Perils of electoral authoritarianism

ByM Ali Siddiqi

writer who contributes to leading periodicals


June 1, 2023

Perils Of Electoral Authoritarianism

M Ali Siddiqi points out to a sugar-coated bitter bill

Perils Of Electoral Authoritarianism – Pakistan has been subjected to covert and overt electoral authoritarianism for almost all its existence. The rise of 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. Even when Pakistan overtly portrayed as being democratically governed but in reality the substantial power of the state resided in other institutions of the state representing its powerful military.

The murky conditions surrounding governance in Pakistan has made it explicitly complicated to arrive at a neat classification as electoral or competitive authoritarian regime just because the state machinery of Pakistan insists upon terming the governance system as democratic despite all signs of authoritarianism specifically visible. Just recently the governance pattern in Pakistan was widely recognised as the hybrid regime that claimed to very much be a product of the contemporary world. It was not surprising as in the wake of the worldwide trend toward democracy has forced many authoritarian regimes to mimic some forms of electoral competition. Even the incumbent Pakistani coalition government is widely thought to be operating under the thumb of the permanent state institutions that are prone to getting their own way and brook no nonsense about it.

The current trend of democratic governance includes liberal and electoral democracies and this distinction is based on variables other than electoral competitiveness, since both conduct reasonably free and competitive elections as a minimum condition for democracy. 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 and that is the condition recognisable facet of governance in Pakistan. 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.

Turkey is often cited as a case in principle where free and fair elections have been regularly held since 1950 but the military have enjoyed significant tutelary powers and reserved domains since its intervention in 1960 and even more so after its intervention in 1980 though the current government has tried to keep the military at bay though the ruling leadership keeps on amending constitution letting it to cling to power. On the other hand, 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. And at present there are many regimes where multiparty elections are regularly held but many basic democratic norms are systematically violated and that, too, with impunity.

Indeed, the authoritarian use of elections is nothing new, particularly in respect of Pakistan, 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. The ruling or dominant party wins almost all the seats. Similarly, in hegemonic electoral authoritarian regimes the president is elected with a great majority of the popular vote.
The tricky 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, 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 favourable 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 trying 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. 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. Or such regimes may survive for an extended period, through various successful survival strategies of the rulers.

If looked at the regional distribution of authoritarian regimes, it could be seen that its highest incidence in the Middle East and the North Africa and its lowest in Eastern Europe with sub-Saharan Africa in between. In South Asia the democratic governance is on the rise though Pakistan is not one of them. Other regimes including in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh still look over their shoulders as they have strong establishments that always look for opportunities to dictate their terms. Pakistan is struggling to throw off the yoke of authoritarianism and there is a tough tug of war going on between the establishment and democratic elements and the situation is considered hanging in balance. In any case it is expected that the Pakistani democratic elements will be able to change the status quo with the help of popular support. The Weekender


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