Even the most anti-democratic election can reveal much about the system.
CAIRO — Why would Egypt waste tens of millions of pounds on posters and banners for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, when his rivals were muzzled and no credible candidate stood to challenge him?
After all, these posters cost real money, mostly paid for by businesses — money that could have been better spent on hospitals and schools, or even the government's Tahya Masr (Long Live Egypt) philanthropic fund. But the costly flooding of images across cities makes sense when one considers them to be a symptom of a deeper pathology, one in which political depotism elevates the ruler's will and passion over rational action and debate and scuffles public welfare by turning the citizenry into a homogenous mass without any real representation. But even the most anti-democratic election can reveal much about the system and its key players.
Rigged elections come in all varieties: ballot-stuffing, the arrest of opposition figures, intimidation of opposition supporters and miscounting of votes, among other imaginative techniques. Yet at the heart of it all remains a consistent feature: the regime views elections not as an institutionalized mechanism within an accountable governance process, but as a carefully orchestrated event wrapped in a spectacle to reinforce the regime's strength and test the oppositional waters.
They're a safety valve to manage threats.
By the very nature of their positions, authoritarian leaders project extreme insecurity, as their legitimacy is not reaped from popular representation and democratic accountability, but from the support of elites and the security establishment. This type of support is extremely precarious, as it is not only suspended above responsible political cycles, but also makes for potentially messy endings such as coups, revolutions and imprisonment. Therefore, elections are often a safety valve to manage threats.
Such elections offer a "dignified" way for presidents to purge strong popular supporters who can emerge as a threat (even if their staunch loyalty was never in question) and reshuffle Cabinet ministers. This can give the illusion to the public that a reset is taking place, and that economic problems should be blamed solely on such ousted ministers, not the president. Elections signal to supporters why they need to be co-opted, and to opponents that broad support for the regime invites further crackdowns. The post-election period often sees security apparatuses reorganize to intimidate real and potential opponents. This is made possible in the first place because an election enables the regime to test the strength of its opposition and to learn more about them. In an ironic twist elections can prolong dictatorships.
Elections signal to domestic and international audiences that a "popular mandate" has been renewed, and the establishment is united behind the head of state in question, so foreign leaders need to primarily deal with the president, not the defense minister or to flirt with opposition figures. Also, it is slightly more compelling (albeit still comical) for a president to say, "My people support me and that's why I won the recent election," rather than just mouthing a vague, "My people support me" platitude. It is for this reason that authoritarian figures can often end up detached from the public. With the Arab revolutions as the backdrop, the idea of not touching base with the public is unsettling for many leaders. But rather than gain legitimate consent, which is not guaranteed, they would still prefer to manufacture it.
But staged elections also come with a huge risk. According to a University of Oslo study, 50% of regime breakdowns or "dictatorship deaths' have occurred during an election year. This is because elections act as a meeting point on which oppositional individuals and groups can focus their attention. Therefore, elections enable coordination and amplify certain voices.
Not one of my jokes
In effect, the election resolves the "coordination problem" that usually plagues oppositional actors at other moments. They also reveal a regime's vulnerability. A surprising result that shows a loss for the ruling party would lead the people to believe they had overestimated the regime's strength. Empty voting stations and short voting queues can prove embarrassing enough to break the spell of a leader's indomitability and allay the fears of activists. This was demonstrated in the 2014 Egyptian presidential election, which sent pro-regime media anchors into a frenzy of begging citizens to vote and the authorities had to extend voting by another two days. Elections unleash forces that cannot always be anticipated or controlled.
Biographers of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser note that he was obsessed with jokes being made about him and was briefed daily about the latest jokes in circulation. Egyptian humor seems to spare nothing, including ancient Egyptian statues who changed confessions about which historical dynasty they were from — under Nasser's torture. According to writer Anthony McDermott, one account narrates how Nasser, unusually, intervened in a particular instance in the 1960s when mocked for his near 100% referendum victories. The jester in question was brought before Nasser, who reprimanded him and reminded him of his achievements and popularity by adding, "And remember, I was elected by 99 percent of the electorate." The man replied, "I swear, this was not one of my jokes."
If this anecdote can perhaps illuminate something, it is that the peak charade — the "election" — in a regime's lifespan can often be its most vulnerable moment.