Why do tyrants insist on holding elections?

5 min readSep 13, 2023


By Khalil al-Anani


Although authoritarian regimes rule by coercion and repression, they need a ‘fig leaf’ to cover their political shortcomings.

Elections are one of the most important aspects of democracies, but they may also be used to strengthen authoritarian rule and prolong its hold over power. Many authoritarian regimes are keen to hold elections regularly. Authoritarian regimes, such as Russia under the rule of Putin, Sudan under the rule of al-Bashir, Syria under the rule of Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar, Zimbabwe under the rule of Mugabe and others, have always been keen on holding parliamentary and presidential elections on a regular basis.

Closed dictatorships such as China and North Korea also hold regular elections. In China, for example, presidential elections, or rather referendums, are held every five years, with deputies in the National People’s Congress voting on the selection of president. Recently, current Chinese President Xi Jinping was ‘re-elected’ for a third term after deputies voted unanimously in favour of the 69-year-old leader. In the absence of any competing candidates, a total of 2,952 deputies voted in favour of Xi, while the opposition was Zero, and no deputies abstained.

Elections are also held at the local level. They are under the full control of the Communist Party which must approve the candidates before running for any position. Independent candidates are not allowed to run. The vote is not confidential, and voters are often pressured to support the party’s selected candidates. Similarly, North Korea holds parliamentary elections every five years to choose the members of the Supreme People’s Assembly. There is only one candidate per seat for a yes or no vote.

Why do authoritarian regimes insist on holding elections even though they know that they are sham elections? There are five basic reasons that explain this paradox.

Maintaining formal legitimacy

Although authoritarian regimes rule by coercion and repression, they need a ‘fig leaf’ to cover their political shortcomings. This can be achieved by preserving a framework of formal legitimacy through which authoritarian rulers can give the impression that they are democratically elected. They can pretend that they have the support of the people, even though elections are manipulated in every way possible. We have seen this in many cases in Arab countries and on the international stage.

For example, the ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was keen to hold presidential elections, or rather referendums, every six years. He received positive referendum results for years, namely in 1981, 1987, 1993, 1999, and 2005. He was deposed before receiving a sixth term in 2011. The same was the case with Hafez al-Assad and his son, Bashar al-Assad, in Syria.

Domesticating, containing and dividing the opposition.

By allowing a limited amount of competition and political participation, authoritarian regimes try to domesticate the opposition forces and contain them politically by giving them some parliamentary seats that do not affect the regime’s dominance over parliament and political life.

The Mubarak regime in Egypt was good at this. It was always keen on holding parliamentary elections for 30 years, during which the country witnessed seven electoral cycles for the People’s Assembly, namely in 1984, 1987, 1990, 1995, 2000, 2005, and 2010. In all these elections, no force, party, or political movement was able to influence the legislative agenda of Parliament.

Authoritarian regimes also use elections to divide the opposition, especially given strong political and social divisions and polarization within their societies as was the case in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Sudan. Authoritarian regimes use the ‘divide and rule’ approach to ensure that there is not a single opposition front that might pose a political threat to their rule.

Buying loyalty and distributing spoils among supporters

Elections, or rather membership in parliament, represent a great prize for loyalists and supporters of the regime. This membership guarantees them material, social and political gains, and allows them an important amount of influence and political and social hegemony. It grants loyalists legal immunity and provides a good cover for corruption, profiteering and other illegal actions that they may engage in. They fight during elections in order to buy their parliamentary seats. In many cases, these seats are inherited within the family, tribe or sect, as is the case in Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria.

Information gathering tool

Despots use elections as a tool to collect information about their citizens’ political preferences and affiliations, which they can use to control them. In some cases, these leaders may use the information to target individuals or groups perceived as a threat to the regime, or to identify potential supporters who could be rewarded for their loyalty to the regime. In many cases, elections are a good way to intimidate citizens who oppose the regime. Voting against the regime’s candidates may be understood as opposition, disobedience, and rebellion, which necessitates taking action against those behind it to nip it in the bud.

A way to gain international recognition.

Finally, even sham elections represent an important means of gaining international recognition for the regime, especially if there are international observers, as tyrants can give the impression that they are committed to the democratic process, even if only formally.

Authoritarians are well aware that the international community needs recognition of their legitimacy, albeit only in form. This is achieved by holding regular elections, even if the ruler wins them by 99.99%, even if there is no competition or opposition to him. Regular elections also help spare authoritarian regimes any form of sanctions that may occur as a result of postponing or cancelling elections. Such sanctions are to be avoided because they may lead to the reduction of foreign investment.

Thus, elections are transformed from a democratic mechanism whose function is to hold rulers and officials accountable and to ensure the transfer of power, into a viable means for the entrenchment of tyranny and the prolongation of repressive regimes, as is the case in many authoritarian countries.

Source: Al Jazeera(Original Content -Arabic)




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