The Twin Uncertainty of Authoritarian Regimes

Between summer trips with my family and work for which I actually get paid, I haven’t had room to blog much of late, so I thought this would be a good time to call out one of my favorite recent pieces of writing on comparative politics.

In a paper for Mexico’s CIDE that will apparently form the introduction to a forthcoming book, the always-excellent Andreas Schedler writes about the “twin uncertainties” of authoritarian regimes, one institutional and the other informational. As Schedler notes, it’s not just that the institutions on which an autocrat’s political survival depends are often shaky; it’s also that it’s hard for the autocrat and his rivals to get reliable information about just how shaky they are.

These twin uncertainties lead autocrats and their oppositions to fight simultaneously on two fronts—not just over the management and production of political threats (“realities”), but also over the management or production of expectations and appearances of threats (perceptions). And, of course, the two are intertwined; or, as Schedler puts it (p. 25), “The management of threats involves the management of threat perceptions.” As a result (p. 28),

Everybody is playing theater and everybody is watching theater and trying to make sense of it…The party who gains acceptance for its preferred interpretation is is the one who wins the contest over public perceptions. In the last instance, it is the competitive struggle over interpretations that determines the strength of regimes.

To skeptical readers who might complain that social-scientific theories should avoid unreadable expectations and stick to observable realities, Schedler (p. 3) says:

One might contend that social expectations are too soft a ground to base our theoretical expectations on. Too soft and volatile and subjective. Ethereal matter. What sociologists tell us that “all social structures are structures of expectation” (Niklas Luhmann) we can accept that as symptomatic of their disciplinary blindness. Sociologists know nothing about the hard structures of political power, right? And yet, if we look closer, we can see that the comparative study of political regimes is built on cognitive foundations. In manifold ways, our theories of regime change and stability are anchored in the seabed of social expectations. Actor expectations about the future form the core of our core concepts. Uncertainty is embedded within concepts such as democracy and authoritarianism, regime transitions and consolidation, regime threats, trust and credibility.

You can find a PDF of the paper/chapter here. I’m looking forward to reading the book.

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Competitive Authoritarianism in Action in Armenia

In a nice backgrounder on parliamentary elections upcoming this Sunday in Armenia, RFE/RL’s Liz Fuller summarizes the state of play as follows:

The election is widely perceived as a vote of confidence in [President] Sarkisian’s administration and, by extension, as a preliminary to next year’s presidential ballot in which Sarkisian will seek a second term. As such, it is a struggle between Sarkisian and his team to retain power and personal wealth in defiance of the opposition parties’ determination to supplant and bring to account a leadership they regard as corrupt, venal, inept, lacking legitimacy, and as having contributed to the emigration over the past four years in search of a better life of at least 78,000 people.

The key difference between today and 1996 is that then, Vazgen Manukian was widely regarded as a viable, credible, and acceptable alternative to incumbent President Levon Ter-Petrossian, whereas now many voters either do not trust any opposition political party or, convinced that the HHK will rig the election outcome, have concluded there is no point in voting.

That last sentence hints at a crucial aspect of some contemporary regimes, including Armenia’s, that often eludes cursory assessments of their elections. Steve Levitsky and Lucan Way refer to the kinds of cases I have in mind as competitive authoritarianism, and here‘s how they describe them:

In competitive authoritarian regimes, formal democratic institutions are widely viewed as the principal means of obtaining and exercising political authority. Incumbents violate those rules so often and to such an extent, however, that the regime fails to meet conventional minimum standards for democracy…Although elections are regularly held and are generally free of massive fraud, incumbents routinely abuse state resources, deny the opposition adequate media coverage, harass opposition candidates and their supporters, and in some cases manipulate electoral results. Journalists, opposition politicians, and other government critics may be spied on, threatened, harassed, or arrested. Members of the opposition may be jailed, exiled, or—less frequently—even assaulted or murdered.

Levitsky and Way see notable examples of competitive authoritarianism in “Croatia under Franjo Tudjman, Serbia under Slobodan Miloševic, Russia under Vladimir Putin, Ukraine under Leonid Kravchuk and Leonid Kuchma, Peru under Alberto Fujimori, and post-1995 Haiti, as well as Albania, Armenia, Ghana, Kenya, Malaysia, Mexico, and Zambia through much of the 1990s.”

In these regimes, ruling officials didn’t or don’t retain power by banning opposition parties or blatantly falsifying vote counts. Instead, they win by blurring the lines between the ruling party and the state, keeping their opponents weak and off-balance, and, in some cases, demoralizing rather than inspiring voters. Come election day, the game appears to be more or less fair, but the deck has already been stacked.

Another recent RFE/RL Caucasus Report nicely summarizes how the Armenian regime has done this kind of deck-stacking in recent years.

The most widespread and pernicious irregularities registered during successive national elections in Armenia fall into two broad categories. The first is the use of “administrative resources” by the ruling party, meaning intimidation of voters in general and public sector employees in particular, ballot-stuffing, and the casting of ballots for the ruling party (or that party’s presidential candidate) in the name of people whose names remain on voter lists even though they are no longer resident in Armenia…

The second is vote-buying in the form of either financial or material incentives or under the guise of charitable activities. This approach has been particularly favored in previous parliamentary ballots by wealthy businessmen with links to the HHK running in single-mandate constituencies, generally in rural districts where poverty and unemployment are higher than in Yerevan.

Here’s a sample of what that looks like in present-day Armenia, as described in an April 27 interim report from European election observers. In the snippets that follow, RPA and PA refer to the Republican Party of Armenia and Prosperous Armenia. The former, also known by its Armenian initials as HHK, is the party of incumbent President Serzh Sargsyan; the latter is one of its junior partners in parliament’s ruling coalition.

While Article 18.6 of the Electoral Code prohibits campaigning and distribution of campaign material by pedagogical staff and in educational institutions, OSCE/ODIHR long-term observers (LTOs) reported a number of cases of teachers and students involved in the RPA campaign. In Edjmiadzin, on 11 April students and teachers were released from school to attend an RPA rally. On 14 April in Arabkir (a district of Yerevan), teachers asked students to attend, after classes, an RPA rally with President Sargsyan. LTOs observed RPA majoritarian candidates (constituencies 19 and 21, Armavir province) campaigning in schools with students and teachers present.

Some cases of the use of administrative resources by the RPA were observed, including use of an ambulance for announcing a campaign event in Kapan (Syunik province). OSCE/ODIHR LTOs also noted staff from the local tax office discussing that they had been released early from work on condition that they attended an RPA rally in Talin (Aragatsotn province) on 20 April…

On 15 April, in a village in Armavir province, a number of residents separately informed OSCE/ODIHR LTOs that they had been threatened with job loss by the authorities, the mayor and the RPA if they attended a Heritage rally scheduled for the same day…

Article 18.7 of the Electoral Code prohibits parties and candidates, as well as charitable organizations whose names may be associated with them, from giving or promising goods and services to voters during the campaign period. OSCE/ODIHR LTOs noted that after the start of the campaign period, new tractors appeared in Aragatsotn, Ararat, Armavir, Kotayk, Lori and Shirak provinces, next to or adorned with PA campaign material. According to a PA brochure, the party attached importance to the creation of tractor stations in all provinces. The OSCE/ODIHR was informed by the general director of Multigroup, a company which belongs to the PA leader, that the distribution of tractors is part of a business project. PA headquarters issued a statement that no tractors were being donated and that the party was not implementing any charitable programs…

Before the start of the official campaign period, the President and government officials received extensive news coverage by the media monitored by the OSCE/ODIHR EOM. This coverage decreased significantly after 8 April…

And the list goes on.

Considered individually, none of these transgressions seems particularly egregious. It is the cumulative effect that matters. To win multiparty elections, the ruling party doesn’t have to make itself look better than the other guys. It can also win by making the other guys look worse, and demobilizing or demoralizing voters along the way.

In Armenia, there may be a heightened sense of uncertainty around this Sunday’s elections, but the most likely outcome is still another ruling-party victory. Importantly, the HHK will effectively retain power even if it fails to secure a parliamentary majority because President Sargsyan is the country’s chief executive, and his term doesn’t end until 2013. Whichever adverb international observers stick in front of “free and fair” in their post-election reports, Armenia will still be stuck under authoritarian rule.

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