Facing up to illiberal democracy

Kazakhstani ballot box (Wikipedia).

by Christopher Schwartz on 3/10/2012 · 9 comments

In the last two months, we’ve born witness to more incidents of illiberal democracy or democracy’s “doubles” here in Central Asia/Eurasia, from Kazakhstan’s parliamentary elections which many say was an experiment in pseudo-pluralism; to Turkmenistan’s surreal presidential election that has left those of us on the outside (and, indeed, many of those on the inside) scratching their heads wondering what it was all about to begin with; to Russia’s intriguingly complex and probably historical presidential poll. Still to come in the next few years are parliamentary elections in Armenia and Tajikistan, and presidential elections in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Tajikistan, none of which are expected by Western observers to be free and fair. The question I hear a lot from non-specialists is: why are these societies even bothering with the charade? At the moment, this is the shape of my answer:

Central Asian/Eurasian politics can be easily dismissed as tired Sovietisms re-worked into cynical caricatures of the West. Unfortunately, as I get to know this part of the world better, I’m increasingly not so convinced that it’s us Westerners who are being mocked; instead, what’s happening to the concept of liberal democracy here is actually very much part of a universal phenomenon. Just ask any civil society activist and they’ll tell you how “liberal democracy” can and is frequently bastardized to mean “popular legitimacy”, and “popular legitimacy” is, in turn, bastardized to mean “approval for the regime’s policies”. The uncomfortable reality is that this as true in the archetypal liberal democracy, the United States of America, wherein elected officials routinely and conveniently distort the widespread (albeit diminishing) voter apathy of the country to mask the hijacking of policy-making by special interests, as it is true in, say, Kazakhstan, whose consistently high voter turnout (in comparison to the USA), masks the authoritarian tendencies of the dominant ruling party (all the more so if the turnout figures prove to be false). In both cases, what we’re really dealing with is legitimacy-engineering, intended to buttress a constellation of elites and their related pet institutions and industries by a transference of moral authority from the grassroots to the top.

Make no mistake, the target of the legitimacy-engineering is primarily internal: the grassroots itself (particularly the electorate), as well as rivals for power (real or perceived). The electorate, thanks to a terrible education and media system, simply don’t know any better; the rivals, having achieved a position of relative elitism to have access to more information, do know better but catch the hint and respond accordingly (i.e., silence and subterfuge). Insofar that the legitimacy-engineering has an external orientation, this is a secondary, although not unimportant goal, namely, to deflect criticism via the logic of national self-determination. Indeed, democratic elections can accomplish what divine right of kings or Marxist dialectical materialism never could, namely, to give the impression of collective agreement with respect to a regime’s choices. And yes, in all of this I am talking as much about my homeland as I am about the Central Asian/Eurasian states (I am probably sounding like a very bitter expatriate right now). The benefactor of the legitimacy-engineering is not as clear in the American context as in the Central Asian/Eurasian one, but in both cases, it’s really a system that’s receiving the moral authority, not just the man on top.

Yet, speaking of the men on top, just as presidents of the United States can be prone to messianic depictions of themselves — either of the Terror or Hope variety of eschatology — Central Asian/Eurasian presidents notoriously have a penchant for the salvific. Besides the late Niyazov, Karimov spring to mind, and in his own way, Bakiyev had a tinge of the deliverer to his administration, as well, and Putin and Aliyev frequently co-opt still-fresh memories of societal turmoil in their favor. Along these lines, I actually have a begrudging respect for Nazarbayev: his golden handprint in the Baiterek is actually not so much an expression of megalomania as it is a statement of fact, namely, that he has left an indelible mark upon his country, like it or not, for better and for worse. That’s more than I can say for all the “Change” that’s happened in the United States since 2008 (at least in my cynical moments). But again, in all cases, the target is internal, the goal still is and always is legitimacy-engineering. The era of elections setting the course of a nation rather than approving a pre-set path — if it ever existed — is fast receding into the past here and in the West.

But then there’s Turkmenistan. I think, unfortunately, this country is an outlier. I’ve got a sinking feeling in my gut that it is increasingly fruitless to seek any kind of rationality oriented toward the outside world from the Turkmen president, even vis-à-vis his immediate neighbors, much less the West. If there is any logic to his behavior, then it’s most likely in response to internal power dynamics, the nature of which are invisible to the outside eye (although there are clues). But before we start thinking that this is still in keeping with the overall trends in managed democracy, we should consider the thoughts of my colleague Annasoltan, who has come to fear that what we’re really looking at in Turkmenistan is the possible mental deterioration of Berdimuhammedov. The presidential election, then, may have really been driven by the illogic of ego and insecurity: this time around, the legitimacy-engineering was directed not at the grassroots, but by the establishment toward the president himself.

Power-plays and madness are not mutually co-exclusive, of course, and in fact the latter can sometimes be a pretty good tool in the former, just ask Caligula. Moreover, determining how much of this exercise in megalomania was the initiative of Berdimuhammedov and how much of it arose from the overall regime, and for which purposes, could be enlightening. Until those facts can come to the light of history, unfortunately, all the rest of us can do is stand outside Turkmenistan’s parallel universe and wonder about its strange physics, a political physics in which the logic of liberalism and democracy are twisted to reduce an entire society into instrumental extensions of one single ego.

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– author of 5 posts on Registan.net.

Christopher Schwartz is a graduate student at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium. He has two MA's in Islamic history and philosophy and is currently in a pre-doctoral program focusing on liberal and democratic theory with a focus on the post-Soviet sphere. He is also the editor-in-chief of neweurasia.net, Central Asia's first and largest citizen-journalism network, and editor of the book CyberChaikhana: Digital Conversations from Central Asia, a crowdsourced contemporary history of the region.

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Realist Writer March 10, 2012 at 11:52 am

My belief is that elections in authoritarian regimes exist not to build legitimacy, but to act as a way to showcase the power of the regime. It’s very expensive and time-consuming to hold and rig elections, and if you can do so effectively and be able to state that you won 95% of the vote, you shown that you have major political power, deterring opposition to your regime (since they know that if you have the power to rig elections, then you have the power to crush dissent). If, however, you could “only” rig the election to give you 51% of the vote, that indicates to elites that the regime isn’t really powerful at all, giving elites a powerful incentive to abandon the regime and join the opposition so as to secure their own political power.

Again, it’s my idea. And there’s a lot of other hypotheses on why regimes do rig elections. There was an article in the Middle East Report (“And The Winner Is”) that details many of these hypotheses, though it focuses on the Middle East and not Central Asia. I suggest you take a look at it first before deciding whether you accept it or not.


Christopher Schwartz March 12, 2012 at 5:59 pm

Hey Realist, thanks for this! I’ll be sure to give it a look.

Filippo March 11, 2012 at 2:04 pm

Hi Chris, very nice article. I was wondering how would you assess Kyrgyzstan’s last elections in the light of the framework you have outlined above. Should we expect an authoritarian move soon or is the country really able to follow a different path? thanks a lot!

Christopher Schwartz March 16, 2012 at 9:46 am

Hey Filippo,

Actually, I’m hoping to go to Kyrgyzstan in the next few months to study election dynamics there more closely. So, my answer here may be a bit incoherent.

On the one hand, instinctively, I would not say that Kyrgyzstan is “managed” in the LeFortean sense of there being a faction or individual taking the role of a authority that guides the nation’s political behavior (as in Russia and Kazakhstan) or the Wollinian sense of a military-industrial/intelligence-corporate complex to which the democratic process is subject but rarely the other way around (as in the United States), or “illiberal” in the Zakarian sense of having flat out no respect for the individual vote (as in Uzbekistan). What’s really striking about Kyrgyzstan for me is the textural resemblance it has to nineteenth century American Gilded Age democracy (on good days) or early twentieth century German Weimar democracy (on bad days). So, I’ll do the bold thing right now and claim: in terms of its political phenomenology, Kyrgyzstan is somehow freer and more “truly” or “purely” democratic than even my homeland at the moment, the United States.

On the other hand, I also want to be careful not to presuppose some Platonic form of democracy out there in the heaven of pure ideas. Democracy never exists in a vacuum; it is always contextual, indeed, it is even constituted by context, e.g., the socioeconomic structure of the Kyrgyz SSR at the time of independence no doubt was decisive in Akayev et al’s decision to embrace democratization. Moreover, Kyrgyzstan’s got one hell of a complex and frequently unhappy context, both internally and externally. Also, although phenomenologically the country somehow feels freer to me than the United States, procedurally it’s far behind.

I hope I’m making at least a modicum of sense right now…

oldschool boy March 12, 2012 at 3:56 pm

Is there a subtantiated base for a claim that certain elections were rigged and, if yes, by how much (% of votes I mean)? I do not mean OSCE reports, which always remind me of remakes of a same bad show, and which failed to come up with real proofs or solid numbers.

Alima Bissenova March 15, 2012 at 4:04 pm

I like the direction of this thinking…we do have to ask the question: why is the constantly high-turn out in the situations when the outcome is known…Is it a nationalist show of unity/strength/support? Show for whom? People argue that it is an intimidation and so-called “adminresurs.” I don’t believe it because I know that I and many others in Kazakhstan have participated in the elections of our own volition. When I was in Ithaca, students have organized to drive to NYC spending 10 hours on the road just to participate in the presidential elections the outcome of which was decided anyway. Why do people come out to vote? Why do they feel that they need to? Do they fear some ownership, some investment in the process?

It has been documented that in Eastern Europe, in the 1990s, after democratization and liberalization, the voter turn out dropped significantly…Why people stopped coming out and participating after democratization? There are certain strata of the population in developed democratic countries who are alienated from the system and who don’t participate in liberal democratic elections. The same happens in what you call “illiberal democracy” — a certain minority feels alienated from the “regime” and excluded/unaccounted in the process…but this minority is more “active,” supported by the West and makes more noise.

So, if in the developed democracy, it is usually the poor who are disenfranchised…in popular autocracies and “illiberal democracies” (Kazakhstan) it is usually certain members of the urban middle classes…

Christopher Schwartz March 16, 2012 at 9:48 am

Wow, great comment Alima. Thanks!

Alima Bissenova March 15, 2012 at 4:18 pm

In the end of the first paragraph read: “do they feel some ownership, some investment”

Observer March 20, 2012 at 1:27 am

It is always amused to see how the people to make living by preaching “democracy.” But “democracy” has never worked in human history.

Ask yourself exactly what this “democracy” can do for you?! Better GDP growth? Better living standards or better life? No corruption in the government? No conflict or hatred in the society? No crime? No bloody war? Forget about these ex-Soviets, just look at the US and West – the self-claimed “democratic” countries, taking them as examples, you tell me exactly what this “democracy” could do for you?

If you look at the “democracy” in the dictionary you will get a definition of “democracy” something like this: “Government by people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives.” You have to have free and open information flow in the society in order to make judgment which representative you want to vote for. You tell me which country in this world has the free and open information flow?

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