How to sus­tain a fake democ­racy? Rig an elec­tion, of course.


In their book “How to Rig an Elec­tion,” Nic Cheese­man and Brian Klaas is­sue a plea to Amer­i­can and Euro­pean lead­ers: Take a more skep­ti­cal look at fraud­u­lent elec­tions and rec­og­nize the dan­ger of en­dors­ing rigged votes. The book is an in­struc­tive, though thin, primer show­ing that sham elec­tions are de­press­ingly com­mon. To­day, “more elec­tions are be­ing held, but more elec­tions are also be­ing rigged,” write Cheese­man, a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Birm­ing­ham, and Klaas, a fel­low at the Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics (and a con­trib­u­tor to The Wash­ing­ton Post’s Democ­ra­cyPost blog). The au­thors warn that “coun­ter­feit democrats” have fig­ured out not only how to rig elec­tions but also how to dupe Western ob­servers and gov­ern­ments into ac­cept­ing the out­come — and of­ten emerge stronger.

The book de­tails rig­ging strate­gies from the out­ra­geous (dis­ap­pear­ing bal­lot ink in Ukraine and three can­di­dates with the same name on a St. Peters­burg bal­lot) to the fa­mil­iar (ger­ry­man­der­ing and voter sup­pres­sion). In 23 per­cent of re­cent elec­tions, vi­o­lence, in­tim­i­da­tion or ha­rass­ment was found to have played a role; vote buy­ing oc­curred in nearly 40 per­cent. The “smartest way” to rig, ac­cord­ing to the au­thors, is to start early, “when ob­servers are likely to be thin on the ground, and [ques­tion­able tac­tics] can be pre­sented as tech­ni­cal or le­gal de­ci­sions as op­posed to po­lit­i­cal skul­dug­gery.”

Cheese­man and Klaas ar­gue that Western democ­ra­cies ei­ther have not looked hard enough for elec­tion abuses or have will­ingly looked away. “De­spite the wide range of rig­ging strate­gies that have been doc­u­mented,” the au­thors write, “Western ob­ser­va­tion mis­sions only raised the prob­lem of fraud in 20 per­cent of the elec­tions, and for­eign aid was only stopped in the af­ter­math of around 6 per­cent.”

The pay­offs for au­to­crats that suc­cess­fully rig elec­tions can in­clude rein­vig­o­rated rul­ing par­ties, frac­tured op­po­si­tion groups, and in­creased for­eign fi­nanc­ing, in­vest­ment and aid. The “un­set­tling re­al­ity at the heart of this book,” the au­thors note, is that “their regimes have a bet­ter chance of sur­vival if they hold elec­tions and rig them than if they avoid hold­ing elec­tions al­to­gether.”

The ar­gu­ment is provoca­tive, and the au­thors’ plea would be more per­sua­sive if the book con­tained a com­pre­hen­sive list of the coun­ter­feit democ­ra­cies that have got­ten a new lease on life af­ter rigged elec­tions and the Western gov­ern­ments and fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions that have helped pro­long the reigns of the despots.

Cheese­man and Klaas crit­i­cize the United States as well as a num­ber of other coun­tries. They de­scribe the role of for­mer con­gress­man Michael McMa­hon in mon­i­tor­ing the 2013 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in Azer­bai­jan. Although the Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Se­cu­rity and Co­op­er­a­tion in Europe (OSCE) de­tected se­ri­ous prob­lems at 58 per­cent of the polling lo­ca­tions it vis­ited, the New York Demo­crat deemed the elec­tion “hon­est, fair, and re­ally ef­fi­cient,” en­thus­ing that un­like at U.S. polling sites, there were no lines in Azer­bai­jan. Cheese­man and Klaas write that while it is tempt­ing to at­tribute McMa­hon’s com­ments to the naivete “of a sin­gle de­luded Western of­fi­cial,” a Euro­pean par­lia­men­tary del­e­ga­tion also de­clared that the vote in Azer­bai­jan rep­re­sented a “free, fair and trans­par­ent elec­toral process.” Ac­cord­ing to the au­thors, Western gov­ern­ments were more con­cerned about ac­cess to the “en­ergy rich Caspian re­gion” than a clean vote.

In an­other telling in­ci­dent, the au­thors re­count Turkey’s 2017 con­sti­tu­tional ref­er­en­dum that granted sweep­ing new pow­ers to Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan. The OSCE de­scribed an “un­level play­ing field,” and a mem­ber of the Coun­cil of Europe mis­sion said 2.5 mil­lion pro-gov­ern­ment votes could have been ma­nip­u­lated. Nonethe­less, Pres­i­dent Trump phoned Er­do­gan to con­grat­u­late him on his vic­tory, prompt­ing Cheese­man and Klaas to ask: “Why would Er­do­gan care about a re­port from the OSCE” af­ter re­ceiv­ing “un­fet­tered praise from the most pow­er­ful man in the West?” Carla Anne Rob­bins is a for­mer deputy edi­to­rial page editor for the New York Times and chief diplo­matic cor­re­spon­dent for the Wall Street Jour­nal. She is now an ad­junct se­nior fel­low at the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions and the Marxe fac­ulty direc­tor of the MIA pro­gram at Baruch Col­lege’s Marxe School of Pub­lic and In­ter­na­tional Af­fairs.



TOP AND ABOVE LEFT: Sup­port­ers of Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan cel­e­brate his re­elec­tion last month. ABOVE RIGHT: The pres­i­dent and his wife greet a crowd in Ankara af­ter his win. Last year, fraud was al­leged in a ref­er­en­dum grant­ing Er­do­gan new pow­ers.


By Nic Cheese­man and Brian Klaas Yale. 310 pp. $26


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