Rigging an election is done broadly in six ways and is an eye-opener, as it can happen even in western countries. The first is ‘gerrymandering’, where the district borders are redrawn, so that there is a mismatch between the votes polled and seats won.
The book, How to Rig an Election, is a very interesting one on how despots use the phenomenon of elections to showcase to the world that they run democracies. The authors, Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas, base this book on the inside stories of elections held in different countries over the years.
Both the rise of despotism and the attempt to turn democratic have taken place due to external pressures. The Cold War was a turning point when most of the countries in Latin America, Africa, eastern Europe and parts of Asia turned despotic, with both the USA and erstwhile USSR propping regimes to maintain democratic or communist regimes. The turning point, according to the authors, was the 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed and triggered a race for democracy. But it was western pressure that made dictators try and put up a facade that they were democratic, and the best way to do so was to hold elections. Moreover, with the World Bank and the IMF providing aid on preconditions laid in the form of governance, the despots were forced to show that they held fair elections.
We, in India, often witness how the ruling governments before the elections offer freebies and make lofty promises to the poor in exchange for votes. Budgets are also earmarked for this exercise. This, according to Cheeseman and Klaas, are legitimate means and do not interfere with the democratic processes. What then constitutes rigging?
Rigging an election is done broadly in six ways and is an eye-opener, as it can happen even in western countries. The first is ‘gerrymandering’, where the district borders are redrawn, so that there is a mismatch between the votes polled and seats won. Here, the authors show that even a country like the US has not been free of this phenomenon. They call it the case of the “foxes guarding the henhouses”.
The second is where votes are bought by giving money. This is an expensive process and one can still not be sure of the outcome, as people can take the money or gifts, as they do in Africa, and still vote for someone else. Often, money earned through corruption is used for this purpose. While despots may try and see who votes for which party at times, this may backfire due to great global scrutiny and is usually avoided. At times, to ensure that people take the money and vote for them, communal punishment is used when the autocrat comes to power and the village that has not voted is taught a lesson.
Third, the autocrat can ensure that the opposition is not able to compete by excluding their names, or more hilariously, have similar-named people standing to mislead voters. At times, the opposition leaders are beaten up to ensure that they are not seen. In Madagascar, the opposition leader’s plane was not allowed to land and he could not enrol, while in Pakistan, the main challenger was assassinated.
If these three are not possible, then the elections can be hacked, as was done in Azerbaijan, where the people got to know the results before the polls opened. This is how the electronic route is used to rig elections. Fake news is used effectively to give the impression that the autocrat has all the votes, which becomes self-fulfilling. The controversy regarding the infamous Cambridge Analytica is pertinent here, which was used effectively in the last US elections.
Fifth, stuffing the ballot box is the more obvious way, where people are intimidated and not allowed to vote, but their votes stuffed in the box. In Liberia, the autocrat got 17 times the number of voters! In some districts in Uganda, 100% of voters voted for the ruling president. Also, negative votes can be excluded in counting or just dumped in dustbins, as was done in the recent Turkish referendum by the AKP party.
And last is to ‘play the international community’, which legitimises the polls. This is done especially when the country is of strategic political importance, like one owning oil, where such endorsements are given. This is done through the Potemkin route, where foreign agencies involved are selectively shown how well the elections have been conducted, so that there is an endorsement from the west.
The question is, why do despots rig elections? Normally, when autocrats are known for corruption and cruelty, they are too scared to be replaced by legitimate rule, as they would be killed by the new regime. Moreover, all the regimes get money from the west and keep the army happy, which, in turn, ensures there is no opposition. If power is lost, there would be physical danger for them. Therefore, they have to ensure that they continue to be in power and, hence, rig elections.
The authors have found that while more countries are getting democratic, on a scale of 1 to 10—where 10 has the fairest elections—the average would be just 6, and in continents like Africa, it would go down to 5. In 2016, almost twice the number of countries became authoritarian than democratic.
The way out is to have effective systems for voting (electronic, where India scores), close monitoring and evolution of civil society. While the authors have spoken of what has to be done, the message is that checking rigging of elections will not be easy until these countervailing forces are balanced. Also, the influence of the west may be declining and with the power of countries like China and Russia increasing, we may be going a few steps back on the basis of external pressure to have fair elections. This makes it hard to be very optimistic about the future.
Madan Sabnavis is chief economist, CARE Ratings