Two countries with competitive authoritarian regimes held elections this past week, with very different results. In Georgia, President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) lost its parliamentary majority for the first time since it took power in the Rose Revolution nearly a decade ago. In Venezuela, however, President Hugo Chávez won a fourth term by his slimmest margin yet, defeating challenger Henrique Capriles by “only” a 9-percent margin.
As a forecaster, I went 1 for 2 in predicting the outcome of these elections. Because they are—or, in the case of Georgia, were—electoral authoritarian regimes, I expected the ruling parties to win in both cases. There seemed to be a lot of uncertainty about the outcome in both, but as I said on Twitter, the illusion of uncertainty is a design feature of this type of regime. Regarding Venezuela, I gave Chavez 4:1 odds of beating Capriles. I recognized that the election machinery introduced some uncertainty into the process, but I believed Chavez had tilted the playing field steeply enough in his own favor to return himself to office, regardless of Capriles’ appeal. I didn’t make a specific prediction about Georgia, but if I had, it would’ve been about the same, and for the same reasons. The challenging Georgian Dream coalition clearly had some momentum heading into the election, but I thought Georgia’s machine politics and byzantine electoral system would allow Saakashvili’s UNM to retain a parliamentary majority anyway.
So, how did two apparently similar cases produce two different outcomes? On the fly, I can think of three explanations, all of which could be true at the same time.
First, it’s quite possible that I read the two cases wrong in advance of the election. Maybe Georgia really was less authoritarian than I thought. Electoral authoritarian regimes are inherently ambiguous, and this ambiguity makes it especially hard to observe small changes, or to be confident that the small changes we do see will be meaningful ones. For cases in this boundary area, however, small differences can have a big impact on the results.
Second, Georgia had a national scandal erupt over prison abuse in the campaign’s final weeks, and it’s possible that this “October surprise” was severe enough to knock the system off its old equilibrium. Video clips showing male prisoners being tortured and sexually assaulted by guards sparked mass demonstrations in cities across the country, and many Georgians seemed to see the abuse as metaphor for deeper systemic problems that the Rose Revolution had failed to correct.
Third, I think the two countries’ different positions in the international system played a role. Hugo Chavez has explicitly positioned his country as a counterweight to “Western hegemony,” and that adversarial posture has encouraged him to thumb his nose at critics and election observers from countries and organizations he sees as hostile to his “Bolivarian revolution.” Mikheil Saakashvili, by contrast, has hugged the United States and Europe, aggressively—almost desperately—pursuing entree into NATO and the European Union as a way to catalyze Georgia’s “modernization” and to protect it from the angry Russian bear next door.
This Westernization strategy led Saakashvili to subject his electoral process to much closer scrutiny and made him far more sensitive to criticisms from Europe and the U.S. than Chavez could ever be. Criticisms from previous elections about bias in state-owned media and partisan abuse of state resources led to specific reforms that certainly were not revolutionary but probably helped regrade the electoral landscape into more level terrain.
In retrospect, then, I think I can see why Georgia was riper for change than Venezuela was, and how the ambiguity inherent in electoral authoritarian regimes made that contrast hard to spot in advance. Whatever the specific causes, though, I think I need to tweak my mental model of electoral authoritarianism to allow for more uncertainty about the outcome of their elections. My old model emphasized the authoritarian part and saw the elections as pure theater. My new version will be less confident in its judgment of the character of these ambiguous cases, and it will leave more room for those theatrics to have real consequences.