The recent referendum in Turkey, in which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed a narrow majority of votes to expand his presidential authority, is the latest example of a puzzling phenomenon: Democratically elected leaders who triumph in elections even as they move toward autocracy by undermining checks and balances and consolidating power.
Today, the most common way for a democracy to collapse is through the actions of an elected incumbent, not a coup or revolution. Hugo Chávez, elected to four terms as president of Venezuela, used his time in office to dismantle the institutions of Venezuelan democracy and expand his own authority. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has so thoroughly concentrated power in his own hands that many observers now refer to Russia as an “elected dictatorship.” And in Turkey, Mr. Erdogan appears to be following that well-trodden path.
This phenomenon, which experts call “authoritarianization” highlights a deep vulnerability built into the structure of democracy itself. Once in power, unscrupulous leaders can sometimes manipulate the political environment to their own benefit, making it more likely that they will be victorious in future contests. By winning those elections, they gain the stamp of democratic legitimacy — even for actions that ultimately undermine democratic norms.
Manipulating and winning elections has become a kind of exploit in the rules of political legitimacy — a way for would-be autocrats to hack the system.
Why would-be autocrats love elections
People around the world have become so attached to the idea of democracy that elections have become a de facto requirement for government legitimacy, said Milan Svolik, a Yale political scientist who studies authoritarianism and democratization. That has helped spread democracy across the globe.
Because elections are so prized, any result achieved through popular vote is treated as conveying moral as well as procedural validity.
Winning an election lets an incumbent claim popular support for changes that undermine democratic institutions, like stripping away checks and balances, discarding term limits or granting new powers to the president. Opponents who criticize the result risk looking anti-democratic, trying to thwart the will of the people expressed at the ballot box.
There are limits to that hack’s effectiveness. Mr. Svolik said that “farce” elections that were obviously put on for show by dictators like Saddam Hussein in Iraq, or Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, in which the leader’s “victory” was never in doubt, delivered little democratic legitimacy.
But the situation of countries like Turkey under Mr. Erdogan, Venezuela under Mr. Chávez before his death in 2013, or Russia under Mr. Putin is more complex, he said. In these cases, elections, including referendums, are not merely for show. They are genuine contests — though they may not be fair.
Such leaders often use what Andreas Schedler, a professor of political science at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching in Mexico City, calls a “menu of manipulation” to obtain favorable results. Techniques like curtailing press freedom, limiting the opposition’s ability to campaign and spreading misinformation enable incumbents to manipulate outcomes without resorting to easily traceable techniques like ballot-stuffing.
Mr. Chávez, for instance, systematically revoked the broadcast licenses of media outlets that did not give him friendly coverage. In Russia, state-run media lionizes Mr. Putin, who has cracked down on dissent and systematically shut off political opportunities for the opposition.
Mr. Svolik compared the result to a team of seven-foot-tall people playing basketball against a team of five-footers. “It’s still basketball,” he said, “but it systematically favors one side over another.”
That kind of manipulation is not only powerful, it is also hard for the opposition to prevent. “It’s difficult to challenge the state media giving one candidate more, or more favorable, coverage,” Mr. Svolik said. By sampling heavily from the menu of manipulation, leaders can avoid much of the risk of losing a vote, while still gaining legitimacy from its result.
Some evidence suggests that Mr. Erdogan’s referendum in Turkey on Sunday fit that pattern. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said in a statement that the referendum’s technical aspects were orderly and well administered, but that it “took place on an unlevel playing field and the two sides did not have equal opportunities.” Other critics claim more direct interference in the vote, including ballot-stuffing.
How partisanship puts democracy in second place
But that top-down manipulation is only part of the story. In his research on how democracies fail, Mr. Svolik observed a puzzling pattern: Often, leaders who subvert democracy — and whose electoral success is partly attributable to a tilted playing field — remain genuinely popular with much of the public.
That seemed to contradict a core belief about what makes democracy a good idea in the first place: that elections are an effective check on tyranny.
Mr. Svolik’s research, which he presents in a new working paper, found that check fails in deeply polarized societies. Previously, experts have assumed that if a democracy is sufficiently “consolidated” — with elections, a strong civil society and a certain level of wealth — it is no longer at risk of backsliding into authoritarianism.
Mr. Svolik’s work, though, suggests that deeply polarized democracies, even if they appear wealthy and stable, could still suffer from a fundamental weakness.
Strongly partisan voters tend to feel so negatively about the opposing party’s candidates that they are not willing to even consider voting for them, he explained. “If I’m a big fan of my politician and I hate the politician who represents the other side, I’m willing to forgive undemocratic behavior by my side, even if I value democracy.”
Those voters are “partisans first, democrats second,” he said.
Mr. Svolik’s paper focused on Venezuela, where many saw themselves as “leftists first, and Chavistas first,” he said, using the Venezuelan term for supporters of Mr. Chávez, and democrats second.
But he said the same pattern might also explain Mr. Erdogan’s success in Turkey’s referendum, because that country is deeply divided between poorer, rural, religious voters, who tend to support Mr. Erdogan, and secular urban residents who tend to oppose him.
‘A strength of democracy and a weakness of democracy’
But what voting taketh away, voting can giveth right back. A habit of elections, it seems, may also make it more difficult for authoritarians to consolidate their autocracies.
“This is a strength of democracy and a weakness of democracy,” Mr. Svolik said. “There are definitely cases where this is leading to autocracy, but in others there is more back and forth.”
Even leaders who benefit from polarization and who manipulate political contests in their favor can eventually lose popularity. When that happens, a tradition of regular elections makes it easier for countries to move back in the direction of democracy, he said.
In Sri Lanka, for instance, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa won two terms as president by relying on the support of the Sinhalese ethnic majority in a country deeply divided along ethnic and religious lines. But his corruption and authoritarianism eventually undermined his support base. He lost an election in 2015 to a former ally from his own party, Maithripala Sirisena, who split the Sinhalese vote and attracted the support of Tamils and Muslims.
That election “resuscitated Sri Lanka’s democratic institutions after an administration that consolidated power in the hands of the president’s family, undermined the independent judiciary and brutalized civil society,” said Kate R. Cronin-Furman, a fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, who studies Sri Lanka.
One election is not a cure-all. In Sri Lanka, “change has been unevenly realized,” Ms. Cronin-Furman said. The former conflict zone in the Tamil-majority north of the country remains heavily militarized, so citizens there have not necessarily felt the full impact of the political transformation in the capital.
But Mr. Svolik nevertheless sees the country as an example of the persistent power of elections. Mr. Rajapaksa, who many believed was an entrenched autocrat, lost to a defector from his own government, he pointed out. “It is only because these mechanisms are in place that this is actually happening.”