Political Studies Review (PSR) provides a unique intellectual space for rigorous high-quality peer-reviewed original research across political science and the study of politics in related fields that aims at stimulating wide-ranging debate and cutting edge discussion of current disputes and issues in the discipline within the UK and internationally.
Political Studies Review:To give us a bit more context, how would you characterise the current political landscape and regime in Turkey?
Professor Tijen Demirel-Pegg and Professor Aaron Dusso: Although an ostensibly multi-party regime, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has held power since 2002. AKP’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, served as the Prime Minister of Turkey from 2003 to 2014 and has held the presidency since then. In 2017, President Erdoğan tightened his grip on power as a result of a constitutional referendum that changed the political system from a parliamentary to an executive presidential system with weak checks and balances
Your paper focused on the local elections of 23 June 2019. Why were these elections particularly relevant?
The annulment of the 31 March 2019 elections in Istanbul and the subsequently re-run 23 June 2019 elections is a blatant example of undemocratic behaviour by political leaders. We wanted to understand if voters cared about such a clear violation of democratic norms when casting their votes. When AKP’s incumbent for the mayor of Istanbul, Binali Yıldırım, lost the March elections to the opposition candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu, AKP refused to concede its defeat. Under the leadership of President Erdoğan, AKP challenged İmamoğlu’s narrow victory and pressured Turkey’s electoral authority to overturn the Istanbul elections, citing the inclusion of non-civil servants in supervisory committees at the polling booths. The electoral authority sided with AKP and called for a re-run of the Istanbul elections on 23 June 2019.
In 2017, President Erdoğan tightened his grip on power as a result of a constitutional referendum that changed the political system from a parliamentary to an executive presidential system with weak checks and balances.
You claim that the authoritarian shift in Turkey has been progressing for more than a decade. What is the timeframe of this shift and what were the major backslides from good democratic practices?
The first signs of democratic backsliding date back to the mid-2000s when the AKP government began to limit the freedom of the press. Over time, curtailments of civil liberties, further censorship of media outlets and tilting the playing field in favour of AKP candidates throughout election campaigns took a toll on the democratic system. Following a failed coup attempt in 2016, President Erdoğan declared an emergency law and purged thousands of military and administrative personnel from governmental bodies. After the referendum that changed Turkey’s political system to a presidential system, power has become almost exclusively concentrated in President Erdoğan’s hands. Media censorship, curtailment of civil liberties, and interference with judicial processes are ongoing, if not intensifying, and have tainted Turkish democracy significantly during AKP rule.
Could you tell us more about your research methodology?
A week after the 23 June elections, we administered an online survey of eligible voters in Istanbul. We used questions from the American National Elections Survey and European Social Survey and translated them into Turkish while also modifying them to the Turkish context. We analyzed the survey responses by using categorical data analysis (binomial and multinomial logit analyses.
How strongly have concerns for democracy been reflected in voting preferences in Turkey? Do these differ from the standard scholarly understanding of that topic?
Scholars have long established that partisanship, idealogy, and the economic context are the most reliable predictors of voting behaviour. Turkey is no exception to these findings. Scholars examining voting preferences in Turkey have also found that Turkish voters behave in a similar way to voters in other electoral contexts. Alternatively, democracy scholars have suggested that elections are one of the most important bulwarks of democracy, keeping leaders with authoritarian tendencies in check. Several scholars, such as Milan Svolik (2020) have shown that in a sharply polarized political context, voters are willing to turn a blind eye to democratic concerns and vote based on partisanship or personal interests. Given that AKP has won numerous elections since they came to power in 2002 while leading the country into a gradual democratic backsliding, concerns for democracy have not been a driving force for the majority of Turkish voters.
The popular narrative was perhaps too optimistic. Our analysis shows that partisanship, and not concerns for democracy, was the primary driving force behind İmamoğlu’s victory in the second round of Istanbul elections in June.
You write: “The popular narrative within and outside of Turkey often portrayed these elections as motivated by concerns about democratic backsliding after the nullification of the first election in March.” Were these narratives correct? What drives voters to challenge the AKP?
The popular narrative was perhaps too optimistic. Our analysis shows that partisanship, and not concerns for democracy, was the primary driving force behind İmamoğlu’s victory in the second round of Istanbul elections in June. Our study aligns with several scholars, such as Milan Svolik (2020), who have also suggested that elections are one of the major bulwarks of democracy, keeping authoritarian leaders in check. Our analysis shows that even in the context of a clear violation of democratic norms, voters cast their ballots based on their partisanship and not democratic concerns.
What are the key contributions your paper brings to the field?
Our study is one of the few individual-level analyses of the concern for democracy in a polarized, competitive authoritarian context. Our study shows that the assumption that elections are a reliable check against leaders who are willing to violate democratic norms may not necessarily hold. We also found that economic dissatisfaction was not an important driving factor in the June 2019 elections, even though Turkish citizens had already been feeling the negative effects of an economic recession at the time of the elections. The effects of economic dissatisfaction on voting behaviour require further research in polarized and semi-authoritarian countries.
Tijen Demirel-Pegg is an Associate Professor of Political Science at IUPUI. Her research interests focus on contentious politics, political violence, human rights, and authoritarian regimes, with an emphasis on dissident-state interactions.
Aaron Dussois an Associate Professor and Department Chair of Political Science at IUPUI. His work focuses primarily on the political psychology of electoral behaviour, with an emphasis on the Big Five personality traits, authoritarianism, civic aptitude, and correct voting.
“Candidate characteristics have an important impact on voter choice, and scandals are found to negatively impact a political campaign. Yet the literature, with its focus on scandals such as financial and (consensual) affairs, has failed to look into how allegations of sexual assault and harassment may impact electability” – claim Stephanie Stark and Sofía Collignon in their PSR article. Learn more about their research on sexual predators in the world of politics, in this research-based interview with one of the authors, Stephanie Stark.
PSR: How would you precisely define a problem of SASH (sexual assault and sexual harassment) in relation to power and powerful institutions?
Stephanie Stark: SASH are expressions of abusing power: it is most common amongst acquaintances where there is a power imbalance. This is especially true in the context of this study. In each of the recent high-profile cases in elections that are used in the study as examples, the politicians are necessarily in a position of power, and their accusers are not. Because we know that SASH are expressions of an abuse of power within a personal relationship, consequently, the question as to how a propensity to abuse power can translate to how voters perceive an accused candidate for public office is existentially relatable. It is particularly relatable in the context of the #MeToo movement, and the 2016 election wherein 19 women officially accused then-candidate Donald Trump of SASH, and as of December 2019, wherein President Trump was impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives for abusing the power of the office.
What were the “milestones” for an increased understanding of this problem? Can we say that the level of scepticism or disbelief towards claims of sexual abuse is continuously diminishing?
The understanding and perception of SASH in American public conversation has evolved throughout the last 70 years and it will likely continue to do so.
Women as property For much of American history, women’s bodies were white men’s legal property, and sexual violence was legally actionable only for men when their property (wives, sisters, and daughters) was damaged.
Sexual Revolution In the 1960s and 1970s, American women began to assert their own perspectives on the subject of sexual violence. It went from being thought of as a random attack by a stranger to women defining it as “a violent crime committed against millions of women by men they knew and trusted.” The increased awareness of SASH incited increased research.
However, the public’s understanding of sexual violence and women’s empowerment led to claims of sexual violence being regarded with increased skepticism in the 1970s (it had always had an air of mistrust because of the private nature of most encounters). The logic was that, because women were choosing to violate the norms of subordination to men, they also sacrificed their right to protection. Therefore, an empowered woman who claimed to be a victim of sexual violence generally was regarded as if she brought it upon herself because she had rejected men’s protection.
Anita Hill in the 1990s The prevalence of sexual violence is evident nowadays with victims reporting in increasing numbers new and historical accounts of SASH. It is common for women to reveal stories of SASH with the encouragement or corroboration of other victims. In the 1990s, there was a surge in reporting called the “Anita Hill effect” after a former staffer for Justice Clarence Thomas, Anita Hill, testified in the Justice’s confirmation hearings about his sexual harassment.
MeToo The present-day surge in reporting can be tracked to the “#MeToo movement” that motivated women around the world to share their own experiences
In your article, you mention a “rape myth acceptance” – could you elaborate on this category? Are there any other common beliefs or myths that can be considered contributing factors to cycles of harassment, misconduct, and abuse of women by men in power?
Rape myth acceptance explains the reaction to accusations of SASH, and I don’t know its relationship with a propensity to be a perpetrator. Rape myth acceptance is confirmed in the literature as the level of willingness a person may have to disbelieve a victim’s story, or “the amount of stereotypic ideas people have about rape, such as that women falsely accuse men of rape, rape is not harmful, women want or enjoy rape, or women cause or deserve rape by inappropriate or risky behavior”.
In the 1960s and 1970s, American women began to assert their own perspectives on the subject of sexual violence. It went from being thought of as a random attack by a stranger to women defining it as “a violent crime committed against millions of women by men they knew and trusted.”
You mention various politicians accused of sexual abuse in the US. Some of them were able to avoid any repercussions. What about Joe Biden? In March 2020, Tara Reade, a former staffer in Biden’s U.S. Senate office, alleged that Joe Biden sexually assaulted her in 1993 when she was a staff assistant in his office. President Biden denied these allegations, but what were public perceptions of this accusation?
This is a good question. What our research finds is that 1) Democrats are more likely than Republicans, male or female, to NOT want to vote for a candidate that has been accused of SASH. This means that there were likely some people who chose not to vote for Biden because of the accusation. The research also finds that we need more women like Tara to speak out in order for us to be able to study this topic further. The #MeToo movement allowed women to feel more comfortable speaking out about SASH, which enables us to be able to study it at all. What I mean to say here is that it is worth studying more angles to the scenario. The Tara Reade accusation begs the question: What happens in the electorate when both candidates for office have been accused of SASH? I would imagine, some people may have chosen not to vote at all because both candidates had been accused, contributing to a weakening of our democratic systems and our trust and value in democracy.
You claim that scandals “have a markedly negative impact on voters’ judgment of the candidate”. Is that also the case in relation to sexual scandals? Are we able to determine how reactions differ among particular groups of electorates or particular political parties?
It’s important to note that this study measured SASH, and shouldn’t be put in the same category as sexual scandals, because the former is a crime, and the latter is a consensual experience.
There have been many studies about how scandals, including sex scandals, impact public perception. Those studies informed our research but our study was the first that made the distinction that they should be considered differently because after the #MeToo movement, we’re more aware of what SASH IS. Scandals like financial scandals and sex scandals and corruption scandals are found to negatively impact voters’ judgments, but their judgement is tied to how they see the scandal impacting the JOB of holding public office. So the significance there and relation there to our study is that when people see SASH as a character marker of someone who would abuse power, they relate it to that candidate’s ability to do the job with integrity.
We looked at reactions based on age, gender, political affiliation, race and region of the US, and included in our results only the answers about age, gender and political affiliation. Democrats are more likely to change their mind about a candidate that has been accused of SASH than Republicans. There is no difference when it comes to age: or in other words, we couldn’t find a trend saying young people care more than older people.
Surprisingly there was no significant difference between genders. I will elaborate on that more in the next question
What our research finds is that Democrats are more likely than Republicans, male or female, to NOT want to vote for a candidate that has been accused of SASH.
You’ve conducted very important research on this topic. What are the most important findings?
Thank you. I had hypothesized that women would be more likely than men to change their opinion about a candidate for office that had been accused, but one of my most important findings was that there was not a significant difference between men’s and women’s reactions. In fact, Democratic men are more likely to vote for a candidate that has been accused of SASH than Republican women. Democrats see an allegation of SASH as an abuse of power, and thus they relate it to a propensity to abuse the power of public office. Republicans, though, are more likely to not believe an accusation, and therefore they don’t relate it to a factor that should be considered in how they are judging the candidate.
Second, it bothers me to my core that people actually think that women make accusations about SASH to “get attention” as if the kind of attention they receive is desirable. I want people to understand that SASH accusations should be taken seriously because they show who that person is. We need to believe women. I want women to know that we need their stories in order to be able to research this more and that when we can research it more, we will be able to make more informed choices about who our leaders are based on their integrity.
What are the key contributions your article brings to the field?
Our research opens the door to viewing SASH allegations as a legitimate act that is worth taking seriously as a barometer for the character. We contributed to the study of harassment and intimidation of women by showing that some sectors of the population are more likely to believe in allegations at face value than others. It requires courage to speak out about such incidents, particularly when they are oftentimes not believed and/or the perpetrator is allowed to continue to progress in their career. When this happens, it adds to a cycle of victimization and injustice.
Stephanie Stark obtained her Master’s in Media, Power and Public Affairs from the Department of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London (2018). She is a digital communications strategist who has been advising on and creating digital media campaigns for non-profit organizations, political campaigns and elected officials in New York and London for a decade.
Dr Sofia Collignonis a Lecturer in Political Communication at the Department of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is Co Investigator in the ESCR-funded Representative Audit of Britain project, part of Parliamentary Candidates UK and Principal Investigator in the Survey of Local Candidates in England. Her main research focuses on include the study of candidates, elections and parties, in particular on the harassment and intimidation of political elites and violence against women in politics.
Academics should defend their colleagues against attacks on their academic freedom, even if they strongly disagree with the views expressed. And academic freedom should be protected by privileges similar to parliamentary immunity. Prof. Colin Wight explains his approach to academic freedom – a complex category, full of nuances and controversial issues, but fundamental for democracy. A fuller analysis of these issues can be found in Prof. Wight’s PSR article: Critical Dogmatism: Academic Freedom Confronts Moral and Epistemological Certainty
PSR: How would you define academic freedom?
My definition is quite traditional. Put simply, I define academic freedom as the “freedom of academics (including students) to teach, study, and pursue knowledge and research without unreasonable interference or restriction from the law, institutional regulations, or public pressure.” Defined this way, it is a particular kind of freedom (and responsibility) that academics possess in virtue of being academics. Hence, it is a form of freedom that not every member of society can call upon. This is why, as we will discuss later, I insist on distinguishing between free speech and academic freedom. In societies committed to free speech (and some aren’t), every member of that society has free speech protections. Only academics (and students) have protections pertaining to academic freedom. It only applies to the university sector. So it should be something that is highly valued and protected by all academics. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case today.
You claim that it is “one of the necessary components of a democratic society”. Why so, and what is the role of universities according to the principle of academic freedom?
Thomas Jefferson argued that a well-informed electorate is a prerequisite to democracy. Citizens need to be educated enough to assess the political arguments they are being asked to vote for. Universities play a role in educating the electorate, but they also play many other roles. One of their primary functions concerning academic freedom is to produce, preserve and protect knowledge in society, which can then inform public debate on complex issues. However, I want to stress the ‘inform’ here, as scientific knowledge cannot determine policy. It can provide a framework for considering the consequences of different policy options, but politics and values matter just as much in public debate.
But in complex and information-saturated societies, knowledge is vital for democracy. Citizens today are bombarded with information and misinformation, and they need trust in institutions to set out the facts in a non-partisan way. Science, produced in Universities is meant to provide that knowledge. Unfortunately, trust in almost all social institutions seems to be in decline, the university included. I fear that the politicisation of knowledge in the Covid-19 crisis is only accelerating that trend.
How one can misunderstand this concept? How would you differentiate between academic freedom, free speech and hate speech?
Let me admit first that I have a problem with the concept of hate speech. I don’t deny that it exists, but I believe that it’s such a subjective concept that it’s almost impossible to define in a way that can inform policy without also introducing harms in other areas. That said, if societies want to declare certain kinds of speech to be hate speech, then the appropriate way to determine that is through public debate. As a democrat, if the majority decide to ban certain kinds of speech as ‘hate speech, I’ll respect that decision, even though I might disagree with it. My view is even more radical in relation to societies I am not a member of. Hence, although I abhor blasphemy laws, I recognise the right of Islamic Societies, for example, to have laws against blasphemy.
But in complex and information-saturated societies, knowledge is vital for democracy. Citizens today are bombarded with information and misinformation, and they need trust in institutions to set out the facts in a non-partisan way. Science, produced in Universities is meant to provide that knowledge.
But laws against hate speech can end up being limits on free speech. There are always some limits on free speech, the question is, what those limits should be? This indicates something important about how I distinguish between free speech and academic freedom. Free speech is really a question of a society deciding what speech it should restrict to protect that society from harm caused by certain kinds of speech. Societies have the right to make that determination. They have a right to determine what limits they deem necessary to place on free speech to protect society.
On the other hand, the purpose of academic freedom is not to protect society, but to protect the truth. Truth has no national or social boundaries. Thus the only limits I would put on academic freedom, are the incitement to violence. Violence is no friend of truth either. If I was the supreme leader of my society, I’d apply that same standard to free speech as well. Still, since I’m not, I have to accept society’s right to set free speech limits. So we have a situation where I recognise the rights of societies to limit free speech, but I reject any limits (apart from inciting violence) on academic freedom. Societies have national boundaries, truth does not. And since academic freedom is about the production and protection of truth, it has no national boundaries. So state laws relating to free speech and hate speech should have no impact on academic freedom. This is why I argue that academic freedom is a higher-order value than free speech.
Can academic freedom be exercised, avoiding the risk of spreading (or even legitimising) racial, ethnic, sexist, or homophobic biases within academia? Are there any limits to academic freedom?
No, probably not. In contentious areas involving these and other subjects, it’s going to be impossible to escape the fact that we will find some arguments deeply distasteful. But the way to deal with opinions you disagree with in an academic setting is to engage with them and demonstrate where they go wrong. History teaches us that societies have often believed in things that have turned out to be wrong (slavery, the treatment of women, or theories of racial superiority, for example). We have no grounds to believe that some of our current beliefs won’t also turn out to also be wrong. I find moral and epistemological certainty to be dangerous positions. They assume that we have reached absolute truth about some moral or epistemological position. This kind of thinking leads to totalitarianism, and since we accept some societal limits on free speech, we need a place to test all ideas; that’s the academy. The only limitations I would place on academic freedom are clear incitement to violence.
What is the view(s) of truth linked to this concept? Are there any disagreements? Is it connected to the idea of post-truth?
Given that I believe that the role of academic freedom is to protect the pursuance of truth, we must understand what I mean by that term. I operate with two interconnected versions of truth. Technically, these can be understood as an ontological version, which is a truth that exists independent of whether it is known or not, and an epistemological account of truth which is known truth; or a better way to phrase that might be as accepted truth. Ontological truth is totally objective. It exists as it does irrespective of if it is known or not. Epistemological truth, on the other hand, is always approximate, and always subject to revision. To give an example of the former (ontological truth). Something happened to Flight MH370, the Malaysia Airlines aircraft that disappeared on 8 March 2014 while flying from Kuala Lumpur International Airport to Beijing.
We do not know what happened, but something clearly did. This is a truth that exists but which is unknown. We do, however, have many theories about what happened. Still, we do not know which one most accurately captures what happened. We may never know. But still, something happened, and we hope that one day with better theories and more evidence we might come to know what happened. This is why I distinguish between the two kinds of truth. The way we assess the relationship between actual truth and accepted truth in science is based on evidence and debate.
A quote from Vaclav Havel captures this dynamic well: “Keep the company of those that seek the truth – run from those that have found it”.
Given the difficulties we have knowing when our human-constructed version of the truth has captured, and to what extent, the truth of the phenomenon we are studying, then I embrace what is known as a Nietzschean perspectivism method of approaching the truth. That is to say that the more perspectives, views and opinions we bring to bear on a subject, the more likely our objectivity will be enhanced. And this is why academic freedom is so important. A group of scientists might think they have reached epistemological certainty on an issue. But we literally have no way of stepping outside of our current stock of knowledge to compare it with the truth of the world.
Our truth is a constructed truth. But the non constructed truth remains. And one lone dissenting voice in the academic community might just reveal something to us that improves our understanding, our version of the truth. So we need to protect the space where these lone dissenting voices might emerge, however much they might contradict the dominant accepted understanding. That is why I believe that epistemological (and moral) certainty are dangerous. It assumes we know with absolute certainty that our current account of some phenomenon’s truth absolutely matches the ontological truth of the phenomenon. Now, how does this relate to post-truth? It seems to me that a large part of the modern academy has actually given up on the idea of ontological (objective) truth. What happens in this instance is that all we are left with is our epistemological version of the truth, which, since it is no longer trying to grasp a truth independent of us, simply becomes true by virtue of those with the most power to make it stick. Thus truth becomes a function of power and has no existence in and of itself. A quote from Vaclav Havel captures this dynamic well: “Keep the company of those that seek the truth – run from those that have found it”.
What are the significant dangers to academic freedom today?
There are many significant threats to academic freedom today. Some come from outside the university and some from within. Although, in many respects, external threats can have an internal aspect to them, and the internal threats can become externalised. Externally, perhaps the most significant threats are increased government interference in Universities and a lack of adequate funding. Government interference can be both explicit and implicit. For example, in Poland, the Government threatened to withdraw government funding from Universities due to a dispute over abortion policy. This was a direct attack on academic freedom. But also in Hungary, the closing down of universities believed to be critical of government policy, the closing down of certain courses and subjects, and government takeover of control of some universities are all attacks on academic freedom. But even in democracies such as Australia, Government attempts to control what research is funded are attacks on academic freedom. Often this works in less insidious ways that we have seen in Poland and Hungary. A good example here is how governments will set strategic research priorities. Only research that meets these priorities will receive funding. Here in Australia, government fuding for research is tied to a national interest test.. This means that academic staff will often change their research projects to chase the funding, which, of course, is linked to their promotion prospects. Other threats come from managerial practices such as university league tables that ensure that universities steer their staff to undertake teaching and research activities that will boost the league tables’ rankings. In this sense, academics’ autonomy to research and teach in their own way is continually being undermined.
In many respects, the structural context driving this is the lack of adequate funding from governments for Universities. But some of the biggest threats to academic freedom today come from within the universities themselves, and from academic themselves. There has been an increasing trend for academics to attempt to shut down views they disagree with. Open letters denouncing research that is disagreed with or deemed to be harmful are now becoming, if not the norm, common occurrences. Speaker is getting de-platformed, and some issues are said to be beyond debate. That some academics are engaging in this kind of behaviour rather than defending academic freedom is perhaps the biggest threat to academic freedom today. After all, if academics won’t defend academic freedom, then who will?
What are the significant dangers to academic freedom today?
In many respects, the structural context driving this is the lack of adequate funding from governments for Universities. But some of the biggest threats to academic freedom today come from within the universities themselves, and from academic themselves. There has been an increasing trend for academics to attempt to shut down views they disagree with. Open letters denouncing research that is disagreed with or deemed to be harmful are now becoming, if not the norm, common occurrences. Speaker are getting de-platformed, and some issues are said to be beyond debate. That some academics are engaging in this kind of behaviour rather than defending academic freedom is perhaps the biggest threat to academic freedom today. After all, if academics won’t defend academic freedom, then who will?
What are the key contributions your article brings to the field?
I would like readers of my article to takeaway the following main points: First, that academic freedom is a higher-order value than free speech. As such, any restriction on academic freedom must reach a much higher bar than free speech restrictions. Hence I would like to see academic freedom globally protected from state restrictions on free speech. So hate speech laws should not apply to academics in the conduct of their research and teaching. In the article, I suggest that academics enjoy something equivalent to parliamentary privilege related to their research. Public comment is different. But academic freedom should be almost absolute apart from the incitement to violence. Second, I think academics must defend their colleagues against attacks on their academic freedom from other academics. And in particular, they should do so even when they might vehemently disagree with the views being expressed. Academic freedom requires all academics to dispute controversial ideas by engaging with them, responding to them, martial the evidence, showing where they are wrong, and not merely acting in ways to shut debate down. Finally, academics need to recover their belief in ontological truth. The Idea that there is a truth we are attempting to discover, even if we ultimately fail. For we cannot know that we have failed unless we try. And we can not begin a journey in search of truth if we do not believe such a place exists. We do not have a map that will guide us to truth, but we have to think the journey is worth embarking on
Colin Wight is Professor of International Relations at the University of Sydney, Australia. His research interests are the philosophy of social science and political violence. He served as the Editor-in-Chief of the European Journal of International Relations from 2008 to 2013. Publications include Agents, Structures and International Relations: Politics as Ontology (Cambridge University Press, 2006), Rethinking Terrorism: Terrorism, Violence and the State (Palgrave, 2015), Scientific Realism in International Relations, edited with Jonathan Joseph (Routledge, 2010) and Realism, Philosophy and Social Science, co-authored with Kathryn Dean, Jonathan Joseph, and John Roberts. He is currently completing a book on Fragmentation and Pluralism in International Relations Theory.
“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 Bílek‘s 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.
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
“MRP is a model-based technique, so if you have a really poor model of the opinion you’re examining, that’s going to hurt you” – claims Prof. Hanretty. “Hopefully, everyone using MRP will have at least some substantive knowledge of the demographic and geographic determinants of public opinion” – he adds. In this interview, the author explains complexities, the potential and flaws of multilevel regression and post-stratification. A fuller analysis of this emerging technique can be found in Prof. Hannerty’s PSR article.
Political Studies Review: How would you describe the basic idea behind multilevel regression and post-stratification (MRP) technique?
Chris Hanretty: There are two basic steps in MRP: (1) you learn about voter opinions from a large national sample, and in particular, the opinions of certain types of voters; (2) and you go look up other sources of information (often a census or something similar) to find out how many voters of each type there are in each area. If I know (on the basis of my national sample and some model) that 55-64-year-old men with a high school education are very likely to vote Conservative, and if I know how many such men there are in a particular seat, then that gets me part of the way to understanding how that seat as a whole will vote. I just need to repeat the exercise for all the different voter types implicit in my model.
That’s the idea in a nutshell. In practice, it’s more complicated, and often a lot of the added value comes not from knowing information about individual voter types, but information about the types of the area they live in. The single best predictor of Conservative vote share in a seat is the Conservative vote share in the last election. MRP really benefits from having these predictors alongside demographic predictors, but I lead with the demographic picture because that’s much more intuitive.
You wrote that MRP has been developing for the past 15–20 years. It has made it possible to pose and answer questions related to public opinion in small areas that have not been possible before. How was this method popularised, and what influenced its development? Is it becoming a prevalent statistical technique?
I think Andrew Gelman at Columbia has been an outstanding popularizer of MRP. I think technical and software developments have always played their part. There are now a lot more packages which allow researchers to estimate multilevel models of the kind used in MRP.
The major benefit of MRP seems that it allows avoiding the need for surveys at a sub-regional level. Are there any other benefits?
For me, it’s hard to see past that benefit. If you want to know about constituency opinion in the UK, it’d be impossible to field a standard 1,000 person survey in all those seats. No company has that polling capacity. Maybe for some contexts – say, US states – you could think about conducting state polls and aggregating those. But then you’d have to think about varying dates of fieldwork, different weighting targets in those states – urgh, it makes me shudder to think of it.
What are the possible limitations of this method?
MRP is a model-based technique, so if you have a really poor model of the opinion you’re examining, that’s going to hurt you. Hopefully, everyone using MRP will have at least some substantive knowledge of the demographic and geographic determinants of public opinion.
Maybe for some contexts – say, US states – you could think about conducting state polls and aggregating those. But then you’d have to think about varying dates of fieldwork, different weighting targets in those states – urgh, it makes me shudder to think of it.
Another limitation is that you might not always have the post-stratification data you need. You might want to create estimates just for adult citizens, but your national census office might only release breakdowns for the adult population. There’s often a tension between what you want to include in the model and what’s available from official statistics.
What are other contributions your article brings to the field you’d like to highlight?
I’m just happy to have some code out there which takes people through the whole process. Written descriptions of procedures in peer-reviewed journals are obviously important, but additional documented code is the cherry on the cake!