Mitchel Hochberg is an intern in the Center for Preventive Action.
Using a term like “coerced balloting” to describe elections held by autocrats would make it easier for Western policymakers and analysts to distinguish between democratic polls and those in which voters have no real choice. Cementing this distinction would make it harder for dictators to gain legitimacy at home and abroad by leveraging the democratic connotations attached to the word “elections” in Western media. The significance of free elections held by democratizing U.S. partners are also cheapened when they are complimented with a term used to describe both exemplary and farcical votes.
While an election is really just a procedure for selecting a leader, analysts in the United States and Europe often conflate the process of voting with the content of democracy. There is an assumption that holding a vote is an inherently fair and liberal gesture and that dictators then desecrate freedom’s vessel by rendering it “phoney,” “devoid of any meaning,” or “not elections at all.” The word “election” is not used in a purely procedural sense—even when meant as a synonym for “vote” it carries the implication of democratic nature or purpose.
U.S. leaders have compounded these implications by further associating elections with democracy. President George W. Bush trumpeted elections as the crucible of democracy, shepherding Egypt, Iraq, and Gaza toward votes with unsettling results, while citing elections as the metric for democratic progress in a variety of developing nations. The emphasis he placed on elections as a sign of democratic progress at the cost of other measurements, like individual freedom or human security, helped make the act of holding a vote—regardless of content—seem like an intrinsically democratic exercise.
Before taking office, President Barack Obama explicitly rebuked his predecessor, saying, “I think the mistake that was made is drawing equivalence between democracy and elections. Elections aren’t democracy… They are one facet of a liberal order.” However, Obama’s selective legitimization and denouncement of similarly flawed elections in Egypt and Syria has allowed questionably free votes to retain their signaling power because there is no consistent standard for praiseworthy elections.
With its democratic undertones, “elections” obscures the wild differences between autocratic and free votes. Freedom House determines the democratic nature of elections in part based on whether campaigning is open and free, if results are representative of public will and not fraudulent, and on the competitiveness of the system. Recent elections in Syria, Egypt, and Mauritania do not meet these criteria in the slightest. In Syria, people were intimidated into voting for Bashar al-Assad and given multiple ballots to cast. Abdel el-Sisi’s reelection was guaranteed by his disproportionate advantages in media coverage and campaign funds. Mauritania’s opposition boycotted the election weeks beforehand to protest ground rules that made their success impossible. In all three cases the victor was never in doubt.
Yet the same word is used to describe both dictators’ elections and those in electoral democracies despite the stark differences between the two. This encourages media and leaders to evaluate these outlandish exercises based on criteria like those given by Freedom House. While that is a noble undertaking in cases of countries making genuine efforts at democratization, it is incongruous with the purpose and reality of elections in places like Egypt and Syria. In those cases, autocrats use votes to maintain authoritarian states and have no interest in transitioning to democracy. Even using the word “election” to point out procedural shortcomings conceals the wholly different and nefarious context of dictators’ votes by implying that they are in any way related to the free and fair kind. This conflation makes it easier for rulers to consolidate domestic support and trumpet their legitimacy internationally by claiming they have won an electoral mandate from their people.
A linguistic shift would blunt a tool used to solidify authoritarian rule while bolstering U.S. efforts to promote democracy. Replacing the term “elections” with “coerced balloting” when describing dictators’ polls would better communicate the state of autocracy and lack of choice present during balloting. Autocrats would find it harder to benefit from holding fraudulent votes, and the act of congratulating democratizing nations on having elections would acquire new weight. If the Obama administration made further efforts to emphasize elections less in democratizing nations, it would reinforce the linguistic shift. Successful programs supporting empowerment of minorities and the rule of law could stand in for elections as signposts of democracy and reduce votes’ signaling power.
Next time a fraudulent election occurs—and it won’t be long—call it coerced balloting. While dictators will continue to hold fraudulent polls, they will no longer benefit from the conflation of elections with democracy.