Photo: RTVES, retrieved.

It’s the question that’s kept  the Venezuelan opposition at one another’s throats for years: exactly what is the effect of elections held in authoritarian regimes? Do they destabilize them, or entrench them, or do they somehow do both?

Well, Norwegian scholar Carl Knutsen thinks he has some answers. After studying 259 autocratic regimes from 115 countries, Knutsen and his team argue that, although elections often destabilize dictatorships in the short term, those that weather the electoral storm usually end up stronger.

In a paper published in the journal World Politics in 2017, the team shows the probability of achieving regime change reaches a top in the months before and after the election, just to reduce quickly thereafter, ending at a lower level than it was in previous years.

Probabilities of regime breakdown before, during and after an election. Predictive probability of regime failure depending on the years after the election, based on a generalized additive model (GAM). Taken from Knutsen, C., Nygård, H., & Wig, T. (2017). Autocratic Elections: Stabilizing Tool or Force for Change? World Politics, 69(1), 98-143.

The team offers some informed speculation about why this could be: perhaps election years allow opposition groups to coordinate collective action against the government, increasing the chance of a breakdown, which increases the chances of short-term democratization. But the window of opportunity is limited.

Elections create an occasion to call for rallies and public events, which can be used to show a group’s strength to the country. Furthermore, a poor result or low turnouts in an election, specially if it’s rigged, can send signals of government weakness to key figures of national and international groups, lowering the cost of defying the regime and creating a focal point for change. Actually, 35% of all regime breakdowns studied occurred during election years, even though these represented only 10% of the total 4,000 autocracy-years collectively studied.

Elections are the hallmark of the free world, where bad governments are peacefully removed and good ones rewarded. You certainly can’t have a democracy without elections. But increasingly, practice show you can’t have a dictatorship without them, either. As Venezuelans know, autocratic regimes like to hold elections from time to time (and brag about it), even though they may pose a threat to their immediate stability. Their long-term benefits surpass the short-term risks.

In Venezuela, even though elections have generally taken place without major incidents, most protest cycles in the last 20 years have been related to them: the student movement against the Constitutional amendment of 2007, the 2014 protest cycle following Nicolás Maduro’s disputed election; the 2017 protests were ignited because of disrespect to the 2015 legislative election, and the regime’s refusal to hold a recall referendum.

You certainly can’t have a democracy without elections. But increasingly, practice show you can’t have a dictatorship without them, either.

The statistical models used by Knutsen, suggest that the risk of regime breakdown is five to seven times higher during an election year than five years after it, although it’s clear that an electoral defeat of the autocratic regime is, by definition, unlikely. This is of little relevance, since the election doesn’t produce the breakdown by itself, but rather creates favorable conditions for power groups in or outside the country to make it happen. The election, then, is not an end, but a means.

The Venezuelan opposition seemed to at least grasp this idea in 2017, when, after the sham National Constituent Assembly election, many opposition figures started selling elections as an end rather than a means. The objective was no longer to protest the government, but to put an irrelevant politician in an irrelevant post, claiming that a victory would be a critical hit for the government, without explaining why.

Now, regimes whose income comes directly from natural resources usually find it easier to monopolize state money. This, along with large, committed military forces, can help them ride the initial storm and overcome the turmoil caused by an election’s aftermath, as effectively happened in Venezuela. In this scenario, regimes are likely to consolidate power, since elections favor its long-term capacity to control threats.

Elections provide information about opposition strongholds, allowing the regime to use targeted repression and redirect the distribution of scarce goods and services to areas electorally favorable, enhancing political segregation. The regime gets to test its organizational capacity, giving it a chance to improve communication and action strategies with its allies, something that can be later used to repress dissidence. A minimally credible electoral process can also reduce international pressure on the regime, a trick that served chavismo for years, until fraud became impossible to hide.

It’s evident that the Venezuelan government has successfully exploited most of these long-term benefitsone of the keys to Chávez’s ascension was his manipulation of democracy to gain absolute power. But the government knows elections can be dangerous, too. They only hold them when they know they have the upper hand. Only after four months of protests failed to break its command line, the government dared to hold elections in 2017. Elections are a bet for autocrats but, as Knutsen’s study suggests, many times they miscalculate, and the election does create a wave of public outrest too big to surf.

Several opposition figures have been trying to sell January 10 (when Maduro will take office after an election universally seen as fraudulent) as the new focal point to put new pressure on chavismo, but we all must start seeing elections as what they are in this context: neither key, nor useless. Voting or not voting may be utterly irrelevant, but organizing and mobilizing around these events may be our only chance to put some domestic pressure on this autocracy, and tip the scales.

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  1. Juan, an excellent article, one of your very best, and Knutsen’s thesis, besides being well-backed up statistically, seems logically correct, especially as seen in Venezuela’s recent historical past. Jan. 10, I believe, will not provide significant protest anti-Regime internally, but may provide a catalyst for many major world democracies to label the Regime as a fraudulent dictatorship unrecognized diplomatically; this, in turn, may force the Regime into a diplomatic mistake, such as the recent landing of nuclear-capable Russian bombers in Maiquetia, which would provoke a forceful reaction leading to Regime downfall.

  2. First off let’s make it clear, protest in Venezuela was a middle class affair. Let us remember that all protests were based in ‘El Este’, namely Altamira, la Autopista Francisco Fajardo and so forth. Throngs of people NEVER poured down Avenida Sucre in Catia or El Valle.

    If you were a leader of these protests you are now in exile or in jail, and as for the rest of the middle class of Venezuela, they have justly deserted the country. The protesters and particularly ‘los guerreros’ are gone!

    The cycles of anti government protests are preceded by a sensed weakness in the government. In particular, the 2017 protests were triggered when apparatchik Luisa Ortega split with Maduro infusing a hope that Chavismo’s unity was about to crumble.

    Before that, Chavismo cultivated the appearance of democracy through rigged elections. They used all the power of the state to tilt the elections in their favor. However, there was the hope that if Chavismo lost by a clear margin, they would yield power. After all, the future looked very dim already by 2012, something that even Chavistas acknowledged (remember ‘El Sacudon’?).

    As the Chavista government showed itself as a clear dictatorship there was hope that the military would not follow the tyrannical path that Maduro was leading the government into, but they stepped with both feet into the dark side with the murder of scores of protesters. They were now las Fuerzas Armadas de Ocupacion Bolivariana (full Darth Vader – not that they were any good before).

    As it stands right now, no one is reckless enough to go face Guardia Nacionales willing to shoot live ammo at you in the street!

    In the most Stalinistic way, all that matters is “how many divisions does the Pope have?”, replace Pope for Venezuelan opposition. And besides, what would their retirement plan be? History teaches jail (Milosevic) or death (Gaddafi).

    Now in the midst of hyperinflation, this too may not be enough to dislodge Chavismo. One only has to think of Mugabe in Zimbabwe. What about a humanitarian crisis and mass starvation? Well the North Koreans just went through such a cycle some 15 years ago and the Kim dynasty sits right in place. So as dire as the economic situation is, this too can be survived.

    Of course one can hope for an implosion like Eastern Europe in late 80s, these things do happen. The economic chaos is well in magnitude for such an event. Moreover, the collapse of Venezuela is so absolute that soon the military will cease to be the most powerful violent actor at which time Venezuela will be a failed state on par with Somalia or Yemen.

    So now I read the no-news from Venezuela. Nothing happens and Maduro reigns.

  3. Even the Cubans and North Koreans stage elections. No matter how often elections are staged in those countries, the threat to the regime is not increased at the time of any one of them. So Mr. Knutsen’s statistics have to exclude such elections from his analysis. Unless he can clearly define what type of elections lead to the probabilities he is postulating, this is just another vague and somewhat useless work of “political science”.

  4. In response to Mre. Hood’s comment above, Mr. Knutsen’s study was based on 259 autocratic regimes in 115 countries–excluding a few countries will continue to make his results valid. As for the other comments, right-on! The important public demonstrations in the past 10-15 yrs. have been stopped in Miranda at the border with Municipio Libertador, the poor West of Caracas, which never really followed in mass public protests against the Regime, mainly out of fear from Colectivos/Libertador Chavista governorship (evil JR), or from just plain D-E apathy; now, Miranda is newly-governed by Chavismo, with not even one important public protest originating there since.

  5. Interesting study. It makes sense. Elections become a rallying point and organizing principle for opposition. A win, rigged or otherwise, becomes a cudgel to demoralize and divide opposition.

    I’ve been thinking lately about this notion of masses of people coming down from the poor barrios around Caracas to overthrow the regime, and the questions around what it will take to trigger that, or why it has not happened. I am thinking that this notion of economically powerless people saving the day, or overthrowing the system, or not -i.e. because they are culpable, complicit, indoctrinated, or “love” Maduro- is naïve. It is naïve to think they would hold this kind of power under present conditions, and it is more realistic to think they understand their precarious position and the scant leverage they hold.

    The people with the power to overthrow the regime are people who make it work: people who run electrical and communications systems, deliver goods, run banks, run ports, extract oil, fix roads and sewers, operate transportation, et cetera. They have the tools necessary for a regime, however repressive, to function. These are also people who work within rules based orders, and for whom rules based orders have worked to their benefit. And it stands to reason that they are the ones who are most incensed when rules based systems are flaunted rather than those for whom the rules based order has resulted in relatively little.

    So my guess would be, according to this study, that elections by autocrats are more risky for the autocrat in countries with sizeable working and professional classes. What distorts the picture in the case of Venezuela, to the advantage of the autocrat, is as you point out his control over vast oil wealth, which enables a more effective and comprehensive system of rewards and punishments which is the means by which the autocrat holds power.

    The regime cannot survive without a Venezuelan working/middle class: people who make stuff run. But the regime’s oil wealth makes it more resilient than most in the face of the punishment it is delivering to that class. That wealth is dwindling, however, as it did in Mexico and at Pemex under PRI mismanagement. At a certain point the system of carrots and sticks cannot be sustained, people who do stuff successfully mobilize, and real elections with real choices start to happen. That happened in Mexico when there was a confluence of low oil prices and historically poor production, as I recall. It also happened in the Soviet Union, though that movement went off the rails relatively quickly.

    I just hope Mr. Bolsonaro or other similarly minded folks do not throw the regime a lifeline by doing something stupid and futile but politically rewarding at home, like thinking the person of Nicolas Maduro -probably one of the most inept and stupid of an inept and stupid lot- is the key to the regime’s stability and survivability.

    • “The regime cannot survive without a Venezuelan working/middle class: people who make stuff run.”

      But if anything is the zeitgeist of Chavismo it is the social resentment against those Venezuelans that benefited from the oil wealth by becoming a cosmopolitan middle class. It is those that went to those public universities and beyond and became the professional class. It is the stereotypical PDVSA company man pre-2002 that Chavista “de a pie” envied.

      So Chavismo took it on destroying the middle class world with glee. PDVSA became roja-rojita, and all the other crazy ass economic measures they took. “Se jodieron esos escualidos, viva el Comandante!” wait for your pernil del CLAP (what an unfortunate and appropriate name this is in English).

      So the middle class left and now Chavistas have no doctors or plumbers or mechanics … They sawed off the limb of the middle class, only to find out that they were sitting at the far end of the tree.

  6. If the next election of any significance is a couple of years away what is the materiality of this article. National Assembly elections are now totally insignificant since that body has been rendered impotent. But come to think if it I have learned here that every tme the Chavista lose other elections they devise a work around the Mayor or other official elected. The article is interesting and well written but why should anyone hoping for the end to this nightmare care about it. Elections are totally meaningless in Venezuela. I see Canucklehead has absolved the lower class from any responsibility to seek a new government because it is powerless but I thought these folks provided the crucial support that made this revolution prevail. It seems strange that they need not undo their own handiwork but I guess the Pueblo are never at fault in a leftist worldview.

    • Generous of you to exhort poor people to go and get shot, Bill. If we all had such courage.
      My point is, I don’t think support from the poor is as crucial as people might think. Especially when elections are, as you say, meaningless. Where is their power if their vote is meaningless? Blaming them may be a satisfying if hypocritical exercise (we’ve been over that, ad nauseam) but on the subject of “materiality”, I don’t see what it does to solve anything.

  7. No, Canucklehrad, I am not asking or recommending that anyone, rich or poor die. Outsiders like me have no business telling people to risk their lives. It’s not my country but more importantly it is not my life. What I am in favor is exploring passive resistance techniques that might send a signal to the outside world to take collective action. I do disagree with your notion that the masses are powerless. That is sheer nonsense. The Chavistas draw critical support from poor people and there has been no event to signal that support has been withdrawn. That signal is a necessary precondition for collective action by the outside world.

    • It sounded to me like you were recommending just that. “It seems strange that they need not undo their own handiwork” -what you wrote- sounds to me like (a) you are placing responsibility for this dictatorship entirely on them; (b) that the responsibility to get rid of the regime is entirely on them and they need to do it (i.e. it “seems strange” that they don’t need to undo what they’ve done, is a convoluted way of just saying: they should do it); and (c) they have the power to get rid of this dictatorship (otherwise, it would not seem strange to you that they are not getting rid of the regime- which is my point).

      That you were were suggesting the way the poor could meet this responsibility of theirs to *undo what they did* through passive resistance methods I understood, as there are no other methods at their disposal. Passive resistance methods for a poor person is putting themselves in the line of fire with no means to disrupt or withhold anything from the regime of value to it except the little piece of ground they are standing on and getting shot at, gassed or bludgeoned on.

  8. In a visit to mexico Castro met chavez and told him to stop having elections or to only have totally controlled elections like they have in cuba , chavez refused because at the time he was popular , handily won most elections outright and it was a bath of glory for his naricissism to win them , now Maduro whom we all know cannot win a fair election which ever way he tries has done away with free elections and substituted them for empty electoral rituals only he and his cohorst can win ……., the notion that people are always ready to take to the streets to engage in spirited protests agaisnt a loathed government is not realistic , people for the most part are passive and will engage in violent resistance to a loathed authority only in certain cases and then only if the circumstances are right ……. The key to changing regime involves some level of participation by armed forces , not necessarily the whole army , just enough of them so people think they have a chance , if someone in the army tried that we might discover that people have recovered their rebellious spirit and will take to the streets ……., oh and its usually young people who go for that , middle class professionals are the most incensed at the loss of their freedoms but they are the most thoroughly taught self discipline and an attachment to order , You dont get to be a professional unless you have during years exercised a lot of self control and discipline in your studies or the employee of a well organized company unless those habits have been deeply ingrained into your mind.


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