Election “Management” in Autocratic States

Former vice president and intelligence chief Omar Suleiman was one of ten Egyptian presidential candidates disqualified yesterday by Egypt's election commission.

Democracies aren’t the only states that hold elections. Autocratic states frequently hold elections also. But these elections fall far short of the “free and fair” standard in order to ensure outcomes acceptable to the regime. Common–and effective–tactics include putting only one name on the ballot (e.g., Saddam Hussein in 2002), intimidating voters, and having regime allies count the votes.

Another creative “election management” tactic has been used for years in Iran and appears to have been employed just yesterday by Egypt.  This measure preserves the appearance of a competitive election but disqualifies in advance any candidates the ruling authorities deem unacceptable.  In Egypt the High Election Commission eliminated 10 candidates for the upcoming presidential elections, including the three leading candidates: former vice president and intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, leading Muslim Brotherhood strategist Khairat el-Shater, and ultraconservative Islamist Hazem Salah Abu Ismail.  They were all disqualified for technical violations but the underlying reason may have been a desire to avoid deep societal conflict: “The race has shaped up as a battle between Islamists and former officials of the Mubarak government. If the decision stands, it will effectively leave out the most polarizing candidates on both sides of the field.”  It is worth noting that Egypt is a regime in transition, so its interim rulers may be employing this tactic less to preserve their own power than to ensure a transition to the type of regime they ultimately want to see.

There is less ambiguity about the way this tactic is used in Iran.  An outstanding BBC guide entitled “How Iran is Ruled” describes the role of the highly influential Guardian Council in screening candidates (and legislation):

“The council has to approve all bills passed by parliament and has the power to veto them if it considers them inconsistent with the constitution and Islamic law. The council can also bar candidates from standing in elections to parliament, the presidency and the Assembly of Experts.  Reformist attempts to reduce the council’s vetting powers have proved unsuccessful and the council banned all but six of more than 1,000 hopefuls in the 2005 elections.  Two more, both reformists, were permitted to stand after the Supreme Leader intervened. All the female candidates were blocked from standing.”

Iran’s Guardian Council similarly disqualified 2,000 candidates prior to the 2008 parliamentary elections (most of them reformers).  The same pattern repeated itself for the 2012 elections.

While this candidate screening tactic is employed most egregiously and openly in autocratic states, does something similar happen in democracies?  In what ways are the candidates for high office in democracies recruited or “vetted” by powerful elites outside of public view?  Is this qualitatively different from what happens in autocracies, or is it essentially the same tactic?  What are the implications for democracy?


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