Tag Archives: electoral authoritarianism

Turkey – Is there a way out of Erdoğan’s populist authoritarianism?

In the March 2019 local elections President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s party suffered a blow when it lost almost all big cities, including the capital Ankara, Istanbul, İzmir, Adana and Antalya, to the opposition (the Nation Alliance of the Republican Peoples Party/CHP, the Good Party/IP). The greatest loss was undoubtedly Istanbul. Ekrem Imamoglu, a rising start of Turkish politics was a relatively unknown candidate for Istanbul before the election. He ran against the former PM Binali Yıldırım, but his real rival was President Erdoğan himself. President Erdoğan campaigned fiercely for his candidate, using state resources and public funds; the government controlled major media outlets ignored all opposition candidates, including Imamoglu.

Defying all obstacles, Imamoglu won the election with a small margin of 13.000 votes. The High Election Board, however, annulled the Istanbul mayoral election after the the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) alleged irregularities. While President Erdoğan called on the Board several times to rerun the election alleging vote rigging, the board found no evidence of election fraud. Its decision was based on a weak legal argument that certain ballot officers were not civil servants, despite the fact that they had been appointed and cleared by the Board itself.

Many Istanbul voters reacted negatively to this decision, convinced that the government had pressured the Board to cancel Imamoglu’s rightful victory. In the end, Imamoglu won again in the rerun, this time with more than 800.000 votes, thereby increasing his support nearly ten per cent in two months’ time. In a short time, Imamoglu transformed from a relatively unknown mayor of the not “so important district” of Beylikdüzü into a hugely popular politician, winning twice against president Erdoğan who had not lost a single election for a long time.

In the Turkish context, Imamoğlu’s victory may be more significant than a simple mayoral election win. President Erdoğan who was once the mayor of Istanbul himself, famously said that “whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey”. Erdoğan’s regime has been said to have four distinct characteristics; electoral authoritarianism as its electoral system, neo-patrimonialism as its economic system, populism as political strategy, and Islamism as political ideology.[1] Losing big cities in general, and Istanbul in particular, has the potential to affect all four aspects.

Imamoğlu gives hope to people that it is still possible to win and transfer political power through the ballot box – meaning that Turkey’s electoral authoritarian regime is competitive in nature. There is an uneven playing field, but there may still be a slight window of opportunity for the opposition to gain political power through elections, no matter how unfair or unfree they are.

Imamoğlu’s campaign strategy was to reach people in the streets, talk, and listen without grand meetings. All major media outlets are controlled by Erdoğan and they all proved useless against this strategy. Erdoğan’s discourse is premised on the existence of an enemy. His often angry, divisive, and threatening rhetoric was beaten by Imamoğlu’s good natured, hopeful, inclusive, and pluralist approach. He has been backed not only by The Nation Alliance but also the pro-Kurdish Peoples Democratic Party/HDP and the conservative Happiness Party/SP. He managed to form a larger alliance to restore Turkish democracy which he called the “Istanbul coalition”. Many people believe that he now has an opportunity to create a viable alternative to Erdoğan’s regime by running Istanbul successfully. He might also prove that it is possible to beat populist, authoritarian politicians in their game.

As for the economic system, opposition wins in big cities including Istanbul means losing one of the biggest sources of patronage for the AKP. Funds and public companies run by mayors have been channels for charitable patronage as well as other types of economic “reward” and “punishment” mechanisms. Under the current poor economic conditions in Turkey, the government has been increasingly short of funds to feed its patron-client relations, especially through charitable patronage.

Campaigning fiercely for big cities, and especially for Istanbul and losing it twice, Erdoğan seems to find it hard to keep his political support intact. This display of political weakness affects his position as the patron of his neo-patrimonial regime, as the patron’s weakness pushes clients to search for other patrons or new positions under the changing conditions.  There are already signs of this happening as former Prime Minister Davutoğlu and former Finance Minister Babacan have resigned from the AKP to form new parties. But the most important client disobedience has yet to come from the judicial elite which meters out punishments for the regime. The rule of law and constitutional rights have long been undermined in Turkey. Many journalists, academics, elected mayors, and members of parliaments have been imprisoned due to their opposition to Erdoğan’s regime.

As Erdoğan’s regime is rapidly losing legitimacy and funds to feed its patronage network, he may try to compensate by increasingly leveraging the judicial system to prosecute opponents. There is already a criminal case filed against the new mayor of Ankara, Mansur Yavaş, and another case against Imamoğlu is to be filed. President Erdoğan has alleged that İmamoğlu insulted the governor of Ordu while visiting the town and the governor has declared his determination to file a criminal case, adding that Imamoğlu will lose his office if he is convicted. Erdoğan has also threatened breakaways from his party, saying that “they will pay the price for treachery”.

As for the ideological power of political Islam to support and sustain Erdoğan’s weakening regime, it is highly doubtful that it could replace legitimacy derived from the ballot box or economic performance, or that it could console voters for the lack of charitable patronage. In short, Erdoğan’s political charm is no longer unbeatable – there is a new rival in town charming voters by just being the opposite of everything that Erdoğan is.  


[1] Ihsan Yilmaz & Galib Bashirov (2018) The AKP after 15 years: emergence of Erdoganism in Turkey, Third World Quarterly, 39:9, 1812-1830, DOI: 10.1080/01436597.2018.1447371.

New Research: Dynamics of Electoral Authoritarianism in Africa

Since the end of the Cold War, terms like competitive or electoral authoritarian have abounded to describe countries with regular multiparty elections that do not live up to commonly held standards of freedom and fairness. Africa is no exception to this trend, and is home to a significant proportion of electoral authoritarian regimes. Many of these countries have grabbed headlines lately, whether it is the stronger turn towards authoritarianism under John Magufuli in Tanzania, or the continued entrenchment of the Paul Biya regime in Cameroon. 

Yet, despite the prevalence of electoral authoritarianism, not all unfair elections are created equally. A closer look at Africa reveals a range of practices that range from more drastic forms of manipulation like stuffing ballot boxes or arresting political opponents, to less obvious subversionsof the democratic process. These differences reveal very important information, and can tell us something deeper about how authoritarianism is structured and operates.

In my new book How Autocrats Compete, I explore these differences across Africa, and use in-depth case studies of Tanzania, Cameroon, and Kenya. I make the argument that decisions about manipulation in unfair elections are shaped primarily by the ability of autocrats to rely on consistent elite and voter support. The key question is how do autocrats secure this consistent support? A related question is what happens to electoral authoritarian competition if autocrats cannot rely on that consistent support? 

Credible Ruling Parties and Authoritarian Uncertainty

In the book I draw attention to what I call a credible ruling party to explain when an autocrat might manipulate less, but nonetheless win elections decisively. Tanzania provides the prototype for this kind of ruling party. The country’s eminent father figure once wrote, “no party which limits its membership to a clique can ever free itself from fear of overthrow from those it has excluded.” And indeed, for many reasons detailed in the book, the ruling party in Tanzania, CCM and its predecessor TANU, was exceptional and helped mitigate key uncertainties of authoritarian rule.

First, CCM developed an internally coherent party. The party held lively national congresses and competitive primaries for decades before elections were even held. In 1985, Nyerere took the unprecedented step of stepping down and introducing a competitive primary system to select the presidential candidate. These qualities limited a number of tendencies that characterize other autocracies. To succeed, elites had to play by rules. The president, while powerful, had to cede some independent authority to the party. While corruption became a major issue, the party fought to keep its institutional processes intact. 

Second, Nyerere also approached the question of popular support differently. CCM is a remarkably large party, with offices in place for every ten-homes. This put everyday citizens in daily touch with the party. Nyerere also deliberately targeted rural constituencies with public goods, regardless of their ethnicity. This fostered a relationship with the ruling party that did not depend on the identity of the person in charge, but the continued presence of the party in power. 

Both factors influenced how CCM contested elections in the multiparty era. In my research I show how CCM elites express fewer grievances and are less likely to defect than in other countries. The party frequently inserts itself into local disputes, especially during contentious nomination processes. Crucially, the presidential primary system has neutralized a key source of tension – succession. This was clear in 2015 when several presidential candidates, including the frontrunner Edward Lowassa, were removed from consideration due to violations of the party’s bylaws. While Lowassa defected, few other elites joined him.

My research also shows that CCM’s popular mobilization strategies have paid off. CCM keeps a general rural electoral edge, but it wins particularly big in areas that benefitted from a specific phase of economic planning in the 1970s. Opposition parties often make reference to the closed mindset of voters from these areas. This is quite different from other African electoral authoritarian regimes, where autocrats could only rely on their co-ethnics for support. 

These features of the Tanzanian case meant that the regime could contest elections with greater ex ante guarantees of electoral victory, and therefore did not have to manipulate elections as heavily. The regime could rely on an extensive cadre of elite support that was invested in the long-term survival of the party, and could mobilize a significant proportion of the populace based on their historical record of distributing government services and goods to them.

Electoral Authoritarian Competition without Guarantees

Credible ruling parties such as CCM are rare. In the book I note Mozambique, Senegal, and Seychelles as comparative examples. However, more often than not regimes are left with fewer institutional guarantees. In these cases, electoral authoritarian regimes are much more dependent on the traditional tools of autocracy – repression and cooptation. In these cases the outcome is much more predisposed toward more overt and stark manipulation of the electoral process, which also means that the utility of these strategies is less certain. 

In Cameroon we find a regime that has been in place essentially since independence, but entered the multiparty era without a credible ruling party. As expected, Cameroon’s initial experience with elections was turbulent. Many elites defected from the ruling party, and cited the opaque standards for candidacy. Likewise, the ruling party relied heavily on the backing of voters from Paul Biya’s co-ethnics in the center and south. The ruling CPDM and Biya eked by with a paper-thin victory, and amidst heavy condemnationof the electoral process by international observers. 

However, since that foundational election in 1992, Cameroon’s electoral authoritarian regime has rebuilt political support. In October last year, Paul Biya entered his 36thyear in office with over 70% of the vote, and the ruling party currently holds 78% of the legislative seats. Does this mean that repressive strategies are effective in the long-term? 

My answer is that only under specific conditions. Cameroon has deployed a wide range of manipulative processes without much international pushback. In fact, I argue that Cameroon has been the beneficiary of authoritarian international patronage, primarily from the French, but also from the United States. These actors have shielded the regime from the downsides of repression, provided critical financial assistance, and used rhetoric to maintain Cameroon’s public image. Relatedly, opposition parties in Cameroon have had few opportunities to build their international reputation. 

Some examples help to make this point. Compared to Tanzania, Cameroon has garnered far less international attention during its elections, and has some of the least observed elections on the continent. Compared to the average African country, Cameroon has liberalized much less of its economy and has maintained nearly 50% of its state-owned enterprises. This was accomplished due to French financial assistance during periods of economic crisis. Cameroon is also not a frequent subject of international discourse, and maintains a key role in France’s international relations and the United States’ War on Terror. 

Why Understanding How Autocrats Compete is Important

There are a few lessons about authoritarianism that the book provides. First, we should not conflate a seemingly less repressive election with a greater propensity toward democracy. In fact, a historically less repressive electoral regime like Tanzania might signal a more confident regime. The recent deterioration in political conditions in Tanzania seems shocking because of a fundamental misunderstanding of what the regime was like before John Magufuli’s election. 

Second, the book tells us that the nature of institutions created by autocrats have consequences. Arguably, Tanzania’s credible ruling party provides it with more legs to stand on, and an ability to prevent challenges rather than just react to them. The growing repression in Tanzania since 2015 is actually indicative of challenges to the traditional factors that have sustained the regime. By contrast, Cameroon has tied continued to tie innovations in its repressive capacity to the international arena. Specifically, the 2014 Anti-Terror lawwas passed to ostensibly combat Boko Haram, but is now a tool used to stifle political discourse. 

We need to be careful when we assess terms like “authoritarian stability” by referring simply to an autocrat’s time in office. It is crucial to look under the hood and appreciate how power is exercised in authoritarian regimes, and to grasp the real diversity of authoritarian institutions and politics.  


Venezuela – Executive and Legislative Branch in Open Conflict

In Venezuela, the executive and legislative branch are now engaged in nothing short of open war. The Venezuelan Supreme Court announced late on Wednesday that it would take over and assume the legislative powers of the opposition-dominated Congress. The Court alleges that the National Assembly are in contempt of court over a case involving three opposition legislators. The opposition claim that this move is simply a coup. In fact, some have compared it to the autogolpe (self-coup) of President Alberto Fujimori in Peru in 1992.

Executive-legislative relations in Venezuela have been smoldering since the legislative elections of December 2015. As I have discussed previously on this blog, although the opposition won enough seats for the all-important two thirds majority, some political shenanigans managed to prevent the super-majority taking all of their seats. The Supreme Court barred three opposition legislators and one from the governing coalition from taking their seats. These four legislators are all from the state of Amazonas, and the PSUV alleged that there had been irregularities during the election, revolving around accusations of vote buying.  To prevent the escalation of another political crisis, in January, the three opposition legislators in question, Julio Haron Ygarza, Nirma Guarulla and Romel Guzamana, agreed to give up their seats while investigations into the alleged electoral irregularities continue.

Although this denied the opposition the magic two thirds majority required to change the constitution, they have nonetheless placed President Maduro on the back foot, both in and out of the Assembly. However, President Maduro has found an ally in the Supreme Court. The Venezuelan constitution does not grant President Maduro veto power, but presidents are allowed to refer a bill to the Supreme Court, who can rule on the legitimacy of the legislation. So far, in the government’s battle with Congress, the Supreme Court has proven to be President Maduro’s best ally, striking down a number of the opposition initiatives.  In this case, the Court accuses the leaders of Congress of not handling the case of the expelled legislators according to legal procedures.

This all comes amid a debilitating economic crisis for Venezuela. The Maduro administration has been seeking investment in the state oil company PDVSA in order to raise much-needed income. Some of this mooted investment was to come from Russia. The opposition led-Congress was looking set to oppose these type of joint ventures and foreign investment in Venezuela’s oil industry. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court also authorized Maduro to negotiate such ventures without Congressional approval.

Venezuela’s actions have been condemned by governments across the region and by the Organization of American States, but it looks as if Maduro’s administration are now being forced to go for all or nothing. We have written before on this blog, notably with reference to Venezuela, about electoral or competitive authoritarianism, a coin termed by Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way in a seminal paper back in 2002.[1] These are regimes that they describe as a ‘diminished form of authoritarianism’ and involve the reform of political institutions to centralize power and distort the electoral arena in order to stack the deck in favor of the incumbent. Democracy remains, particularly the façade of procedural democracy, but it is of a much weakened variety.

In Venezuela, it doesn’t even look like much of that façade remains any more.

[1] Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way. 2001. The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism. Journal of Democracy., Vo. 13(2), pp. 51-65.

Venezuela – Crisis and Electoral Authoritarianism

This is a guest post from Maryhen Jiménez Morales, DPhil Candidate in Political Science at the Department of Politics and International Relations, Univeristy of Oxford. Maryhen’s thesis explores opposition parties and electoral authoritarianism in Latin America.

In the 1990s, Venezuela experienced a total collapse of its political and economic institutions. Poverty, macroeconomic instability, corruption scandals, and the repudiation of political elites, generated a broad discontent among the society. These traits were embodied within the two traditional political parties, AD and COPEI. The result of this dissatisfaction was the election of outsider candidate and former soldier Hugo Chávez, who promised a Bolivarian revolution, towards a socialist country and participatory democracy. Today, after 18 years of Chavismo ruling, the country is experiencing its most tragic collapse yet. Why so?

Comparing regimes has its risks. However, if we want to understand the differences between Venezuela’s first collapse during the 1990s and Venezuela’s current breakdown, we need to first explore the nature of both regimes. The Pact of Punto Fijo, signed in 1958 by Venezuela’s main political parties back then – AD, COPEI and URD –, gave the country political and economic stability. For all its flaws pointed out by recent observers, its stabilizing significance is crucial to note. Over almost four decades, Venezuela’s democracy started to flourish. The economy stabilized over the 60s and 70s, and a stable middle class emerged as a result of new inclusionary policies. The population began to participate in ways they had never done before, and the military was under civilian control. However, in the 1980s, the country’s economy began to crumble as a result of falling oil prices. By the 1990s, poverty, inflation and corruption had risen, and AD and COPEI lost the support they had built up over the past decades. Finally, in 1998, Hugo Chávez, won the presidential elections with the final goal of establishing a new political system that would erase the power of traditional economic elites and strengthen his personal hold on power. Chávez brought an end to Venezuela’s flawed, but working democracy, and replaced it by an electoral authoritarian regime. Here lies the secret of Venezuela’s second and most disastrous collapse.

Promising to generate true participation and real development, Chávez began to transform the political, economic and social sectors. However, the result of his reforms, alongside his mandate, (1999-2013) had one main goal: to ensure his political power. Step by step, he increased the powers of the president, controlled all state institutions, including the judiciary, parliament, and electoral bodies, and began to actively curb the opposition’s performance by disqualifying popular leaders, imposing sanctions, changing electoral rules or cutting their access to material and non-material resources. He replaced the old political elite, with a loyal civilian and military one. On the social level, he increased social spending to create patron-clientelistic networks organized around his radical leftist ideology that could defend and ensure his revolution. To guarantee the project’s continuity, he named Nicolás Maduro as his successor, who, in April 2013, won the elections with a 1% margin.

Ever since, Venezuela has been advancing towards total collapse. Sector after sector has been breaking down. The main motor of Venezuela’s economy, the oil industry, has suffered large mismanagement and corruption scandals, which has resulted in the loss of one million barrels in production since 1999. The government politicized the company by firing 20 thousand skilled and professional workers in 2002 and replacing them by loyal party supporters. Ever since, Chavismo has been packing the company with allies and military members, thus almost quintupling the payroll from 43.000 workers in 2002 to 170.000 in 2016. Today, the lack of professionalism and maintenance of PDVSA’s facilities results in accidents almost every day. In 2012, a pump collapse in Amuay led to one of the world’s worst refinery disasters in decades, causing at the death of 47 people. The tragedy of PDVSA’s maladministration forces Venezuela – the country with the largest proven oil reserves – to import gasoline for its daily consumption. Corruption has also penetrated the electricity sector. As a consequence of PDVSA’s collapse, the electricity lacks access to fuel to run its thermoelectric plants and to generate power. Once again, the lack of maintenance, and the effects of El Niño, are leading the country’s largest hydroelectric dam Guri to its virtual collapse. For Venezuelans, this translates into blackouts for up to 6-8 hours a day. No electricity also means no water for the same amount of time.

The state’s absolute control, and the catastrophically corrupt management of the economy, has caused the world’s highest inflation predicted to surpass the 500% mark this year and staggering the 1600% threshold next year, according to the IMF. Chavismo imposed a multiple tier exchange rate system which has only increased corruption, boosted the size of the black market, and devalued Venezuela’s currency. In today’s black market, Venezuelans get one dollar for 996 bolivars. A year ago, one dollar equaled 258 bolivars. Although the government praises its control over the economy and especially its fixed price policies, the truth is that Venezuelans cannot find regulated goods in the supermarkets anymore. And if they do, they have to queue for hours to buy them. Poverty has reached 75% this year. This adds 25% to the poverty records of the 1990s, which reached around 49% of the population. Continuing with the maths, the basic food basket has increased by 574,8 % over the past year, and by 25,6% from March to April 2016. A Venezuelan household of five people would need at least 22 times a minimum wage to afford it, according to Cendas-FMV. The state is also neglecting basic health care for its population. Chronic shortages of medical supplies, such as antibiotics or intravenous solutions, food and hygiene are common use in Venezuela’s hospitals. Most recently, however, doctors deal with dead newborns almost every day. On May 15 only, seven newborns died as a result of a blackout that caused the shutdown of the respirators in the maternity ward. Chavismo’s dream of public health care for Venezuelans has turned into a nightmare. Waiting lists for treatment are endless and, if patients want to be seen, they will need to bring the required tools and medicines – all goods they may not afford to buy or even find at the chemist’s.

Politically, as the government has lost power, it has increased repression. Since 2014, it brutally dissolved protests, jailed opposition leaders, and vehemently provoked the shutdown of the parliament, which is controlled by the opposition since December 2015. Currently, it is delaying the possibility of a referendum, knowing that it will lose if it takes place. More than 75% of the population wants Maduro to abandon his office, and even the military – an otherwise unconditional ally of the regime- is beginning to question its support. International actors have distanced themselves from Venezuela. Former regional allies, such as Argentina, Brazil, Colombia or Uruguay have expressed their concerns over the current situation. The OEA, otherwise inactive as to Chávez and Maduro’s regime, activated the democratic charter to investigate the happenings in the country.

How was this all possible during the country’s largest oil bonanza? The answer is not as simple but may bear some leads. The authoritarian nature of the regime has allowed for unlimited control in all state affairs. It is precisely the lack of democraticness and transparency in government spending and further economic activities that has boosted corruption. A small, so-called Bolivarian elite, has disposed over the country’s largest oil income, filling up their pockets, and emptying the state’s treasury.

Although Venezuela is experiencing its largest collapse, some hope for transformation remains. Despite the authoritarian environment, opposition parties have emerged and strengthened their structures. Opponents have understood that only together, they will be able to transition towards democracy. Notwithstanding internal disagreements, a common fact in democratic systems, opposition parties are cooperating under the MUD and have not abandoned the democratic path for political change. Chávez’s populist seduction posed a threat in the past, but it will serve as an important democratic lesson for the future. Venezuela will have to enter a second Pact of Punto Fijo, that leaders ought to keep it place to prevent a third breakdown.

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3ECFF702-EC8C-407F-B32E-324FFDBD549DMaryhen Jiménez Morales is a DPhil student at the Department of Political Science and International Relations. Her research looks at opposition parties in authoritarian regimes in Latin America. She completed an MPhil in Latin American Studies at St. Antony’s College, Oxford. Maryhen holds a BA in Political Science from the Goethe University Frankfurt and has worked for the German development cooperation, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch in Washington DC.