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Journal of Democracy 13.2 (2002) 21-35
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Elections Without Democracy
Thinking About Hybrid Regimes
Is Russia a democracy? What about Ukraine, Nigeria, Indonesia, Turkey, or Venezuela? There was a time when these were simple questions of regime classification. But the empirical reality in these countries is a lot messier than it was two decades ago, and so, in a way, is the never-ending dialogue on how to think about and classify regimes.
Few conceptual issues in political science have been subjected to closer or more prolific scrutiny in recent decades than this problem of "what democracy is . . . and is not," 1 and which regimes are "democracies" and which not. We are replete with definitions and standards and tools of measurement. But the curious fact is that—a quarter-century into the "third wave" of democratization and the renaissance it brought in comparative democratic studies—we are still far from consensus on what constitutes "democracy." And we still struggle to classify ambiguous regimes.
Some insist on a fairly robust (though still procedural) definition of democracy, like Robert Dahl's "polarchy." By this conception, democracy requires not only free, fair, and competitive elections, but also the freedoms that make them truly meaningful (such as freedom of organization and freedom of expression), alternative sources of information, and institutions to ensure that government policies depend on the votes and preferences of citizens. Some measure democracy by a "minimalist" standard like Joseph Schumpeter's: a political system in which the principal positions of power are filled "through a competitive struggle for the people's vote." 2 Yet contemporary applications of this electoral conception heavily overlap with Dahl's polyarchy by also implying the civil [End Page 21] and political freedoms necessary for political debate and electoral campaigning.
Even if we agree to apply a minimalist, electoral standard for democracy, vexing questions remain. If, following Samuel Huntington, a system is democratic when "its most powerful collective decision makers are selected through fair, honest, and periodic elections in which candidates freely compete for votes," 3 what constitutes "fair, honest, and free" elections? How can we know that parties have had a fair chance to campaign and that voters around the country (especially countries as large and diverse as Russia, Nigeria, and Indonesia) have been able to exercise their will freely? How—especially where elections do not benefit from parallel vote tabulations 4 —can we know that the reported results accurately reflect the votes that were cast? And how do we know that the officials elected are really the "most powerful decision makers," that there are not significant "reserved domains" of military, bureaucratic, or oligarchical power? 5
These questions have taken on a heightened relevance in recent years for several reasons. First, more regimes than ever before are adopting the form of electoral democracy, with regular, competitive, multiparty elections. Second, many of these regimes—indeed, an unprecedented proportion of the world's countries—have the form of electoral democracy but fail to meet the substantive test, or do so only ambiguously. And third, with heightened international expectations and standards for electoral democracy, including the rise of international election observing, there is closer international scrutiny of individual countries' democratic practices than ever before.
Yet even with this closer scrutiny, independent observers do not agree on how to classify regimes. Freedom House classifies all six regimes mentioned at the beginning of this essay as democracies. Yet by the logic of the three articles that follow, they are all (or mostly) something less than electoral democracies: competitive authoritarian systems, hegemonic-party systems, or hybrid regimes of some kind. At best, Ukraine, Nigeria, and Venezuela are ambiguous cases. We may not have enough information now to know whether electoral administration will be sufficiently autonomous and professional, and whether contending parties and candidates will be sufficiently free to campaign, so as to give the political opposition a fair chance to defeat the government in the next elections. Regime classification must, in part, assess the previous election, but it must also assess the intentions and capacities of ambiguously democratic ruling elites, something that...