Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Electoral Parodies

I've been reading a lot about various dictators this summer. And again and again I am struck by the existence of what one might call “electoral parodies” in many dictatorships: abuses of electoral rules and standards so blatant and obvious that they cannot be interpreted as anything other than mockery. Here is a good example, from the Dominican Republic:
In 1941, as the new ally of the United States against the Axis Powers, Trujillo felt obliged to extend the democratic facade by creating an opposition party, and so the Trujillo party was formed. But Trujillo was the presidential candidate of both the new creation and his old official party. Under the Trujillo Party banner, he received 190,229 votes and as the candidate of the Dominican Party he polled 391,708; the total of both parties, 581,937, meant that Trujillo had again received 100 per cent of the vote (Wiarda, Dictatorship and Development: The Methods of Control in the Dominican Republic, p. 66.)
Others include such things as releasing the results of the election before it takes place, receiving 100% of the vote from more than 100% of the voters (another Trujillo specialty), declaring victory while failing to announce any vote totals, and so on. But my all-time favorite is this story, from Haiti. François “Papa Doc” Duvalier had been first elected to the Presidency in 1957 for a six year term in a rigged but reasonably competitive election, and had since consolidated his power. On 30 April 1961, there was a scheduled congressional election. Although Duvalier was not supposed to be on the ballot,
[f]ew voters considered it unusual that the name Dr François Duvalier was printed at the bottom of each and every ballot … Late that evening rumour spread that Duvalier – with two years to go on his current term – had declared himself reelected for an additional six years because his name had appeared on the ballot. On 4 May Attorney General Max Duplessis declared to the Electoral Board – called the Census Committee – that Duvalier indeed had been voted another term in office. Crowds were organized to collect before the palace and applaud this view. … … In three days the Census Committee convened, agreed, declared President Duvalier re-elected, and announced that he received more than 1.3 million votes … … The new legislature ratified the election (14 May 1961), and Duvalier responded: ’I accept the people’s will because being a revolutionary I do not have the right [not? sic] to hear the people’s voice (Diederich and Burt, Papa Doc: Haiti and its Dictator, pp. 169-170)
The sheer chutzpah of this “election” is a thing of beauty. Voters voted Duvalier into office without realizing that they had done so! He wasn’t supposed to even be up for election!

I’ve written before about elections without choice, but this stuff still fascinates me. Clearly, much of what is going on in these “elections” is about signaling – showing who is boss by doing something outrageous and getting away with it – but I am struck by the degree to which people who should know better still interpret them as somehow “legitimating” performances. There is something like a “third person effect” going on here, as if analysts thought that electoral parodies must have a greater impact on gullible others than they do on themselves. Yet electoral parodies are not “democratic facades” that legitimate regimes in the eyes of ill-informed citizens or commentators from abroad, but “democratic burlesques” that ridicule any possible standards of democracy, and are clearly experienced as such by most citizens and international audiences.

The Duvalier case is especially interesting, since it is so absurdly brazen, and if anything contributed to the “delegitimation” of the Duvalier regime in the eyes of international audiences. Unlike in the Trujillo case noted earlier, the “re-election” of Duvalier did not come about because of pressure from abroad; in fact the US did not know it was going to happen, and made it clear through its ambassador (the aptly-named Robert Newbegin, who was supposed to inaugurate a new era of Haitian-American relations after the expulsion of the previous American Ambassador, Gerald Drew, in 1960) that it considered it illegal. As the end of Duvalier’s original term approached in 1963, the US even put out the message that it would welcome a military coup to oust him, since it considered Duvalier’s legal term to be over. (Though various ineptly planned coup attempts and a number of poorly executed invasions from the Dominican Republic did take place over the next few years, Duvalier survived them all. The man was lucky, and his opposition was almost comically disorganized.) Most other nations in the Organization of American States, though generally reluctant to intervene in Haiti, agreed that Duvalier was an embarrassment, and his “re-election” a sham.

Worse, not only did Duvalier further strain his (already strained) relations with the US by insisting on his “re-election,” but he did not even gain any of the benefits of normally rigged elections, like (biased) estimates of opposition or government strength, or the ability to make a more or less plausible claim of popular support, since nobody knew that he was going to be on the ballot; it wasn’t supposed to be a presidential election! From the point of view of contemporary analysts, it looked like an unforced error; why couldn’t Duvalier just have waited for two years to steal the next scheduled presidential election in a proper way? It’s not as if Duvalier had no genuine supporters; the “quiet doctor,” underestimated by the traditional Haitian elite at every turn, appears to have skillfully appropriated the noiriste and populist mantle of Estimé, and could count on at least some genuine support in the countryside. And he could play the nationalism card to perfection, presenting Haiti as the injured victim of US racism and imperialism while extorting large amounts of aid by playing on US fear of communism. (He would occasionally invite the Polish or Czechoslovak legations for a chat, or let communist student unions stage the odd protest, just to show the Americans the dangers of not agreeing to his demands; the man had a singular talent for blackmail). But the “election” actually endangered the flow of aid (which, it should go without saying, was in large measure used for pure patronage purposes or simply stolen). It seemed to be more like an impulsive f*** you than a rational attempt to retain power.

My best "rationalistic" guess for why Duvalier nevertheless staged this electoral parody is that given the totally uninstitutionalized Haitian political context he might have thought that waiting two more years to steal an election might provide his enemies with too many opportunities to overthrow him; better to flush them out by an unexpected, enraging move like this than to give them time to prepare. And it certainly changed the political opportunity structure, since it entailed the cancellation of the scheduled presidential election of 1963, and thus foreclosed the option to battle Duvalier on an electoral terrain, however uneven; perhaps by forcing the opposition to adopt the techniques of the underground, he was moving the fight to a place where he had greater advantages, though this was a high-risk gamble. 

And yet all actors involved were forced to speak, with a straight face, the language of legitimacy, laws, rights, and popular sovereignty. Here, for example, is a bit Diederich and Burt quote from the Attorney General’s ruling, a masterpiece of this nonsensical rhetoric:
It is essential that immediately, even before counting the votes obtained by the candidates, we insist upon the principle which, far from being new, constitutes the very essence of national sovereignty. This principle can be defined: the members of the electorate, when presented with an electoral decree or law which looks to them incomplete, have the right to fully manifest their will to complete the law or decree and to designate a civil servant or a group of civil servants whose election was not foreseen. The intangibility of the principle once established, it will be easy for us to understand the the electorate of Port-au-Prince Arrondisement (used to establish legal precedent) has acted within its full sovereign power by designating François Duvalier for a new term under the title of President of the Republic. (Diederich and Burt, Papa Doc: Haiti and its Dictator, p. 169)
The language of legitimacy coordinates expectations even as it is being obviously flouted. Hypocrisy may be the tribute that vice pays to virtue, but this is not even hypocrisy; it’s more like trolling.


  1. Plus buying into this amazing display was an excellent device for signalling loyalty.

    1. True, Lorenzo! Duvalier also did things that were more obviously devices for signaling loyalty, like declaring a month of "gratitude" to himself in 1963, in which he supplied the speeches that different members of the government had to declaim. People who did not want to humiliate themselves typically ran for asylum at one of the embassies.

  2. Anonymous4:40 AM

    I don't know much about the historical circumstances in Haiti or the other cases you mention; but is there any chance that the idea, rather than legitimating the dictator, is to delegitimate the concept of elections? That is, to make the populace and/or international observers cynical about opposition demands for elections and voting protections, because they've seen such things used with in such brazenly undemocratic ways?

    1. Anonymous, I suppose this is possible in principle. Duvalier did declare himself president for life in 1964 (and staged a farcical plebiscite to ratify this in which the only option was "yes"). Yet it does not seem to have been the main point of this election in Haiti, or to have been effective if it was. In the whole history of Haiti no election had ever been "free and fair" yet Haitians seem to be pretty attached to the institution. The ability to show that one can violate a widely-endorsed norm at will, though, (e.g., by staging a farcical election) is a good signal of strength.

  3. Isn't the point of being a dictator that you can dictate what the population will do, whether they like it or not?

    My friends and I used to discuss how a "benevolent dictator" could be an optimal form of government. No political delays or special interest decisions, just getting the job done. Nice to think it could work, but there's that "absolute power" issue.