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Journal of Democracy 13.2 (2002) 36-50

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Elections Without Democracy

The Menu of Manipulation

Andreas Schedler


The idea of democracy has become so closely identified with elections that we are in danger of forgetting that the modern history of representative elections is a tale of authoritarian manipulations as much as it is a saga of democratic triumphs. Historically, in other words, elections have been an instrument of authoritarian control as well as a means of democratic governance.

Since the early days of the "third wave" of global democratization, it has been clear that transitions from authoritarian rule can lead anywhere. Over the past quarter-century, many have led to the establishment of some form of democracy. But many others have not. They have given birth to new forms of authoritarianism that do not fit into our classic categories of one-party, military, or personal dictatorship. They have produced regimes that hold elections and tolerate some pluralism and interparty competition, but at the same time violate minimal democratic norms so severely and systematically that it makes no sense to classify them as democracies, however qualified. These electoral regimes do not represent limited, deficient, or distorted forms of democracy. They are instances of authoritarian rule. The time has come to abandon misleading labels and to take their nondemocratic nature seriously. 1

Electoral authoritarian regimes neither practice democracy nor resort regularly to naked repression. By organizing periodic elections they try to obtain at least a semblance of democratic legitimacy, hoping to satisfy external as well as internal actors. At the same time, by placing those elections under tight authoritarian controls they try to cement their continued [End Page 36] hold on power. Their dream is to reap the fruits of electoral legitimacy without running the risks of democratic uncertainty. Balancing between electoral control and electoral credibility, they situate themselves in a nebulous zone of structural ambivalence. Delimiting the blurry frontiers of electoral authoritarianism cannot help but be a complex and controversial task. Perhaps the best way to get a handle on the problem is take a fresh look at the normative presuppositions that underlie the idea of democratic elections.

But what does "democracy" mean in this context? How sharp is the distinction between "democratic" and "authoritarian" regimes? Political democracy, some argue, is not a matter of "either/or" but of more or less: Democracy is not simply present or absent, but admits of degrees. Others object that a qualitative difference separates democracy from authoritarianism. Authoritarian regimes are not less democratic than democracies, but plainly undemocratic. While debate over these issues among scholars and practitioners has been polemical and inconclusive, the idea of electoral authoritarianism combines insights from both perspectives. It introduces gradation while retaining the idea of thresholds.

The Foggy Zone

Most regimes today are neither clearly democratic nor fully authoritarian. They inhabit the wide and foggy zone between liberal democracy and closed authoritarianism. To order this universe of ambiguous regimes some authors have been working with broad intermediate categories like "democratizing regime" or "semidemocracy." Others have been developing lists of more specific "diminished subtypes" such as "illiberal" or "delegative" democracy. Here, I propose to fill the conceptual space between the opposite poles of liberal democracy and closed authoritarianism with two symmetrical categories: electoral democracy and electoral authoritarianism. The resulting fourfold typology captures significant variation in the broad area between the poles without abandoning the idea that a meaningful distinction may be drawn between democratic and authoritarian regimes.

The distinction between liberal and electoral democracies derives from the common idea that elections are a necessary but not a sufficient condition for modern democracy. Such a regime cannot exist without elections, but elections alone are not enough. While liberal democracies go beyond the electoral minimum, electoral democracies do not. They manage to "get elections right" but fail to institutionalize other vital dimensions of democratic constitutionalism, such as the rule of law, political accountability, bureaucratic integrity, and public deliberation.

The distinction between electoral democracy and electoral authoritarianism builds upon the common affirmation that democracy requires elections, but not just any kind of elections. The idea of democratic...