritarian Resilience in Russia: Varieties of Electoral Malpractice, 2007-2016

Article excerpt

Successive uninterrupted election cycles--even rigged and substandard ones--are often expected to foster democratic rule through gradual learning and the embedding of the electoral game as the standard procedure for transitioning power. (1) However, evidence from a number of political regimes suggests that this is not always the case. The post-Soviet space and Southeast Asia are two regions where repetitive elections over more than two decades have not strengthened democratic practices but rather seem to have solidified authoritarian regimes. Russia, for instance, holds regular national and subnational elections, yet a range of indicators clearly indicate that the political regime falls short of an electoral democracy. (2)

The blossoming literature on electoral authoritarianism has already demonstrated that elections do not always serve as instruments of democracy, (3) but can instead successfully sustain modern forms of authoritarianism. (4) Some scholars claim that elections maintain political cooptation, (5) while others draw attention to how elections may scare off the opposition by signaling the regime's invincibility. (6) Still others stress the role of authoritarian election in distributing rents among elites, (7) or in maintaining linkages with territorial communities. (8) Yet, few studies to date have explicitly examined the possible interplay of these functions and their dependence on the needs of a regime at any given point in time.

Our study addresses this gap by arguing that each autocracy relies on a strategically deployed toolbox of instruments, or "menu of manipulation" to facilitate the exercise of political power over the ruled. The toolbox may include "lies, fear and economic prosperity," as posited by Adam Przeworski. (9) This involves restricting the flow of information; censorship; targeted or wholesale repression; and specific forms of upholding political legitimacy. On the one hand, elections make it easier for the incumbent to collect politically relevant information. On the other hand, they urge the ruling elites to minimize electoral uncertainty, specifically uncertainty about remaining in office, ex ante. This leads incumbents and regime officials to tilt the electoral playing field through a variety of manipulations, from re-drafting electoral and party legislation to ballot stuffing or the intimidation of voters and opposition. (10) Recent research has demonstrated that the role of elections varies dramatically from one form of authoritarianism to another, reflecting its ambiguous role in triggering democratization. (11) But does the role of elections also change over time and space within a given autocracy?

The research question we pursue in this study is: what role do elections have in authoritarian regimes for a) the regime, b) the opposition, and c) the citizenry? More specifically, how can one understand the functional evolution of the role of elections in the context of electoral authoritarianism and shifts in the international environment?

We pursue this research question with a longitudinal case study of electoral malpractice in the Russian Federation from 2007 to 2016. Russia provides a vivid example of how electoral practices were adapted to the needs of authoritarian survival, sending signals to the real and potential opposition and maintaining political cooptation and rent distribution via electoral means. Moreover, the role and function of elections in upholding electoral authoritarianism has changed from one electoral cycle to another. The recent institutional reforms and the variety of electoral malpractice observed throughout electoral cycles reflect constant adjustment to emerging challenges on the part of the regime.

Previous research has argued that on the eve of national elections, the incumbent deals with a trade-off between the need to learn about the genuine level of popular support and the imperative to keep electoral uncertainty as low as possible. …

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