Competitive Elections in Authoritarian States : Weak States, Strong Elites, and Fractional Societies in Central Asia and Beyond

Abstract: Why do some authoritarian states have competitive elections? This study shows that whenever there is a balance of power between candidates, competitiveness will ensue. Electoral fraud is often widespread in autocratic states, but if no single candidate or party is in a position to monopolize electoral support the result will be competitive. The contribution here is to analyze the relative strength of all the actors involved in a parliamentary election and to show that electoral returns reflect the district level balance of power, even in autocracies. Three main sources of candidate-level electoral power are identified: state, market, and society. State affiliated candidates in authoritarian states perform well due to favorable treatment by state institutions. Market actors perform well due to financial resources. These actors arise when market reforms create a class of entrepreneurs that defend their interests by running for public office, often challenging state sanctioned candidates. The strength of candidates using social cleavages, here mainly ‘clan’ and ethnic, is found to be exaggerated in the literature. The study also confirms that competitiveness did not result from an active civil society. Competitive  elections matter because they can severely destabilize the regime, as was the case in Kyrgyzstan in 2005. However, electoral competitiveness that is the result of an intra-elite balance of power should not be confused with democracy. This form of self-interested competitiveness where clientelism is pervasive and accountability mechanisms are weak is an affront to the democratic ideal. For those of us who advocate democracy and genuine political participation competitive authoritarian regimes can be used as an informative cautionary tale. Power matters, and especially so in authoritarian states. Understanding the logic behind competitive authoritarianism helps us revise strategies for lasting democratic reforms.