Can Sham Elections Be Good For Democracy?

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Harvard's James Robinson and MIT's Daron Acemoglu make an unusual argument in Foreign Policy this week: sometimes fraud-ridden elections, which would appear to subvert democratic growth by neutering the voting process and enforcing anti-democratic authoritarianism, can actually be good for democracy. Robinson and Acemoglu focus on Burma, the Southeast Asian nation ruled by an oppressive military junta, which is expected to hold elections in November that will be anything but democratic. However, they write, "Nonetheless, Burma's rulers may be paving the way for their own eventual eclipse. Even flawed elections can make a meaningful difference to the people of Burma."

It's clear that the regime is less interested in establishing a democracy than in resisting pariah status on the international stage and forestalling discontent at home. Whether they're motivated by the bite of sanctions, the restiveness of domestic ethnic minorities, or the discontent of a younger generation of officers among the junta, Burma's rulers want to restore some measure of legitimacy for themselves -- without, of course, loosening their grip on the country's levers of power.

But loosen it they eventually will. History shows that gradual, half-hearted reforms of this sort are exactly how many autocracies successfully transition to democracy. Rulers gradually liberalize laws while ensuring that they maintain their privileges and status, come what may. Chile's move to democracy, for example, was facilitated by protections that the new constitution gave to Pinochet and other leading generals. The process of political reform in 19th-century Britain was also smoothened by the ability of existing elites to protect their interests via the House of Lords. And the world's longest-running constitutional democracy -- the United States -- got its start because its "founding fathers" were convinced that the establishment of indirect elections for senators and the president would prevent radical, popular reforms. But, in all the above cases, the new openness produced a spurt of economic growth that eventually dislodged the old ruling class from its privileged perch over society.

They also cite comparisons with Egypt and Taiwan. Their argument will sound unusual to Americans who are used to thinking of the only way to liberalize an oppressive country is by forceful regime change, as the U.S. engineered in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, a number of Latin American nations, and more. However, Robinson and Acemoglu argue that even the worst nations, such as Burma, can bring about their own gradual democratization even through the decidedly anti-democratic act of holding a sham election.

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