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Democratic regress: When predetermined elections masquerade as fair | The World Weekly

On Sunday, the Russian people will go to the polls to choose their next president. Observers say they need not bother. Vladimir Putin’s re-election for a second consecutive term, his fourth overall, is practically assured. The president is certainly popular in Russia, but the electoral process is widely thought to have been manipulated to guarantee his victory.

There is a growing concern among electoral watchdogs of a trend in which predetermined elections are masquerading as democratic, and where authoritarianism is disguised under a thin veil of electoral legitimacy. This spring, the leaders of Russia, Venezuela and Egypt will all likely be reinstated in what observers say are democratic elections in name only.

The legitimacy of Russia’s election has been overshadowed by the barring in December of Alexei Navalny, seen by many as a deliberate move to neutralise a burgeoning threat to President Putin’s leadership.

As for the rest of the field, a mix of what analysts have described as no-hopers and puppet candidates have been vetted and assembled to make proceedings look competitive. Pavel Grudinin, projected to come second, is only likely to garner 8% of votes, according to state-run polls.

Ksenia Sobchak, a staunch liberal and former reality television star and socialite, has had her participation questioned. Ms. Sobchak is the daughter of Anatoly Sobchak, a former St. Petersburg mayor who mentored Mr. Putin. She is part of “a loathsome Kremlin game to put up a liberal laughing stock,” said Mr. Navalny.

“It is a bogus election,” Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution think-tank, told The World Weekly. “When competitors are screened for admissibility you have to suspect the election is not fair.”

Many see the government's decision to hold the election on the four-year anniversary of Russia's annexation of Crimea as an attempt to drum up nationalist sentiment and participation.

Crackdown in Egypt

Eight days after Russia goes to the polls, Egyptians will start to vote in elections that are all but certain to guarantee another term in office for incumbent President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Mr. Sisi came to power in 2013 when he overthrew and subsequently imprisoned President Mohammed Morsi on the back of mass protests. In a presidential election one year later, he won almost 97% of the vote.

“The regime has aggressively culled the field of potential competitors through intimidation, harassment, prosecution, and detention,” explained Michael Wahid Hanna, of the Century Foundation, in The Washington Post.

Mr. Sisi will have one challenger, Moussa Mostafa Moussa, a centrist politician who until recently strongly supported the president’s election campaign.

A man walks past presidential election campaign banners promoting Egyptian President Abdelfattah al-Sisi (R) and his only opponent, Moussa Mostafa Moussa (L), in Cairo on March 7, 2018.

Mr. Moussa has denied collusion, saying in an interview with Egypt Today, “I am not a background actor in the 2018 presidential election and no-one moves me.” A month later he changed his tune somewhat. “I am not here to challenge the president,” he said on local television programme Hona al-Asema, “If I win that would be great, but I will not cause any problems.”

Analysts, including Mr. Hanna, suspect that the government crackdown is in part due to a fear that allowing dissent risks creating a situation similar to 2011. Back then mass protests led to the ousting of longtime President Hosni Mubarak as part of the Arab Spring which swept across the Middle East and North Africa.

Venezuelan boycott

In Venezuela, President Nicolás Maduro has presided over an economic crisis that erupted in 2012. This year the IMF expects hyperinflation to hit 13,000%. The resultant food shortages have caused over half a million people to flee into neighbouring Colombia. The president’s approval ratings currently hover around 25%, according to local pollsters.

Despite the president’s waning support, anything other than a new six-year term for Mr. Maduro is seen as highly unlikely. The election itself was originally scheduled for December 2018, but the election board moved the date forward to April. It has now been set for May 22. The shifting of the election date has been seen by many as undemocratic in itself.

Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela's president, left address members of the media in Caracas, Venezuela, on February 4, 2018.

Mr. Maduro’s government has refused to agree to conditions that would ensure a fair vote, such as a non-partisan electoral council and international election monitoring. This has led to a boycott by the opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), already weakened by the disqualification and imprisonment of some of its leaders.

Henri Falcón’s recent decision to challenge Mr. Maduro for the presidency has been heavily criticised by MUD for undermining the total boycott. The opposition worries that his candidacy validates the sham of an election. “We repudiate the unilateral registration of Henri Falćon,” the group said in a statement. “We cannot recognise a fraudulent electoral process.” 

A recent poll by Meganalisis, a Venezuelan pollster, found that 72.5% of Venezuelan respondents did not trust the electoral body, the National Electoral Council, and only 29% wanted to vote at all.

Much of the international community has condemned the regime’s actions and called the election illegitimate.

The situation in Venezuela has ramifications for democracy in the region as a whole. “In Latin America, the regional norm favouring democracy that emerged during the 1980s has been eroding for a number of years,” Harold Trinkunas, senior fellow of the Latin America Initiative at the Brookings Institution, told TWW, “in favour of nationalist and populist positions that emphasise absolute state sovereignty.”

Mechanisms and allegiances that once protected democracy have become unworkable, due to a lack of consensus of what constitutes democracy and a divide between liberal and populist leaders. “The consequence has been the formation of ‘coalitions of the willing’ such as the Lima Group to work against the erosion of democracy, in this case Venezuela.”

Cartographic creations

Electoral foul play often comes down to geography. Malaysia, a country whose government has been beset with allegations of corruption after a $4.5bn hole was found in its finances, has been accused of trying to rig the next election. Critics say the government has sought to manipulate constituency boundaries to make it more difficult for the opposition to win.

“If an election is voters choosing politicians, gerrymandering is politicians choosing voters,” Wong Chin Huat of the Penang Institute, a Malaysian think-tank, told The Economist. The election is due to take place sometime before August.

Electoral regress

Instances of managed democracy appear to be far from isolated occurrences. Freedom House, an independent watchdog on freedom and democracy, reported that over the last five years the number of countries experiencing declines in the freedom of their electoral processes have outweighed those with gains.

Last year term limits were abused in Lebanon, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Bolivia sought to abandon term limits altogether despite the public voting against it in a 2016 referendum. Further north in Honduras, after an initial vote count had the opposition candidate leading the presidential election, the votes were controversially recounted to favour the incumbent president.

Elsewhere, improbably one-sided victories might be seen as bellwethers for repressive regimes, often indicating ballot rigging, the suppression of free press, and the proliferation of state-controlled media that lionises autocrats.

There are some signs of progress. Freedom House noted that Timor-Leste’s status “improved due to fair elections that led to a smooth transfer of power and enabled new parties and candidates to enter the political system.”

In all, governments in more than two dozen countries saw a whittling of electoral legitimacy, according to Freedom House. “This final guardrail — or in some cases fig leaf — of democracy is giving way.”

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