Blueprint for rigging elections

How to Rig an Election is the title of a fascinating and provocative book by two political scientists, Prof Nic Cheeseman and Prof Brian Klaas, published in 2018. The book reminds me of an intriguing point made by Niccolo Machiavelli, 16th Century Italian author of a classic book, The Prince who argued that men rise to great fortune “more by fraud than through force”.

In “The Year of Elections” as political pundits dubbed 2024, the two academics argue that, “In many countries around the world the art of retaining power has become the art of electoral manipulation.”

In many, if not most, of the 64 countries which are scheduled to hold elections in 2024, this crafty and disingenuous practice will apply. Nineteen African countries are scheduled to hold elections this year and these include Chad, Rwanda, South Africa and South Sudan.

The two authors point out a paradox: “There are more elections than ever before and yet the world is becoming less democratic.” They argue that rigging elections is a really good strategy for autocrats, much better than ruling by decree or trying to eliminate real and imaginary opponents.

Rigging elections takes many forms, some blatant and others are subtle and hidden, such as rigging the process which leads to holding elections.

According to Cheesseman and Klaas, regimes which practise “counterfeit democracy” tend to last longer than hardcore dictatorships.

Rigging elections “typically enables embattled governments to secure access to valuable economic resources like foreign aid, while reinvigorating the ruling party and – in many cases – dividing the opposition… 30 years ago, the main aim of the average dictator was to avoid holding elections; today it is to avoid losing them”.

One of the engrossing aspects of the book is identification by the authors of a six-stage “menu of manipulation” namely; gerrymandering, vote buying, repression, hacking the election, stuffing the ballot box and finally playing the international community. Each of these items on the menu is analysed in separate chapters illustrated with examples.

When benign and peaceful tactics, such as gerrymandering, the use of state resources to distribute patronage and gifts prove ineffective, counterfeit democrats resort to political violence to intimidate political opponents and if that does not work the last resort for the autocrat is ballot box stuffing.

At the same time, “they often run a parallel deception campaign internationally to dupe election observers and foreign governments into endorsing a rigged election.”

The goal of subtle election riggers is to cheat just enough to win, not by a wide margin which can be easily detected and to achieve this objective they start the process early. For example, they ensure that the electoral commission is led and staffed with officers who are friendly and sympathetic to them; generously pay police and military officers to secure their loyalty; co-opt judges and turn public media houses into mouthpieces and propaganda tools for ruling parties.

The authors pose the following engaging question: “Which leaders go in for election rigging?” Their answer is as follows: “Leaders are most likely to try and stay in power when they believe that their presence is essential to maintain political stability; in cases when they are less committed to plural politics; when they have engaged in high-level corruption and/or human rights abuses; when they lack trust in rival leaders and political institutions; when they have been in power for a longer period of time.”

The authors argue that, “Autocrats have learnt that it is easier to stay in power by rigging elections than by not holding them at all.” In this regard, opposition political parties play into the hands of autocrats by accepting to participate in rigged elections instead of boycotting elections whose outcome is a foregone conclusion.

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Written by Harold Acemah (0)

Mr Acemah is a political scientist and retired career diplomat.

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