Research Quick Take: Signal received? Authoritarian elections and the salience of autocrats

Why do authoritarian leaders still hold elections? Even when there is little chance that they will actually cause a transfer of power, scholars have claimed  that authoritarian regimes value elections as signals of the ruler’s strength and popularity. Cunha, Schuler, and Williamson argue that for these signals of strength to have any value, the public needs to be interested in elections. The authors evaluate the significance of authoritarian elections by investigating the level of attention the public pays to them.

Many people living under authoritarian regimes are apathetic about politics and understand that their vote does not count. Yet, scholars have noted how much effort autocratic leaders put into promoting their elections. A competitive election with minimal fraud, the authors argue, is more effective than a stolen one at engaging citizens and signaling autocratic strength. However, a competitive election is a risk for an autocratic leader. It offers them a chance to engage their propaganda apparatus, but also gives the opposition a voice. For example, in the Chilean plebiscite of 1988, dictator Agosto Pinochet allowed his opponents only a small amount of television time, but attention toward them exploded, contributing to their victory.

The authors hypothesize that autocrats and their opponents will both gain a spike in public attention before and after an election. They also hypothesize that that the more competitive an election, the more attention the opponent will receive relative to the autocrat. To test these claims, the authors analyze search results from Google Trends from countries with authoritarian political systems.

The results show a spike in attention for both the autocrat and the opponent, especially the month of the election. The opponent usually gains less attention than the autocrat, but their relative increase compared to their baseline level of public attention is much higher than the autocrat’s. The authors speculate that the substantial relative benefit of elections to the opposition may explain why autocrats like Vladimir Putin, with seemingly high approval ratings, feel the need to ban even unpopular opponents.

Dr. Raphael Cunha is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Florida State University.  This post is a summary of Dr. Cunha’s recent article, summarized by COSSPP blog researcher, Jesse Fried.

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