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Retaining power through elections: when "democracy" enables autocracy Sarah Birch University of Glasgow 13 July 2014

Electoral systems and democratisation - Prof Sarah Birch

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Prof Sarah Birch of University of Glasgow on electoral systems and democratisation. KLSCAH, Kuala Lumpur. 2014.07.13. Thanks.

Text of Electoral systems and democratisation - Prof Sarah Birch

  • Retaining power through elections: when "democracy" enables autocracy Sarah Birch University of Glasgow 13 July 2014
  • Democracy and elections Elections are crucial to democracy as generally understood in todays world But democracy is not crucial to elections Elections took place long before democracy existed Thus elections are not necessarily democratic
  • Authoritarianism and elections Authoritarian leaders often use elections to their advantage Elections serve to communicate the agenda and views of authoritarian leaders Elections help distribute resources within an authoritarian regime via patronage and co-optation Elections can help authoritarian leaders to monitor the population (and the opposition) Elections provide a veneer of legitimacy, even when beset by malpractice
  • Electoral malpractice Electoral malpractice can be understood as taking three main forms: the manipulation of electoral institutions the manipulation of vote choice and the manipulation of voting Typically authoritarian leaders seek to use all three strategies, though the first and the second are less risky than the third
  • Electoral systems and political power The manipulation of electoral institutions is a powerful way of maintaining power while at the same time also retaining a certain amount of democratic legitimacy There are many electoral institutions that can be manipulated, in many cases with a view to facilitating other forms of malpractice The electoral system in the narrow sense is a common object of manipulation
  • Electoral systems First-past-the-post (single-member constituency plurality): developed because geographic representation made sense Proportional representation: developed in the late 19th century following the industrial revolution when party representation made more sense Mixed systems: developed after the Second World War as a means of retaining the benefits of both geographic representation and proportional representation
  • Electoral systems and electoral malpractice I First-part-the-post electoral systems are particularly convenient for authoritarian leaders as they are winner-take- all systems that magnify power at the constituency level and often also at the aggregate level First-past-the-post electoral systems also invite boundary manipulation, which can enable a party to retain power for long periods on the basis of the support of a minority of the population Boundary manipulation can involve malapportionment, gerrymandering, or manipulation of the eligible population
  • Electoral systems and electoral malpractice II Single-member electoral systems such as first-past-the-post increase opportunities and incentives for manipulation of the vote Candidates have an incentive to cultivate a personal support base This can lead to bribery and patronage, or at the least to pork-barrel politics In tight races, small numbers of votes need to be altered in order to change the outcome
  • Elections and democratisation Free and fair elections are necessary for genuine democratisation Typically this requires changes to the electoral system It also requires a change of attitude by leaders, who need to be prepared to accept power sharing, compromise and losing Democracy is about accountable rule, but it is also about being prepared to play the role of holding others to account.
  • The electoral tango I Often elections have to get worse before they get better Today, paper rights in the electoral sphere are typically given Rights are violated through the implementation of elections This means that rights are episodically taken away, generating episodic grievances This creates huge potential for popular mobilisation against electoral malpractice
  • The electoral tango II Protest is most likely to occur when (a) elections have been of poor quality for a while and (b) elections get worse at a specific election In the contemporary world, significant electoral reform, leading to a genuine improvement in election quality, tends to come about following popular protests against electoral malpractice This means that elections often have to get worse before they get better - one step back then two steps forward