The Dictator’s Handbook

Why is democracy failing even as elections proliferate? A thought experiment sheds new light on why aging autocrats remain so hard to dislodge.

The old rulers of the Soviet Union were terrified of facing contested elections. Those of us who studied political systems presumed they must be right: Elections would empower citizens against the arrogance of government. And with the fall of the Iron Curtain, elections indeed swept the world. Yet democracy doesn’t seem to have delivered on its promise. Surprisingly often, the same old rulers are still there, ruling in much the same old way. Something has gone wrong, but what?

To answer this question, I put myself in the shoes of an old autocrat — say, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak — now having to retain power in a "democracy." What options do I face? Hard as it is to bear, I have to be honest with myself: My people do not love me. Far from being grateful for the wonders that I have achieved, they may increasingly be aware that under my long rule our country has stagnated while similar countries have transformed themselves. There are even a few cogent voices out there explaining why this situation is my fault. I shake my head in disbelief that it has come to this, seize my gold pen, and start listing my options. I decide to be systematic, in each case evaluating the pros and cons.

–Paul Collier

Option 1: Turn over a new leaf and embrace good government 

Pros: This is probably what most people want. I might start feeling better about myself, and I might even leave a legacy my children could be proud of.

Cons: I haven’t much idea how to do it. The skills I have developed over the years are quite different — essentially, retaining power through shuffling a huge number of people around a patronage trough. My God, I might have to read those damned donor reports. And even if I worked out what needed to change, the civil service wouldn’t be up to implementing it. After all, I’ve spent years making sure that anyone who is exceptional or even honest is squeezed out; honest people cannot easily be controlled.

Worse still, reform might be dangerous. My "friends," the parasitic sycophants with whom I have surrounded myself, might not put up with it: They might decide to replace me in a palace coup. They would probably dress it up to the outside world as "reform"!

But suppose I did it. Suppose I actually delivered good government. Would I get reelected? I start to think about all those rich-country political leaders who over the years have met me, often lecturing me on the need for good governance. I do a rough tally: They seemed to win their own elections only about 45 percent of the time.

So, even if I pull it off, I’m still more than likely to lose power. Best to cheat. But how?

Option 2: Lie to the voters

Pros: I control most of the media, so it is relatively easy. What’s more, my citizens have neither much in the way of education nor good reference points by which to tell how bad things really are. So, I can tell them how fortunate they are to have me as president.

Cons: I have been doing this for years, so people heavily discount anything I say. On balance, though lying seems to be worth doing, I simply cannot rely on it to deliver victory.

Option 3: Scapegoat a minority

Pros: This one works! I can blame either unpopular minorities within my country or foreign governments for all my problems. The politics of hatred has a long and, electorally speaking, pretty successful pedigree. In the Ivory Coast it was the Burkinabe immigrants; in Zimbabwe, the whites; in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Tutsi. Failing all else, I can always blame Israel America. I can also promise favoritism for my own group.

Cons: Some of my best friends are ethnic minorities. In fact, they have been funding me for years in return for favors. I prefer doing business with ethnic minorities because, however rich they become, they cannot challenge me politically. It is the core ethnic groups I need to keep out of business. Scare the minorities too badly, and they will move their money out. So, though scapegoating works, beyond a certain point it gets rather costly.

Option 4: Buy the votes to win

Pros: Bribing voters plays to one of my key advantages over the opposition — I have more money.

Cons: Can I trust people to honor the deal? If I pay them, will they actually vote for me? After all, there are some pretty unscrupulous people out there.

On balance, I am not sure. I search the Web and stumble on a study by someone named Pedro Vicente at Oxford University. Vicente conducted a randomized, controlled experiment on electoral bribery in São Tomé and Príncipe. In some districts, bribery was restrained by external scrutiny, whereas in others it was not. Systematically, where bribery was unrestrained, the candidate offering bribes got more votes. Bribery works!

In fact, bribery comes in two modes: retail and wholesale. Retail bribery is expensive and difficult but might still be worthwhile. Its advantage is that I can target pockets of voters critical for success.

Why doesn’t bribery backfire? If the British Labour Party were caught offering money to individual voters in exchange for their support, the electoral damage would be massive. But in many societies elections are viewed differently. Politicians deliver nothing during their periods in office, so people expect that during the one brief moment when they exert some power politicians should dispense patronage. Hard cash in the pocket is better than promises. But even if politicians can offer bribes without provoking criticism, how can they enforce the deal? After all, the vote is secret. What is to stop voters from accepting money and then voting for the opposition?

In Kenya, the opposition recognized that telling people not to take bribes would be a vote-loser and so did not even attempt it. Instead, it proposed that people should take bribes from the government but vote for the opposition.

Why is this not a very effective counter? I have two points of discipline. One, paradoxically, is morality: Often, ordinary decent people feel bad if they take someone’s money but then renege. The other is fear of detection: How secret is the ballot? In Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe’s street boys spread the word that the government would know how votes were cast, and in the prevailing conditions of misgovernance, this warning could not be treated as an idle threat.

But how much does it cost to bribe the typical voter? How many votes do I need to buy, and how much can I afford? Is there a cheaper way of buying votes?

Indeed there is: wholesale bribery. Wholesale bribery works by paying for votes delivered in blocs rather than individually. Bloc voting is very common in impoverished, traditional, rural societies, where the local big shot’s advice is not seriously questioned. When votes are counted, it is common for many villages to have voted 100 percent for one candidate. If the big shot determines how individuals vote, it is obviously cheaper to buy his support directly.

Overall, bribery is my kind of strategy. The only problem is whether I have enough money to win with it.

Option 5: Intimidate the electorate

Pros: Most politicians try to ingratiate themselves with voters, but a radically different technique is to frighten them. Most people are not particularly brave. When confronted by thugs threatening personal violence, they back down rather than stand up for themselves.

One big advantage of intimidation is that even if I cannot observe how people vote, I can observe whether they vote. Given that I am playing identity politics, I know perfectly well who intends to vote for my opponent. So, I can threaten them that if they vote they will suffer.

Cons: In politics, once violence starts, it’s hard to stop. The other side might turn nasty. After all, they have the advantage of numbers. If they didn’t, I would not have to worry about losing the election. I don’t want to risk losing a contest in violence. A few images float into view: the mass power of street protests sweeping out the shah of Iran, then Haiti’s "Baby Doc," then Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu, and finally Indonesia’s Suharto. It’s come to something when you can’t even rely on your own soldiers to shoot.

Option 6: Restrict the field to exclude the strongest candidates

Pros: This is particularly appealing because not only do I increase my chances of winning, but I hit directly at the people I most hate: my opponents. I have to find some reason for excluding them, but that is not particularly difficult. I can accuse them of corruption — after all, it is quite likely to be true. A delicious added benefit is that because donors are always urging me to be tougher on corruption, they can scarcely object. If corruption is too sensitive an issue to open, I can always try citizenship. It should be easy to trump up some ancestry that bars my enemies from running.

Cons: Unless I go whole hog, like Sani Abacha of Nigeria, and ensure I’m the only candidate on the ballot, voters will inevitably find some alternative to my own good self, however awful. They might even be sufficiently foolish to opt for it.

Worried, I wonder whether there is any strategy I have overlooked. And then I heave a long, deep sigh of relief.

Option 7: Last but not least, miscount the votes

Pros: Finally, I have found a strategy that sounds reliable. With this one, I literally cannot lose. The tally might be: incumbent, 1; opponent, 10,000,000. But the headline will read: "Incumbent Wins Narrowly." It also has advantages in reinforcing some of the other strategies. Once people get the sense that I am going to win anyway and that their true votes will not be counted, they have even less incentive to forgo bribes and take the risk of joining the opposition. Better still, I can also keep this strategy in reserve until I see that I am losing.

Cons: The international community won’t like it. I’ll just have to remember not to go overboard: not 99 percent. It should not look like a Soviet election.

In the average election held among the bottom billion poorest of the world’s population, despite the fact that voters usually have many grounds for complaint, the incumbent "wins" a healthy 74 percent of the vote. In elections with particularly weak restraints, it is an even healthier 88 percent. Somehow or other, incumbents in these societies are very good at winning elections.

The dread shown by the Soviet authorities to any form of competitive election has confused us into thinking that achieving a competitive election is in itself the key triumph. The reality is that rigging elections is not daunting: Only the truly paranoid dictators avoid them anymore.

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