Talha Mansoor looks at a relevant matter of Electoral authoritarianism
Pakistan has been subjected to covert and overt electoral authoritarianism for almost all of its existence. The rise of Electoral authoritarianism democratic ideology as the almost unrivaled source of legitimacy has compelled many otherwise quite authoritarian regimes to accept at least some outward trappings of democratic regimes. As a result, in the past, the boundary between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes was not very clear as opposed to the relatively well-defined boundary between nondemocratic and democratic systems but today the reverse seems to be true. Indeed, there seems to be a large gray area between authoritarian regimes and certain types of democracies variously called electoral democracies.
Electoral authoritarianism makes it difficult to devise a categorically clear classification as electoral or competitive authoritarian regimes are not among the types of democratic governance systems. This type of hybrid regime is very much a product of the contemporary world. The worldwide trend toward democracy has forced many authoritarian regimes to mimic some forms of electoral competition. It is important to distinguish between liberal and electoral democracies and this distinction is based on variables other than electoral competitiveness. Electoral democracies fail to institutionalise the other vital dimensions of liberal democracies, such as the rule of law, political accountability and full protection of civil and political rights.
Another feature distinguishing electoral democracies from liberal democracies may be the presence of tutelary powers and reserved domains in some of them outside the purview of elected officials, most often in favour of the military. The difference between electoral democracies and electoral authoritarian regimes centers on the fairness and competitiveness of the electoral process. The criteria for free and fair elections are well known but historically, elections have been an instrument of authoritarian control as well as a means of democratic governance. At present, there are many regimes where multiparty elections are regularly held but many basic democratic norms are systematically violated.
Indeed, the authoritarian use of elections is nothing new as the areas of manipulation available to authoritarian rulers is quite rich and varied, ranging from banning parties and disqualifying candidates to repressive policies against dissenters during election campaigns, fraud and intimidation, informal disenfranchisement, unequal use of state resources, adoption of favourable redistributive rules, and so on. Competitive authoritarian regimes are defined by the presence of a significant parliamentary opposition, whereas in the hegemonic subtype, elections are largely an authoritarian façade as the ruling party wins almost all the seats.
The blurry borderline between electoral democracies and electoral authoritarian regimes poses difficult problems as conditions of electoral manipulation official election figures do not faithfully reflect the actual distribution of citizen preferences. However, it is difficult to observe electoral manipulations, since these are usually undercover activities. Nevertheless, available information on the state of political rights in general may give clues about the extent of electoral manipulation. Thus, unequal access to state resources or mass media, restrictions on freedom of expression and association, bans on political party activities, adoption of electoral rules favorable to the governing party and gerrymandering may provide reasonably reliable indicators to recognise an electoral authoritarian regime.
Electoral authoritarian regimes constitute the largest group of countries in the developing world. With the collapse of Soviet type totalitarianism, democracy has become the only legitimate form of government in the eyes of a much greater portion of the world’s population. As a result of a favourable international climate, active promotion and encouragement of democratic change by major Western powers, the desire to gain international respectability, and domestic pressures associated with rising levels of socioeconomic development, some forms of authoritarianism have become less sustainable. The result is that most hybrid regimes today are quite deliberately pseudo-democratic try to reap the fruits of electoral legitimacy without running the risks of democratic uncertainty. They mimic democratic institutions not only in the electoral field but also by creating mimic constitutional courts and adopting other outward trappings of a system based on the rule of law. Conceivably, such institutions create potential areas of dissidence and conflict, even if they remain far from ensuring democratic accountability.
Electoral authoritarian regimes combine two contradictory dynamics in uneasy coexistence as on one hand they permit multiparty, competitive elections they recognise the principle of democratic legitimacy instead of other sources of legitimacy. On the other hand, they subvert it in practice using various instruments of authoritarian manipulation. As opposed to democratic regimes in which the rules of electoral game are accepted and respected by all parties, in electoral authoritarian regimes, competition is not only within rules but also, and more important, over rules. The rulers have to find a balance between electoral persuasion and electoral manipulation. This mixture of contradictory elements makes the future of electoral authoritarian regimes highly uncertain and unpredictable. It is pointed out that the game of authoritarian elections may lead to a process of gradual democratisation. It may lead to democracy through the sudden collapse of authoritarianism and it may also end up in an authoritarian regression. TW