The Electoral Tango: The Evolution of Electoral Integrity in Competitive Authoritarian Regimes

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Max Weber Lecture by
Sarah Birch, University of Glasgow,

17 February 2016, 17:00-18:30
Badia, Refettorio

Summary by MW Fellow Tobias Lenz (SPS 2015-2016)

On Wednesday, February 17, Prof. Sarah Birch delivered the fifth Max Weber lecture, titled ‘The Electoral Tango: The Evolution of Electoral Integrity in Competitive Authoritarian Regimes.’

Prof. Birch has worked on the issue of ethics and (electoral) misconduct for many years. In this long-standing research interest, her lecture addressed the evolution of electoral integrity – defined as conformity to democratic standards of electoral conduct in terms of inclusiveness, transparency and impartiality – in comparative authoritarian regimes over time. She explored why elections improve within some competitive authoritarian regimes and not in others. Put differently, she asked: what are the conditions that lead to improvements in electoral integrity? Her main argument was that a combination of two factors is crucial to explaining diachronic variation in electoral integrity: only regimes that (1) show signs of weakening, which a (2) civil society exploits for protest is likely to improve its electoral integrity – conditions that are relatively rare. Her main message was that elections have to become worse before they can become better, an idea she aptly captures by the notion of an electoral tango.

Prof. Birch developed this central argument in several steps. She started with an empirical observation: electoral reform that enhances integrity is generally preceded by massive malpractice, which sparks civil society protest. This observation suggests that electoral reform is driven from below, i.e. elections get better because people demand better elections. Why is this so? Post-electoral protests have risen markedly in the modern period, especially between the 1970s and the mid-1990s, because the context of elections has changed dramatically over time. While electoral malpractice, for much of the past several centuries, operated through the exclusion of parts of the population from elections, this is no longer possible in a world in which formal electoral rights have been widely granted to citizens. In order to engineer results, leaders today seek to introduce systematic bias into the election process. However, this is likely to spark protest because people become angry when they are deprived of rights that have been officially granted to them. Yet, when are such protests likely to be successful? Prof. Birch’s answer: they work when the risks associated with electoral malpractice become too high for competitive authoritarian regimes to bear. Elections provide information to authoritarian regimes – more so than to the opposition – and thereby help to manage the risk of electoral malpractice. However, when their true support is in decline, and cannot be concealed through fraud, the information asymmetry between the regime and the opposition declines, strengthening the latter. In such a situation, a reduction in electoral fraud through electoral reform, and potential acceptance of electoral defeat in the next election, is a likely outcome. According to Prof. Birch, electoral reforms in Mexico in the 1990s and in Serbia in the 2000s are examples of this logic.

Prof. Birch closed her lecture with apt advice for political activists: protest against an authoritarian regime when the regime is showing signs of weakness!

Watch the video and listen to the podcast of the lecture