The Poor Tyrant!

Why
do dictators win elections?  The answer to this is relatively
straightforward–they hold fixed elections.  Everyone knows they’re fixed
and everyone knows who will win before the balloting even begins.  If the actual
numerical results aren’t fixed, then the rules regarding who may contest the
elections and who may vote in them certainly are.  Dictatorial regimes
hold elections to demonstrate to the world that, not only are they giving their
citizens a choice in their leadership, but also that their citizens
resoundingly love them and wouldn’t prefer a more representative, and perhaps
less repressive, government.

If all of that is true, then what went wrong in
Zimbabwe?  Discussion comes after the jump.


The Wall Street Journal published a fascinating article in today’s edition
(non-subscribers will need to get their hands on a hard copy) about
Zimbabwe’s ongoing election saga.  (Bonus pictorial: Who’s Who among Sub-Saharan Africa’s Executives)

To be fair, Robert Mugabe isn’t the only exception to the
dictators-win-cleanly-in-dirty-elections rule, but the case of Zimbabwe is
eye-opening with respect to the conventional wisdom on dictators and to the importance that one small change in the rules can carry.  The opposition monitored the election on March 29 as closely as
they could; the government had granted the opposition the seemingly small
concession of posting election results locally before they were aggregated
nationally by the election commission.  They declared that their
candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai had won just over a majority of the vote.  The official
government results of the election, however, did not come until May 2.  In
the intervening five weeks, opposition leaders were
detained numerous times, ordinary citizens harrassed, and violence
erupted. 

When the official results were announced, they roughly
mirrored the opposition’s unofficial count, except that Tsvangirai had won under 50% of the vote, necessitating a run-off.  Undoubtedly, Mugabe was
surprised that he did not win even a plurality of the vote–but why would the
government wait five weeks just to confirm (roughly) the opposition’s count?  A run-off is preferable to defeat, at least.  But it
seems that Mugabe was not afraid of violent conflict with the opposition, and that it didn’t matter what the result of the vote was anyway:

Mr.
Mugabe raised the stakes this week, promising "war" if Mr. Tsvangirai
triumphs in the hotly contested run-off scheduled for June 27, and accused the
opposition of fomenting the violence. On Monday, Mr. Mugabe vowed to hold on to
power even if he loses.

Was
it miscalculation, then, that led Mugabe to hold an election and count the
votes somewhat accurately, when he clearly had no intention of honoring the
results?  It could be that Mugabe is the victim of the dictator’s dilemma,
in which he is consistently given poor information about the loyalty of his
people because his advisors do not want to bring bad news.  If he really
believed that he had enough support to win more than a majority of the popular
vote on March 29, then posting the election results publicly would not have
seemed like such a consequential decision–apparently, Mugabe was confident of
his reelection, even under free and fair conditions.  International
pressure combined with an embarrassing and suspicious delay in the official
count of the results probably led the government to announce acceptable
results, thereby allowing a run-off election to take place.

Given that even the government’s official count has Tsvangirai in the lead,
Mugabe’s chances of winning the run-off election fairly on June 27 don’t look
good, especially since the opposition won a clear majority of seats in the
Parliament in the same March 29 vote.  Mugabe’s threat of noncompliance
with an unfavorable electoral outcome may lead to war and will certainly lead
to harsh criticism by the internaitonal community, which may benefit the
opposition.  It seems that Mugabe would not have made these threats,
though, if he was not confident in his military’s loyalty and strength. If his
threat was cheap talk, then he would have had a reasonable expectation that the
opposition would withdraw from the run-off, yet they have not given any signal
that they are willing to do this.  Opposition leader Noel Kututwa clearly
expected a fight from Mugabe’s regime when he organized the effort to monitor
the election results, but they did it anyway because they were confident they could get more votes than Mugabe:

"We
expected to be arrested immediately," he says in an interview, but
"we wanted to make sure our election was legitimate."

What
are your predictions? Will this case end up as another observation in the civil
war datasets? Will Mugabe realize that he cannot win a fair fight and rig the
run-off? Or will international pressure be effective and force him to step down
in the event that he loses?

 The title of this post references to the following source:
Wintrobe, Ronald. 1998. The Political Economy of Dictatorship. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

8 thoughts on “The Poor Tyrant!

  1. There are a few dictatorial regimes that, shockingly, are elected and re-elected in office. Beatriz Magaloni recently published a book with Cambridge called “Voting for Autocracy”. It tries to explain why people voted for the PRI in Mexico dfor so long despite the clear evidence that the PRI was a dictatorial regime. According to Cambridge,
    “This book provides a theory of the logic of survival of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), one of the most resilient autocratic regimes in the twentieth century. An autocratic regime hid behind the facade of elections that were held with clockwise precision. Although their outcome was totally predictable, elections were not hollow rituals. The PRI made millions of ordinary citizens vest their interests in the survival of the autocratic regime. Voters could not simply throw the ‘rascals out of office’ because their choices were constrained by a series of strategic dilemmas that compelled them to support the autocrats. The book also explores the factors that led to the demise of the PRI. The theory sheds light on the logic of ‘electoral autocracies’, among the most common type of autocracy and is the only systematic treatment in the literature today dealing with this form of autocracy.”

  2. That’s a really good point, and it sounds like an interesting book. And it’s definitely worth noting that over 40% of Zimbabwean voters, by any count, voted for Mugabe on March 29, perhaps for similarly vested interests. It will be interesting to see if they vote for him again in the run-off or if they switch their votes to Tsvangirai, thus shedding more light on their sincere preferences.

  3. This makes the outcome a little more predictable, at least in the short term: now, not only is Mugabe guaranteed to win the election, but the election is essentially a failure even before it begins.
    A very quick search for academic writing on the subject of election boycotts returned mostly case studies. Can anyone recommend literature on the effects of opposition boycotts of elections?
    NPR’s Renee Montaigne interviewed Tsvangirai this morning. Interesting stuff.

  4. George Charamba, a spokesman for Robert Mugabe, was interviewed on NPR this afternoon. This interview is wonderful–Robert Siegel does an outstanding job and we get a really interesting perspective of these events from the Mugabe regime itself.
    As a side note, I am in no way affiliated with NPR, but stories and interviews like their series on the situation in Zimbabwe make me want to jump up and down in endorsement of them. Their astute coverage of the Burmese Cyclone, the Chinese Earthquake, and the Zimbabwean elections this year have been exceptional.

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