On May 10, 1802, French voters decided in a completely free vote that Napoleon Bonaparte should be First Consul for life, and could also choose his successor. The vote is said to have been 3,568,885 (or 99.76%) in favor of the new constitution containing these stipulations, while a mere 8,374 voted against. The sovereign will of the French nation was clear. Two-and-a-half years later, Napoleon’s wise stewardship of France was rewarded when the people—well, the 48% of eligible voters who came out to vote, at least—voted to make Napoleon Emperor by an even more impressive margin: 3,521,675 (99.93%) to 2,579 (or .07%). Accounts differ slightly about the numbers. Electronic record keeping was in its pre-infancy and independent election monitors scarce. But the will of the people was clear. Napoleon ruled gloriously until all the rest of Europe’s rulers, and especially the Duke of Wellington, decided he had done too much conquering of other countries.
Two centuries on, there are many ways to fiddle with an election, and to do so even without international assistance. 2018 will see elections on every continent where a specific (newish) technique is already being used by incumbent authoritarians who want to pretend to be more democratic than they are: simply excluding the most viable alternative candidates from the ballot. Make the election as close to a Napoleonic plebiscite as you can!
An important and very readable paper, published last June by Arch Puddington of Freedom House, includes a chapter on “validating autocracy through the ballot,” wherein he reviews the menu of options for rigging elections in the 21st Century: intimidating the opposition; besmirching the opposition via thoroughly controlled media; fostering pseudo-opposition; criminalizing protest and dissent; discarding term limits.
But why go to the trouble of holding phony elections? Former President George W. Bush put it succinctly in a speech he delivered in New York last October, wherein he described “a noteworthy hypocrisy:”
No democracy pretends to be a tyranny. Most tyrannies pretend they are democracies. Democracy remains the definition of political legitimacy. This has not changed, and that will not change.
So they persist—authoritarians and worse—pretending to be democracies.
Here are some of the candidates who will not be on ballots this year.
Egypt will conduct presidential elections from March 26 to 28. But the announcement in early January by Ahmed Shafik that he will after all not be a candidate for President, has pretty much settled the race. This is important, as the United States pretends that Egypt under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is a reliable and useful partner in counter-terrorism efforts, when in fact its government is fragile and incompetent. The 76-year old Shafik is a retired Air Force general, and was the military establishment’s candidate in the only fair and transparent election ever held in Egypt—the 2012 contest he narrowly lost to Mohammed Morsi, who was backed by the Muslim Brotherhood (and some secular liberals at the time). Morsi’s chaotic presidency was terminated after a year by a military takeover led by al-Sisi, a takeover the United States government decided would not be termed a “coup” because that would oblige the U.S. under long-standing law to terminate various kinds of assistance, including especially military aid, to Cairo. Now Sisi’s government has pulled out all the stops in the playbook described by Arch Puddington, threatening Shafik with trumped up prosecutions and vicious personal attacks in the regime-controlled media. Meanwhile, the chairman of the National Election Authority Lasheen Ibrahim says he will “run the election with integrity and keep an equal distance from all candidates.”
In Cambodia, where parliamentary elections will be held in July, Prime Minister Hun Sen is taking no chances after 32 years in power. Though the country’s economy is growing, unrest over official corruption is mounting. So after receiving a scare in the 2013 elections—when the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) received 44.5% of the vote to the government party’s 49%—he has taken steps to ensure there will be no more close calls. The CNRP’s two recent leaders—Sam Rainsy and Kem Sohka—have been taken off the playing field. Rainsy was driven into exile early last year by charges of “treason” and Sohka was arrested in September. Then the party was dissolved altogether in November by order of the Supreme Court that Hun Sen controls, and more than a hundred of its political activists were banned from politics. Expect a resounding electoral victory for Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party; it has already been made clear no international monitors will be permitted.
In Venezuela, meanwhile, presidential elections are slated for December 2018, though observers expect the vote to be called earlier in the year now that the main opposition parties have been excluded from presenting candidates. Embattled president Nicolas Maduro announced last month that the Justice First, Popular Will and Democratic Action parties may not participate, after they boycotted mayoral elections in December alleging the electoral system was rigged.
Maduro had already excluded the most likely presidential contenders for his office by criminalizing dissent and wielding a very heavy police truncheon. Leopoldo Lopez, a charismatic mayor of a district in Caracas, has been jailed since 2014 for “inciting violence” at nationwide protests against Maduro’s (mis)management of the economy and manipulation of the constitution. Henrique Capriles, governor of the state of Miranda until last October and runner-up in the two previous presidential contests was last year banned from political activity for 15 years for “administrative irregularities” alleged to have occurred during his time as governor. Antonio Ledezma, mayor of Caracas until his arrest in his office one quiet day in early 2015 —by scores of armed cops shooting their guns as they apprehended him—recently slipped out of detention and fled to Europe.
Vladimir Putin plans to be easily re-elected to a fourth term as president of Russia on March 18, and there will be at least three nominally opposition candidates on the ballot: the Alf Landon of Russian presidential elections, Vladimir Zhironovsky of the ironically named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, and the new leader of the old Communist Party, Pavel Grudinin, who happens to be a recent member of Putin’s United Russia. As Putin has yet to debate an election opponent in any election, don’t expect much of an issues campaign from either of these two. Nor from Ksenia Sobchak, daughter of the former mayor of St Petersburg who gave Vladimir Putin his start in politics as deputy mayor, who herself is something of a cross between Ivanka Trump and Paris Hilton—famous for being famous, and for being related to someone.
The real opposition has been excluded or murdered. Boris Nemtsov, the former Deputy Prime Minister and critic of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, was shot dead on February 27, 2015, as he walked near his home close to the Kremlin. Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption crusader who captured almost 30% of the vote in the 2013 Moscow mayoral race and has shown a consistent ability to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people in cities across Russia, is being excluded on legalistic grounds, citing his numerous previous arrests and short-term incarcerations on various charges. The upshot for Russia and the forthcoming election? “By refusing to allow any genuine political competition,” Navalny told Newsweek last year, “Putin is doing everything he can to ensure that he will be forced out by other means.”
Azerbaijan will hold a kind of presidential election on October 17. If history is any guide, a scruffy assortment of European politicians, having had their palms greased by the largesse of the Azerbaijani state energy company will praise the exercise as legit. And there won’t have been any real contest at all, as genuine opposition politicians such as Ali Karimli, leader of the Popular Front Party, have been excluded from the country’s media and kept off the ballot repeatedly
And Rwanda, too, will hold parliamentary elections in 2018, but don’t expect much in terms of actual politics. Expect instead that some of the 12 seats (of 80) in the legislature now held by opposition parties will be lost, as President Paul Kagame’s victory in last year’s presidential election—a bracing and Napoleonic 98.79% of the vote—reflects the system’s intolerance for dissent and political pluralism.
These are just a few of the elections to not take very seriously this year. And there will be more in 2019, rest assured. After all, most tyrannies pretend to be democracies.