Two important elections happened this week. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan failed to win an outright victory so he now faces a runoff election that could be the most significant political challenge of his career.
And in Thailand, ruled by military leaders who took power in a 2014 coup, voters overwhelmingly backed opposition parties, delivering a stinging rebuke to the military establishment. It remains to be seen how much power the junta will actually hand over.
Both countries have me thinking about the type of government that is sometimes called a “competitive authoritarian” regime. Their leaders use the tools of state, such as purging foes from the bureaucracy and curtailing civil liberties, to consolidate their own power. But they regularly hold elections, and when they do, the votes are not shams. Voters can cast ballots with the expectation that they will be fairly counted, and that leaders will abide by the result.
And yet the fact that those governments embrace elections can tell us something important about the nature of democratic backsliding, and perhaps something even more important about its opposite. Most people call it democratization, but I prefer to think of it, for the sake of verbal and conceptual symmetry, as democratic forwardsliding.
Turkey has for years been sliding into a competitive authoritarian government, analysts say. Thailand isn’t one, at least not yet — its military leaders came to power in a coup, not an election — but its vote provides a useful point of comparison.
After all, at first blush it’s a little odd that competitive authoritarian leaders hold real elections! In the usual story we tell about democracy, one of elections’ chief virtues is that they allow the public to check leaders’ power. Too much repression, the theory goes, will lead to a reckoning at the ballot box.
That doesn’t seem like a prospect that would be popular with leaders who otherwise go to remarkable lengths to dismantle checks and balances. Competitive authoritarians often stack courts with friendly judges, undermine judicial review of their power, weaken legislative branches, jail journalists and try in various ways to stifle opponents.
But that view misses out something else that elections can do: validate an authoritarian leader’s power by showing that the public supports the regime. And that validation, it turns out, is valuable enough to outweigh the risks inherent in elections — especially when the incumbent can take steps to manipulate the contest in his favor.
In Turkey, Erdogan draws his claim to power, and his justification for his harsh and repressive treatment of the opposition, from public approval, said Turkuler Isiksel, a Columbia University political scientist. Like other populists, he claims to represent the interests of the people. Elections, which provide hard numbers on public support, are a powerful tool to support that claim.
And conversely, rejecting election results can damage public support for the regime. Milan Svolik, a Yale political scientist who studies authoritarianism and democratic backsliding, pointed to the example of Istanbul’s 2019 mayoral elections, which were seen as an important test of the popularity of Erdogan’s A.K.P. party.
When that contest was initially held, the opposition candidate won by a narrow margin, but the race was invalidated by the courts, leading to public outrage at the perceived refusal to honor the results. When it was re-run a few months later, the opposition candidate won by a landslide — suggesting that for a substantial minority of voters, the failure to respect the initial result was enough to make them abandon Erdogan’s party.
“They decided, ‘I’m changing my vote,’” Svolik said. “That suggests a high cost to being perceived as not abiding by the results of an election.” And while such precise natural experiments are rare, Svolik has found similar results when he ran experiments in other countries using hypothetical scenarios of candidates engaging in similar behavior.
Which brings me to Thailand. At present, its leaders do not derive their legitimacy from public support — their 2014 coup ousted the democratically elected government by force after an extended period of political unrest.
“Thailand is a very divided country that has a conservative establishment that keeps trying to find a way to write a constitution that allows it to win, but can’t do it because it’s not that popular,” said Tom Pepinsky, a Cornell political scientist who studies authoritarianism and democratization with a focus on Southeast Asia.
The current government has tried to hedge the results of last weekend’s election by granting Thailand’s military-appointed Senate one-third of the votes to select the prime minister, effectively reserving veto power over any government that doesn’t win a supermajority. But, as Svolik’s research shows, overriding the results of the election risks public backlash.
So why hold elections at all?
It’s impossible to be sure of the junta members’ true motivations — such personal decisions are, ultimately, unknowable. It may be that the junta members see the risk of losing power in an election as less damaging than what could happen if they held onto power without one.
There are real costs to holding power by force, for leaders themselves and their countries. If public outrage has no outlet in elections, that increases the likelihood of mass protests, uprisings, and violence. For years, Thailand has been trapped in a cycle of “protests and putsches,” as my Times colleagues Sui-Lee Wee and Muktita Suhartono memorably described it — a loop that has only increased voters’ anger and support for opposition parties.
Such cycles can be difficult to break. In Thailand, “they’re sort of in a coup trap, where the existence of a precedent for military intervention in politics makes people act as if that’s going to be possible, which makes it then possible,” Pepinsky said. “It’s a very bad equilibrium to be in.”
Holding an election isn’t always a solution to that problem. Svolik pointed to the example of Myanmar, whose ruling junta cautiously handed over some power after semi-democratic elections in 2015 and 2020, but staged another coup in 2021.
But it can still be a way to shift political disputes away from costly and damaging political violence. “Why don’t we just have a battle that’s called an election? It is much less costly,” Svolik said.
That has benefits for the public as well as for leaders. Even though the legitimacy conferred by elections can help authoritarian leaders in the short term, Isiksel said, in the longer term it can aid democratization by strengthening democratic institutions, political parties, and the “civic habits” of voting and campaigning.
Over time, those can build and reinforce on each other in ways that go beyond elections — a slow and incremental process of forwardsliding toward a more secure democracy.
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