As many readers will know, North Korea just had an election for the Supreme People’s Assembly. In these elections – held more or less every five years, previously in 2009 – voters are presented with only one candidate per district, all of them belonging to the Korean Workers’ Party, and expected to vote “yes.” (Though technically they could mark “no” on their ballot papers, voting is not genuinely secret, and North Korean defectors report feeling that the risks of voting “no” are so large that practically no one does it). Even if voters had a choice, however, the offices they are voting for have no real power; as in the old Soviet joke, we might say that citizens in North Korea pretend to vote and deputies pretend to rule. (Some cynically-minded readers might say this idea applies far more widely).
One might think this would be reason enough for voters to sit out the election, but participation is not optional; though apparently some hardship dispensations are available, failure to show up to vote appears to carry severe risks, since the elections function as a political census, providing information about people who might have left the country, military personnel gone AWOL, and other undesirables that can then be used against non-voters and/or their families. New Focus International (a website run by North Korean defectors) reports:
At any other point in the year, family members of missing persons can get away with lying or bribing surveillance agents, saying that the person they are looking for is trading in another district’s market. But it is during an election period that a North Korean individual’s escape to China or South Korea becomes exposed.
There is much more to this election, which takes place once every five years, than politics or propaganda: it is the occasion on which the North Korean state conducts a comprehensive crackdown on missing individuals.
The number of ‘missing’ persons began to snowball around 20 years ago. During the ‘Arduous March’ of the mid 90s, when North Koreans suffered mass famine, many living in inland provinces escaped from their designated residential areas to seek survival opportunities elsewhere. The exact number of those who starved to death during this time is difficult to establish, not least because it was impossible to identify the dead bodies that constantly piled up near train stations and rivers.
As the North Korean state collected the bodies in trucks and transported them to the hills to bury en masse, it exacerbated the confusion of surveillance and security agents in their record-keeping. Although agents continued to receive daily reports from residential surveillance officers, sometimes not even the family members of the missing persons themselves could confirm whether their loved one was dead or alive.
Moreover, those who know that someone in their family has safely made it to China will keep the knowledge secret, because anyone who leaves North Korea is labeled as “a traitor of the people” by the ruling Party. Even when surveillance agents drop in on the homes of missing persons and interrogate family members about their whereabouts, they will stand up to the agents and hold their ground, maintaining that they are out to trade and have not yet returned.
In the mid-2000s, state surveillance and security agents turned to tactics of persuasion rather than confrontation alone. They requested families to give up information about missing persons by saying that they knew the person was in China, but that if he or she returned to North Korea to vote in the next election, all would be forgiven by the Workers’ Party. There were threats too: if the missing person did not return for the election, the treacherous penalty of abandoning the homeland would be paid by the remaining family members.Still, it is curious that the regime insists on associating this surveillance operation with a periodic electoral ritual, rather than merely announcing a census, which would presumably serve the same purpose. At any rate it is clear that the regime takes the electoral ritual seriously in some ways. Candidate posters are printed, agitators give talks in workplaces about the importance of the elections, and a festive atmosphere is created; and after the election is over, North Korean news agencies dutifully report turnouts above 99%, with 100% support for the KWP and its leader. (The Korean Central News Agency’s report on the results of the 2009 election and its report on the 2014 election are nearly identical). Incidentally, the reason the turnout numbers do not reach 100% is the fact that “[e]lectors on foreign tours or working in oceans could not take part in the election;” KCNA even helpfully notes that electors too old or ill to go to the polls “cast their ballots into mobile ballot boxes” which, if true, appears to show a remarkable degree of commitment on the part of the state to produce a foreordained result, when it could simply cast their ballots for them.
A state powerful enough to produce these outcomes can clearly dispense with elections: the Chinese state does not hold direct elections for its highest legislative bodies, for example, despite claiming to be just as democratic as the North Korean state. Yet North Korea, like almost every other state in the world, prefers to retain public electoral rituals (and has retained them for more than fifty years; NELDA indicates that there have been 10 such elections since 1962, mostly at regular five year intervals, though with one 8 year gap between the 1990 and 1998 elections). But why bother?
One answer I’ve seen in a couple of places seems tempting, but incorrect: that these elections are meant to “legitimate” the regime by providing a “veneer” of democracy (see, e.g., here). The problem is that there is no evidence that anyone is fooled who did not already want to be fooled, and certainly not anyone with any genuine influence in the regime: not the international community (which appears to feel at best amused, at worst trolled, by the whole thing), not the leaders being “elected” (who presumably are well informed about who has real power in the regime, and know it’s not the voters), and not the voters, who “generally have no interest in who their candidate is as many already live their lives apart from the state, and don’t bother to find out the name of the person they have just ‘voted’ into office,” and who have apparently occasionally engaged in iconoclastic destruction of candidate posters and other election-related vandalism under cover of darkness. The “veneer” of democracy that North Korean elections provide is too thin to do any genuine work producing political support for the regime.
Moreover, when we look at the KCNA dispatches that talk about the feelings of voters and the meaning of the event, we find that they do not emphasize the opportunity for popular participation provided by the election, or its democratic character, but the ways in which the ritual shows the people’s unity, loyalty, and gratitude; to the extent that the elections “legitimate” the regime (or better, produce emotional attachments and normative support for the regime), not even the regime thinks that they do so by convincing them that they live in a democracy. (Even in “real” democracies people complain about the lack of choice; why would North Koreans be any different? We must have a very poor opinion of people’s political competence to believe that they can be tricked in this way.)
Though we know very little about voter behavior in North Korea, we do have some knowledge about single party elections in the Soviet Union and various Eastern European states under communist rule, and we have some more robust theories about the purpose of periodic elections and the motivations of voters in settings with some token opposition, like Mexico under the PRI from 1929 until at least 1994, Egypt under Mubarak, or Russia today. This literature suggests that elections do not serve a single purpose for all regimes, and voters behave differently across authoritarian contexts (and in turn behave differently in such contexts than in democratic contexts): the varieties of electoral experience are many. Regimes may stage overwhelming victories to send a signal of invincibility and thus to deter opposition among elites; they may encourage electoral competition to distribute spoils to elites that have some degree of social support, thus coopting these into the regime; they may use elections to determine the competence of officials in mobilizing the population, and/or to observe incipient opposition if actual turnout does not match expected turnout; and they may stage them periodically to produce an orderly circulation of elites, or as a way of managing succession problems. At the same time, voters may vote even while knowing that their vote cannot affect the composition of the government in order to receive election-day goods or to avoid potentially negative consequences; to express support or dissatisfaction (expressive voting is not confined to more democratic contexts); or even because they think it is the right thing to do. But the idea that elections serve to give “legitimacy” to the government plays almost no role in any of these theories.
Soviet elections, which are perhaps most comparable to those in North Korea, are an especially interesting case. (I draw here on a piece by Rasma Karklins from 1986). The Soviet Union spent enormous resources on electoral rituals, which were frequent (more so than in North Korea, on average one per year) and regular. There were “campaigns,” and the day of voting was a festive occasion, sometimes including ceremonies where first time voters were presented with flowers or other gifts. As in North Korea, the voter could only choose to vote “yes” or “no,” but voting “no” entailed some risk and could not be properly done secretly. As in North Korea, the regime enlisted party cadres and ordinary citizens as “agitators” to produce maximum turnout (agitators were made responsible for bringing 20-30 voters to the polls), and there was enormous social pressure to vote. All of this meant that elections always resulted in nearly unanimous verdicts – over 99% support for the party in most cases, with turnouts similarly over 97%. The efforts the regime put on achieving unanimity are remarkable, and the language used to report the results shows striking similarities to the language KCNA uses today (minus the reference to the democratic character of the Soviet Union):
The results of the elections to the USSR Supreme Soviet and the unanimous election to the country’s supreme body of state power of the candidates of the indestructible bloc of Communists and non-Party people provide striking new evidence of the monolithic unity of the Party and the people and of the working people’s full support for the domestic and foreign policy of the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union] and the Soviet state. The elections have convincingly shown the thoroughly democratic nature of the world’s first society of developed socialism and the working people’s firm resolve to persistently strive for new successes in all sectors of communist construction. (Pravda, 7 March 1979, as quoted in Karklins, p. 451)Yet these 99% turnouts are not the whole story. The turnout numbers excluded people who were not properly registered to vote, as well as (most?) prisoners, migrants without residence permits, and people who requested absentee ballots but did not actually vote. In a number of cases, people cast voters for other people, a practice that low-level people serving in electoral commissions seem to have encouraged in order to avoid trouble with their superiors. For example, Karklins reports a funny story about how “an Estonian biologist working at Tartu State University voted not only for his wife, but also for 30 of his students, apparently because the student turnout was only around 70%, and he simply took it upon himself to take care of the”problem“.” (p. 453). Actual voter turnout seems to have been closer to 90% than to 100%, and in some of the major cities like Moscow may have reached as low at 75% in some elections; and among those who voted between 1% and 5% made use of their right to enter an election booth to cast a negative vote or to write something on the ballot. Moreover, though voters expressed fear that not voting, or voting no, would lead to trouble, actual penalties seem to have been rare, more a reflection of the generalized fear produced by earlier decades of terror than of the actual incidence of punishment for not performing their assigned roles. (Karklins reports one 1971 case in which an anti-Soviet comment in a ballot led to “an arrest and a five-year sentence in a Soviet labor camp,” though this seems to have been exceptional, not the rule; and I vaguely remember something from I think Gulag Archipielago in which a single spoiled ballot during the Great Terror led to a huge search and numerous arrests). Nevertheless, these small risks meant that non-voters (and people who actually voted no) were among the more educated and politically aware USSR citizens, those most likely to dissent or emigrate; non-voting was one of the “weapons of the weak.” So when I read the North Korean numbers I wonder about the actual incidence of non-voting, especially given the fact that many North Koreans have in fact begun to live their lives “away from the state” since the famine of the 1990s; and I wonder about the actual numbers of “no” voters (are there no North Koreans who take advantage of their right to strike a candidate as a political act? Is the North Korean state so efficient at repression that it always pursues such people?); but I suspect that if the North Korean state knows such numbers, it keeps them very much secret, as they are more useful indicators of its actual support levels.
More importantly, Soviet elections seem to have produced in the long run not legitimacy, but alienation. If politics involves everywhere the mobilization of emotion through ritual, the dominant emotions such rituals produced and amplified seem to have been closer to resignation rather than enthusiasm; the regime ritually triumphed over the citizens by forcing them to participate in a mass charade, boasting of its ability to get citizens to approve of it even when everybody knew of the falsity of these claims. A Soviet election in the 1970s and 80s, at least, was thus a ritual designed to lower the emotional energy of the citizens, and increase that of its rulers, though it is plausible to imagine that the ritual aspects of the elections served to produce enthusiasm in citizens early on – a Soviet election, like an election almost everywhere, was first and foremost a big party, where the symbols of the regime were the key objects of attention, and where emotional commitments to these symbols (including political parties and candidates) can be amplified and preserved (or lost and reversed). It is in this sense that an election can “legitimate” a regime (though in competitive contexts, it always does so at the expense of producing negative emotions among partisans of the losing parties, something that is never properly emphasized in accounts of how democratic elections “legitimate” states). Yet the “legitimation” involved in Soviet elections as the regime wore on was less that granted by citizens on rulers (through enthusiastic emotional attachment to regime symbols, including the party and its candidates) than a kind of self-legitimation by rulers on themselves, more and more dependent on the ability of the regime to “triumph” over its citizens by making them passive and acquiescent rather than enthusiastic and committed.
Today, I suspect that North Korean elections are similarly alienating to North Korean citizens: the people who are emotionally elevated by participation in them are more likely to be the rulers than the citizens. There is evidence that the “hidden transcript” in North Korea is different from the public narrative; that many North Koreans, like people everywhere, mock the symbols of oppressive power whenever they think can get away with it. Where voters endorse the elect, and officials elect the people they desire, the people is likely to become more and more emotionally distanced from these officials as time wears on. Yet the triumphalist ritual of such elections is still useful to rulers committed to remaining in power; the appearance of power, is power.
Update 3/13/2014: edited one passage for clarity, fixed a typo.