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The theatre of authoritarian elections: why Myanmar is going to the polls

Opposition NLD members hit the campaign trail as they visit villages on the outskirts of Phyu ahead of Myanmar’s election. Reuters/Minzayar

The theatre of authoritarian elections: why Myanmar is going to the polls

On Sunday, Myanmar will conduct general elections for its regional and state assemblies, and the lower and upper houses of the national parliament.

This marks the first election since the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) came to power in 2011. It is also the first election since the ruling party, under President Thein Sein, embarked on political reforms designed to build a “discipline-flourishing democracy”.

Widespread manipulation and misconduct has marred the run-up to the election. This has included the disenfranchisement of voters, disruption of opposition rallies, improper use of state media, bias by the electoral commission and vote buying.

Such problems are hardly surprising. They speak to how authoritarian elections are not designed to aid the selection of political representatives in the democratic way we understand.

Why do authoritarian regimes bother with elections?

Despite the temptation to dismiss such elections as shams, this does not explain why authoritarian regimes around the world routinely sanction them. The very existence of elections implies they contribute to the survival of dictators and ruling parties in some way. But how?

In a forthcoming book, I investigate why authoritarian regimes hold elections. The following four reasons were identified:

  • To collect information: by knowing the identity of one’s antagonists and associates, dictators are able to address the dilemma of not knowing whether support is genuine or a result of their demand for support.

  • To pursue legitimacy: domestically, the aim is to gain a normative commitment to support the ruling party by feigning conformity to the established rules and/or shared beliefs of citizens. Internationally, the aim is to gain approval for the status quo from liberal or illiberal actors by simulating compliance to democracy.

  • To manage political elites: this denotes how dictators employ elections to facilitate clientelism, undertake co-optation, foster solidarity and assure succession. The goal is greater co-operation and finer control among key regime officials.

  • To sustain neopatrimonialism. Here, elections are used to distribute development projects, material goods and specialised services to citizens in exchange for their votes. The goal is to sustain the peculiar historical roots and contemporary bases of state authority.

While only a handful of authoritarian regimes do not hold elections, major challenges remain for those that do. For dictators, the crux of the issue is whether these four benefits outweigh five underlying costs. This includes how elections are:

  • Ideologically objectionable: Eritrea’s Isais Afwerki is so paranoid about losing control that the 1997 election is still on hold.

  • Politically risky: the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos was forced to flee the country after stealing the 1986 presidential election.

  • Propagandistically ineffective: Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev “won” the 2013 presidential election, despite the results being released before voting had started.

  • Strategically superfluous: Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was not helped by an election that produced 99.9% “approval” for him in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq War.

  • Unnecessarily demanding: Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe curiously devotes energy, money and time towards staging some of the most fraudulent elections anywhere.

Myanmar’s Turn at Elections

Myanmar’s past elections have included many of the above attributes. During the 1970s and 1980s, the incumbent Burma Socialist Programme Party sanctioned four elections, garnering ludicrous Saddam-style levels of support.

Aung San Suu Kyi is campaigning again 25 years after the military rejected a landslide election victory by her party. EPA/Lynn Bo Bo

The 1990 election, however, backfired on the ruling junta. It led to a landslide victory for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy and the military subsequently refused to accept the result. In comparison, the 2010 election was a watershed for political succession because it marked the first time this institution had been used to transfer power between dictators in Myanmar.

This mixed experience raises a simple question: why is Thein Sein holding the current election?

One reason is domestic legitimacy. By staging the election, the USDP seeks a legal and moral right to rule. The basis of this claim is its conformity to Myanmar’s flawed 2008 constitution (drafted under Thein Sein’s chairmanship) and recognition of the principle of popular sovereignty.

Despite hopes of securing a normative commitment from citizens to obey, the USDP will undoubtedly settle for any outcome ranging from apathy to active acceptance of its authority. By retaining power through the “will of the people”, the USDP can then position itself as the only political actor capable of nurturing “democracy”.

However, a more important reason for the election is elite management. Having guided Myanmar’s transition to a less retrograde type of authoritarianism (that is, not democracy), Thein Sein must continue to maintain the crucial support of prominent regime officials. This is owing to the notorious power dynamics of the military.

Within this institution, loyalty is very personalised and even those in the highest positions of government are not immune from being ousted.

Against this backdrop, two specific strategies come into play.

Thein Sein’s dual strategy

For Thein Sein, the election is more about autocratic survival than democratic reform. Reuters//Soe Zeya Tun

Using sub-national election results, Thein Sein will promote clientelism. This denotes the private allocation of the spoils of office – business contracts, government positions, party posts – to corporate and political elites in return for their public loyalty. Given the close relationship the USDP has with Myanmar’s crony capitalists, the goal is to make the respective commitments between Thein Sein and those surrounding him more credible.

Thein Sein will also use the election to select and de-select political elites, which fosters greater unity and, if necessary, deters potential challengers to him. Aside from the stringent control he has exerted over the candidate selection process, the most obvious manifestation was the mid-August purge of the reform-minded parliamentary Speaker, Shwe Mann. This action not only isolated Aung San Suu Kyi from her main political ally, but sidelined a top rival to the presidency.

The underlying value of the election, then, is that it has provided Thein Sein the space to solidify his power, rather than see it challenged.

The dual meaning prescribed to Myanmar’s election illustrates the wholesale allure of this institution to authoritarian regimes. Given its capacity to improve the staying power of dictators and ruling parties, the advance of democracy should be viewed pessimistically.