Autocrats Are Finding Democratic Facades Hard to Keep Up

The pandemic is making dictatorship clearer as faking credible elections gets harder.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro gives a speech to government supporters at Palacio de Miraflores in Caracas on Jan. 23. Carolina Cabral/Getty Images

For many dictatorships, COVID-19 is a moment of opportunity. The pandemic represents an auspicious invitation for autocrats, or aspiring autocrats, to gain, consolidate, or extend political power. In fact, it is difficult to find a dictator who has not taken advantage of this window of opportunity in some way. And yet, the pandemic threatens the very facade autocratic regimes have built to provide themselves a veneer of legitimacy.

The list of dictatorships that have taken advantage of this crisis is worryingly long. In Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev has used the coronavirus as a pretext to further target dissident groups. Last month, the office of the D18 Movement was closed by police because a gathering of four of its members was deemed a violation of coronavirus prevention measures. In Hungary, Viktor Orban was granted indefinite emergency powers by parliament. Among them are the rights to rule by decree, suspend existing laws, and punish the spread of “distorted truths” with imprisonment.

In Cambodia, Hun Sen used his control over parliament to push through open-ended laws granting the right to surveil all means of communication, prohibit the distribution of information, and utilize “other measures that are deemed appropriate for and necessary to responding to the state of emergency.” In Thailand, Prayuth Chan-ocha has invoked emergency powers that allow the civilian front government to censor or shut down any media outlets it deems necessary.

In Togo, Faure Gnassingbé announced a state of emergency and brought a curfew into immediate effect. The government deployed 5,000 soldiers who proceeded to beat and assault civilians. In Zimbabwe, Emmerson Mnangagwa criminalized the circulation of information deemed false by the government. The new law carries a sentence of up to 20 years imprisonment for offenders.

In Egypt, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has revoked press credentials and warned of harsh penalties for anyone who promotes “bad faith” information about the coronavirus that could be interpreted as harming Egyptian interests. In Iran, the government launched a phone app that claimed to diagnose the coronavirus but instead collected the names, addresses, dates of birth, and locations of citizens in real time.

In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega issued an early release for thousands of prisoners as part of its piecemeal strategy of dealing with the coronavirus, but he deliberately excluded those who were imprisoned for opposing his government. In Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro has arrested opposition members and health care workers who publicly questioned the government’s preparedness for dealing with COVID-19.

This incomplete catalogue underscores that no region of the world has been immune to dictators using the coronavirus pandemic as a window of opportunity to fulfil their naked political ambitions. The narrative so far is of a global pandemic providing an invaluable pretext for the entrenchment of autocratic rule. But this is only half the story.

The pandemic also strips away the window dressing that has sheltered dictatorships in recent decades. In fact, it has returned many of them to their base instincts. Orban’s irrefutable power grab is indifferent to the incremental and disguised consolidation processes observable elsewhere; Paul Kagame’s heavy-handed repression in Rwanda forsakes the subtler techniques to be found in the toolkit of contemporary dictators; Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov’s blanket censorship of the word “coronavirus” in Turkmenistan actually fails to shape the beliefs citizens have about it; Xi Jinping’s outlandish propaganda in China merely serves to worsen broader opinion of his government; and Alexander Lukashenko’s obtuse denial of the pandemic in Belarus underscores the existence of retrograde dictatorships.

The pandemic hurts dictatorships in another specific area: the global industry of zombie election monitoring. Writing in Foreign Policy, Christopher Walker and Alexander Cooley previously identified the emergence of what they termed “zombie monitors” among a small cohort of dictatorships. In the wake of the color revolutions that swept across Eurasia between 2000 and 2005, they noted how regional organizations with no experience in election observation, including the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States and Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization, began to send monitors to polls in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia.

In the intervening years, this savvy strategy evidently caught on and evolved. Zombie monitors have since been sighted in Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, Ecuador, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gabon, Honduras, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia, Mozambique, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Uganda, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe, among many other countries.

The goal of these zombie monitors is to subvert the critical assessments of any genuine election observation organizations in attendance, while also lending a veneer of legitimacy to the flawed elections taking place. The key feature is having supposed outside experts pretend to impartially judge the integrity of elections. The need for self-isolation, social distancing, and international travel restrictions established to slow the spread of the coronavirus now make this strategy unviable, especially the longer they persist.

With Venezuelan National Assembly elections scheduled for this year, for example, Nicolás Maduro will be unable to rely on individuals from the Union of South American Nations and the Latin American Council of Electoral Experts. Both zombie monitors gave ringing endorsements of Venezuela’s 2017 gubernatorial elections and 2018 presidential election.

In Belarus, Lukashenko will be deprived of a horde of zombie monitors for the forthcoming presidential election. In 2015, he utilized 409 individuals from zombie monitors such as the Alliance of Election Observation Missions, Commonwealth of Independent States, Eurasia Barometer, and Shanghai Cooperation Organization to validate his highly dubious victory.

The same dearth of zombie monitors will impact Egypt’s parliamentary elections scheduled for later this year. The last time they occurred, Sisi turned to the services of the Global Network for Rights and Development, the International Institute for Peace, Justice and Human Rights, and the Ecumenical Alliance for Human Rights and Development. Together, these zombie monitors lent credibility to the flawed poll.

The constitutional referendum that would allow Vladimir Putin to extend his rule in Russia is also at stake. Putin has proved adept at employing zombie monitors in the past. In Ukraine, he used the Eurasian Observatory for Democracy and Elections to recruit scores of politicians from far-right parties to validate the 2014 Crimea referendum, which was regarded as illegitimate by the European Union and the United States.

Given how the need for self-isolation, social distancing, and international travel restrictions makes the employment of zombie monitors to legitimize elections nearly impossible, what might dictatorships do in response? There are five options, but none of them is ideal.

The first option is to have no election monitors of any kind (or quality). This would essentially return dictatorships to the pre-1980s era, when external election monitoring was not an international norm. The problem with this approach is that it forsakes the known benefits of norm compliance, including increased foreign direct investment, new memberships in international organizations, and greater regime legitimacy.

Another option is to give zombie monitors an exemption from the existing travel restrictions. By opening the borders just to accredited international observers, the logic runs, dictatorships could reap the benefit of their alleged expertise and participation. The danger of this approach is that it creates an immense public relations problem for the incumbent government and ignores the need for zombie monitors to quarantine upon arrival.

The third option is to have zombie monitors indirectly report on the integrity of the election. Under such an arrangement, trusted individuals and groups could use government information and media reports to make a remote judgement. The downside of this approach is that it completely gives up on trying to trick anyone into believing that these alleged experts follow international election observation best practice, especially the need to directly monitor all stages of the electoral process.

A fourth option is for dictatorships to use the endorsements of zombie monitors from previous elections as a blanket endorsement of a current election. By claiming the exact same conditions persist across two different elections, dictators could take a rhetorical leap of faith. The trouble with this approach, of course, is that it requires engaged citizens, civil society groups, and opposition parties to give dictators the benefit of the doubt, which is never advisable. The final option is to cancel or postpone Notwithstanding the tangible benefits to public health, the risk with this approach is that changing the electoral calendar has been shown to undermine the stability of dictatorships. In addition, canceling or postponing elections raises tangible questions among citizens about the authority of governments acting beyond their statutory time in office.

Since dictatorships empowered zombie monitors to act as judges of electoral integrity, nothing has slowed the spread of them. What is innovative about this strategy is that it supplants the role of genuine election observation groups, while also displacing the standard of elections they have traditionally applied. The scourge of zombie monitors, however, has not been met by a consistent, coordinated response from the liberal democracies that have long defended and promoted the international norm of external election observation.

The coronavirus pandemic provides all supporters of free and fair elections a momentary period of catch-up. The crucial task is to better account for the vague history, operational features, and precise impact of zombie monitors around the world. This window of opportunity will not last.


 Twitter: @LMorgenbesser