PSR Interviews #6: Linkage to the West and Electoral Manipulation – an interview with Jaroslav Bílek

“Some people would perhaps say that there is, or at least was right after the end of the Cold War, a worldwide demand afterlife in democracy. Nonetheless, democracy as such is a too abstract concept for most people. Therefore, those who do not have honest intentions with it, are often for a long time successful with hiding their true thoughts and restraining its fulfilment” – claims Dr Jaroslav Bílek. In this interview, he discusses competitive authoritarian regimes, electoral manipulation and the aspect of a linkage to the West, in the light of Levitsky’s and Way‘s theory. A fuller analysis of these issues can be found in Dr Bíleks Null Hypothesis PSR article: Linkage to the West and Electoral Manipulation.

PSR: Why competitive autocracies are a post-Cold War phenomenon?

Jaroslav Bílek: First and foremost, the end of the Cold War brought a worldwide demand for an electoral competition that at least seemingly appears to be fair and just. Thus, elections cannot be cancelled, not even by politicians who would rather govern without them. Cancelling elections would cost them too much legitimacy at both their home and foreign audience. This is a historically unique situation as never in the history of mankind there has been such a demand for holding elections.

Some people would perhaps say that there is, or at least was right after the end of the Cold War, a worldwide demand afterlife in democracy. Nonetheless, democracy as such is a too abstract concept for most people. Therefore, those who do not have honest intentions with it, are often for a long time successful with hiding their true thoughts and restraining its fulfilment. Then again, elections are something far more tangible and in the hands of power-holders, they present a solid source of legitimacy. Notwithstanding, these are not elections we know from real democracies, since their goal is not for the voters to elect their representatives, but for the power-holders to retain their power.

You refer to the work of Levitsky and Way (Levitsky, Way, 2010). They claimed that competitive authoritarian regimes that had a high linkage to the West, democratized. What are the roots of this argument?

Levitsky and Way argue that the West contributes to democratization in four different ways. It helps to even the uneven playfield between government and opposition, increase the probability of potential rupture within autocratic parties, improve the image of democratic opposition at a domestic audience, and what is central for my research, it protects opposition from regime repression. Linkage to the West raises the international cost of repression as it increases the probability that Western governments will take action in response to reported abuse. Based on this hypothesis, power-holders in hybrid regimes with high linkage to the West are supposed to resort to violence toward opposition or to significant tampering with election results less often. Such well-visible forms of electoral manipulations are expected to discredit them on the international level and also raise the risk of international sanctions or even of international intervention. However, my research disproved this hypothesis.

How would one measure the influence of linkage to the West on hybrid regimes, and what research tools/methods have you used?

I worked with data prepared by Levitsky and Way. In their book on competitive authoritarianism, they defined linkage to the West as the density of ties (economic, political, diplomatic, social, and organizational) and cross-border flows (of capital, good and services, people, and information) among particular countries and the United States, the EU (and pre-2004 EU members), and Western-dominated multilateral institutions (Levitsky and Way, 2010: 43).

We may still expect that there is some sort of connection between linkage to the West and decision-making processes in competitive authoritarianism.

Another option would be to set up my own dataset or to use the KOF Globalisation Index (as other studies did), but my intention was, in the largest possible extent, to work with the data asembled by the authors of the theory. Speaking of data, I would like to mention here the Varieties of Democracy database from which I took the data on the individual forms of electoral manipulation. This database has proven to be crucial for my research as I also wanted to test Levitsky and Way’s theoretical assumptions on new data. My research was then a standard quantitative study (data analysis with use of multilevel regression model).

So, can we assume, that a hypothesis that the decision-making processes of the leaders of hybrid regimes are affected by the state’s level of linkage to the West cannot be confirmed?

My research has shown that leaders in competitive authoritarian regimes do not take the linkage to the West into account when opting for a concrete manipulative strategy. The goal of my research was not to assess the effect of linkage to the West on the decision-making processes of leaders in hybrid regimes in general. We may still expect that there is some sort of connection between linkage to the West and decision-making processes in competitive authoritarianism. It should be noted though, that both Levitsky and Way’s original book and my research only work with one type of hybrid regime and only in a single era.

What factors make international reputation a low priority for political leaders in competitive autocracies?

That is a good question to which I would like to dedicate my next research. Contemporary comparative political science offers a variety of possible explanations. The following three appear to be the most likely ones. First, it becomes obvious that powerful western countries sometimes suffer from selective blindness and can prioritize their geopolitical interests over the protection of democracy. The second option is that linkage to the West is related to the economic nature of the given regime. A country with a more centralized economy that is not linked to the West does not have to really care about its international reputation with the West. That brings us to the last factor, which is China’s growing power and also the growing influence of other countries that do not really strive for spreading democracy in the international system. If those countries are your dominant commercial partner, they invest in you and are able to diplomatically support you when breaking human rights, you do not really have to rack your brain over your reputation with the West.

What are the key contributions your article brings to the field?

My research shows that intensive linkage to the West does not provide the opposition in competitive authoritarianism with effective protection from electoral repression and manipulation. In other words, it concludes that our views of political praxis after the end of the Cold War were overly optimistic in this sense. Furthermore, my research brings other possible explanations of why many democracies with high linkage to the ‘West’ in the last decade collapsed. Although the results of my research may appear to be pessimistic, I see them rather as an opportunity for the international community to take help to the opposition in competitive authoritarianism more seriously and thus help to twist the current global wave of autocratization.

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Article: J. Bílek (2021), Linkage to the West and Electoral Manipulation, Political Studies Review 2021

ABOUT

Jaroslav Bílek is a research fellow at the Department of Politics, University of Hradec Králové. His research interests cover electoral manipulation, authoritarian politics, democratization and civil-military relations

Questions and production: Eliza Kania, Brunel University London

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