There Are Elections That Build Democracy, and Elections That Kill It: The Tricks Is Not to Confuse Them
March 13, 2018
1. If you relate to elections solely as a value, you will never grasp their essence. You will never tame them.
2. In the modern world, the presence of elections per se in a particular country is neither an achievement nor a value, except for liberal democratic fundamentalists. In the modern world, it is the political outcome of elections that is an achievement and value. In some countries, elections build democracy, while in other countries they kill democracy. In Russia, they kill democracy.
3. There are about two hundred countries in the modern world. The vast majority of them (around one hundred and eighty) hold elections more or less regularly. Around fifty countries in this vast majority are more or less classic democracies. There are another forty countries that hold elections and are more or less classic authoritarian regimes. The other hundredsome countries that hold elections are ruled by a variety of transitional, semi-authoritarian, and hybrid regimes. Meaning that elections per se do not vouchsafe democracy at all. Morever, in most of the world’s countries, people voting in elections does not produce democracy.
4. Elections are merely a social know-how that can be used by anyone for any purpose. Know-how is a simple thing: if you wield it, you can profit from it in keeping with your interests. An axe is similar in this respect. It matters who wields it: a carpenter or a killer. In the hands of some people, elections produce a democratic regime, while in the hands of others they produce an authoritarian regime. Democracy is not programmed into electoral know-how itself. Democratic elections thus coexist on our planet with authoritarian elections: everything is decided by the person who presides over the elections. If you want elections in Russia to produce democracy, first you have to gain control of them. Elections serve democracy only when they are monitored at all phases by political forces with a stake in democracy. Nor is it only a matter of monitoring the tallying of votes.
5. Elections serve democracy only when the question of power has already been resolved to the benefit of pro-democratic forces or during an unstable transition period in which an authoritarian regime is still in power, but can longer dismiss pro-democratic forces out of hand. Therefore, in order to use elections to advance democratic interests, they must first be taken away from the old authoritarian boss. Or he must be so scared he has to take the interests of pro-democratic forces into account when elections are held. There is no other way. This is how things are done the world over, but millions of freedom-loving Russians for some reason still believe that regularly going to vote in elections presided over by someone else will in itself hasten democracy’s victory in Russia.
6. What is democracy? I won’t go into high-flown arguments, but the democracy that freedom-loving Russians like so much gels only when the country is run by politicians who have no desire to restrict political competition. They are willing, if push comes to shove, to lose elections; moreover, they are willing to accept defeat until the next elections. That’s all there is to it. That is why there is no democracy in Russia: because the people in power restrict political competition and have no intention of losing elections under any circumstances, much less accepting defeat. They are assisted in their restriction of political competition by the selfsame democratic know-how and institutions. It is just that without democratic politicians inhabiting them, this know-how and these institutions are only formally democratic, not democratic in fact.
7. The pro-democratic forces include not only the liberal democratic parties but also all political and civic organizations—leftist, nationalist, imperialist, religious, environmentalist, alternative leftist, alternative rightist, etc.—whose political interests are not bound up with Vladimir Putin’s personalist regime, who have no plans to limit political competition in Russia, and are willing, depending on the outcomes of elections, not only to come to power but also to cede power. Putin’s authoritarian regime can be opposed only by a broad pro-democracy coalition, without necessarily becoming a formal coalition. The trial version of this broad pro-democracy coalition presented itself to the country during the nationwide protest movement that kicked off in December 2011. We should not expect extremely well-coordinated joint actions from a broad pro-democracy coalition. (The “Decembrists” overplayed their hand in this respect.) It is enough to head in the same direction along more or less parallel routes, coordinating actions at certain critical points.
8. An electoral authoritarian regime, such as Russia’s, is organized quite simply. All the democratic know-how a modern country is supposed to have—elections, representation, separation of powers—functions smoothly, but not all comers have access to it. It is even simpler than that. An authoritarian regime simply does not allow potential competitors, that is, leaders and organizations, to get on their feet politically and grow organizationally to the extent they would be able to surpass the two- or three-percent minimumthreshold of votes needed for admission to the political arena. It does this by refusing to register parties, intimidating leaders, limiting freedom of speech and freedom of assembly in a pinpoint fashion, etc. If, despite everything, they nevertheless grow and thrive, they are simply not admitted to elections, as I have mentioned. In Russia, therefore, democratic procedures do not serve democracy. The soul of democracy is not know-how, procedures, and institutions, but people willing to use them in a particular way. In Russia, politicians interested in democracy simply do not make it into formal democratic politics. Thanks to the political regime built by Vladimir Putin, year after year only pro-authoritarian political forces make it into Russia’s formally democratic politics, and year after year they limit the involvement of pro-democratic forces in democratic procedures. It is a vicious circle. There is democracy, and there is no democracy at the same. Putin’s authoritarian regime is even elegant after a fashion.
9. Elections in authoritarian countries do not increase the supply of democracy, nor do they prepare the way for it, since they do not facilitate competition, do not put the opposition through its paces, and do not put rank-and-file voters in circumstances where the country’s fortunes depend on the choices they make. In authoritarian countries, elections function as a full-fledged authoritarian institution for legitimizing the regime. In authoritarian countries, elections are required only as a source of power, nothing more. Everyone involved in these elections is involved solely in legitimizing the regime. They are doing nothing else.
10. In authoritarian and hybrid countries, including modern Russia, elections have another vital political function. Elections are also an outlet for the liberal public, a valve, installed by the regime, for releasing oppositional steam and keeping opposition politicians busy somehow. The Putin regime has used elections to satisfy the need many freedom-loving Russians have to “fight for democracy” in a safe, comfortable way, a way that lets them feel like decent dissidents honestly doing their duty. Everyone comes out on top. The liberal public engages in self-actualization, and the regime does not find it frightening.
11. If the liberal democratic opposition’s sole aim is symbolic involvement in election campaigns within the authoritarian regime, but year after year the regime does not permit it to grow politically and organizationally, and does not allow it to run in elections, the opposition will gradually wither and become marginalized. This, in fact, is the kind of opposition we have nowadays. If we realize, however, that elections serve democracy only after the question of power has been decided to the benefit of pro-democratic forces, it means we need a different opposition altogether, one radically different from the opposition that has filled the niche the past fifteen years. We need a liberal democratic opposition that is not hung up on being involved in meaningless elections governed by someone else’s hostile rules. We need an opposition focused on vigorous, direct political action and a propaganda duel (a fight over values) with the regime in order to command the attention and respect of the so-called Putinist majority, those very same “ordinary people” who, when a window of opportunity opens, would at least not oppose the new, free-minded political alternative. There is a big problem with the word “new,” however.
12. The creation of a new, free-minded opposition is encumbered by the liberal democratic fundamentalism that holds sway in the minds of Russia’s freedom-loving public. One manifestation of this fundamentalism is, in fact, the irrational cult of elections: all elections are good, regardless of their political essence and their consequences. Two other burdens are the extreme political impracticality and even archaicism of today’s liberal democratic platform. Currently, we have nothing to offer people from the standpoint of a future regime. Here is a simple question. What can we offer the average Russian family, something they would really need and value, that the Putin regime either cannot give them or promise them? The keywords in this case are “really need and value.” Moreover, in the obviously adverse conditions of a post-Putin Russia, the current liberal democratic prescriptions would necessarily lead the country into new crises the very first year they were implemented and, consequently, to new outbursts of the conservative revolution. It is ridiculous to discuss this with educated people, but thinking outside the box is now more important than doing things. At very least, it is more important than running off to vote in Putin’s elections.
13. For free-minded Russians and Russian politicians, the issue today is not how to win Putin’s authoritarian elections, but how to behave and build a reputation in society today in order to win future democratic elections in which the former so-called Putinist majority would be among the voters. If you want to facilitate the collapse of the Putin regime, you need to work less with the Putinist state and more with the Putinist majority.
14. The main problem freedom-loving Russians face in the impending presidential election is not what choice to make, whether to vote or not, and certainly not who they should vote for. The main problem is that whatever choice each of us makes—to vote or not vote, to vote for Yavlinsky or Sobchak—it will have no impact whatsoever on the fortunes of Vladimir Putin and his political regime. Any electoral action we take will change nothing about the election or the regime. Judging by various opinion polls [sic], there are between ten and fifteen million of us in Russia. Even if we assume the incredible—that all of us would act in concert in this election, and thanks to our monitoring the elections themselves would be extraordinarily fair—we cannot have a significant impact on the outcome of the election, even if each of us to the last man boycotted it or we all voted for Ksenia Sobchak or Grigory Yavlinsky.
15. Everything is seemingly quite simple. In Putin’s Russia, elections have nothing to do with building democracy and vanquishing the Putin regime. Why, however, does something so evident not get through to many advocates of liberty and diversity in Russia? How did the perverted cult of mandatory involvement in all elections take hold among such a considerable segment of the Russian liberal public? There are explanations. First, many opposition politicians, speakers, opinion leader, and experts have a professional stake in Putin’s elections. Some of them try and run in these elections (the simplest way of being an opposition politician in an authoritarian regimes), while others assist the elections professionally, serve as polling station monitors, analyze the whole megillah or write about it. This entire mob would simply be out of a job, in the broad sense of the word, if the opposition-minded public did not vote in authoritarian elections. Thus, in the opposition milieu, they are the principal propagandists and agitators for the idea of voting in these demonstrative non-elections. Since, as a rule, they are the most intelligent, energetic, and authoritative people in opposition-minded communities, their opinion is quite important. Second, as I have mentioned, above, involvement in authoritarian elections (“but they are elections all the same”) has served a considerable segment of the liberal public as a safe, comfortable way to “fight for democracy,” a way that lets them feel like decent dissidents honestly doing their duty. The notion that it is foolish and nasty for an advocate of democracy to vote in authoritarian elections immediately nullifies the opposition’s semantic space, the space of election enthusiasts, plunging them into the “desert of the real.” Everything is so painful and disturbing in that desert. You have to acquire a new civic faithfulness to yourself, redefine yourself in terms of the meanings and tools of your opposition, what normal risks are, who your supporters and opponents are within the opposition, and so on. “No, it’s better to vote in Putin’s elections.”
16. On the other hand, if nothing really depends on us in Putin’s elections, is it worth persuading our allies not to vote in them? Why hassle people? Why prevent them from doing what they deem important? Because things won’t get any worse for us if they do vote in the election anyway, right? I think it is still worth pestering them. Politics, after all, depends on political sentiments and emotions, and thoughts are tangible things even when they are not true. If millions of people who hunger so much for freedom and diversity in Russia think, “How can I vote in authoritarian elections the right way, so that it benefits the opposition’s cause?” that is one kind of opposition. But if millions of people who hunger so much for freedom and diversity in Russia think, “What else, besides voting in authoritarian elections, can I do to dismantle the Putin regime and bring about the victory of freedom and democracy in Russia?” that is a completely different opposition.
Igor Averkiev is the chair of the Perm Civic Chamber. Photo courtesy of Igor Averkiev. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader