Rigged elections are important to modern-day authoritarians
Many dictators of the past, from Spain’s Gen. Francisco Franco on the far right to Cuba’s Fidel Castro and China’s Mao Tse Tung on the far left, enjoyed dictator-for-life status. But the authoritarian model being employed by Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin is different: They do everything possible to undermine checks and balances in their countries and rig the game badly, yet pretend they were democratically elected.
A question that is often asked about Putin or Erdogan is: Why even bother with sham elections? Why not just declare themselves dictators for life the way that Gen. Augusto Pinochet did in Chile? Hong Kong-based journalist Timothy McLaughlin sheds some light on this subject in an informative article published by The Atlantic on December 20, explaining why authoritarians bother with the pretense of sham elections.
McLaughlin points out that Lee Morgenbesser, who teaches politics at Australia’s Griffith University, describes this pattern as “hegemonic authoritarianism” — a pattern in which, Morgenbesser says, “de facto opposition parties are banned, basic civil liberties and political rights are overtly violated, the rule of law is arbitrarily breached, and the government has monopolized access to media.”
Morgenbesser told McLaughlin, “Ultimately, elections may be allowed to exist, but they cease to be an avenue for actual opposition parties to gain power.”
Much of McLaughlin’s article focuses on China, and he doesn’t get into Turkey under Erdogan or Russia under Putin. But the “hegemonic authoritarianism” concept that Morgenbesser discussed with McLaughlin applies to a variety of countries. Apologists for Erdogan, Putin or Orbán would argue that they could be voted out of office if voters really wanted them out, but that argument ignores the fact that they have done everything possible to cement their power by undermining checks and balances in their countries.
In the United States, a love of “hegemonic authoritarianism” is alive and well in former President Donald Trump’s MAGA movement. The most disturbing part of the voter suppression bills that Republicans have been pushing all over the U.S. isn’t the many ways in which they make voting more difficult — although that’s bad enough — but the way they seek to put MAGA Republicans exclusively in charge of election systems. The obvious goal is create a rigged voting system in which Republicans can simply throw out any election results they don’t like and make it next to impossible for Democrats to win major elections.
Far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has praised the military junta that abused Brazil in the past, favors the “hegemonic authoritarianism” model. It remains to be seen whether or not Brazil’s system of checks and balances will hold up, and Bolsonaro’s critics — from liberals and progressives to traditional conservatives — are hoping he will be voted out of office in Brazil’s 2022 presidential election.
Franco enjoyed dictator-for-life status in Spain from 1939 until his death in 1975; Castro spent decades as Cuba’s dictator and head of the Cuban Communist Party until he resigned because of poor health and handed the country’s communist regime over to his brother Raúl Castro. But with the “hegemonic authoritarianism” model, authoritarians like Orbán, Putin and Erdogan can pretend that they were democratically elected while promoting a system that makes it difficult or impossible to vote them out.
That is the model being employed in Russia, Hungary and Turkey, which was once the most democratic country in the Islamic world. And it is the model that MAGA Republicans will employ in the United States if they are allowed to get away with it.
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