Tilting the Playing Field: The Modular Appeal of Competitive Authoritarianism

Charles Larratt-Smith, Global Education MagazineCharles Larratt-Smith

Vice President of Latin American Affairs for the The Peace by Piece Initiative, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to dialogue on sensitive issues of local and global scope. PhD Student, University of Toronto, Department of Political Science

 e-mail: c.larratt.smith@mail.utoronto.ca   web: www.thepeacebypieceinitiative.com


Abstract: In this article I examine the recent elections found in six competitive authoritarian, ‘semi-democratic’ countries: Armenia, Kenya, Venezuela, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Zimbabwe. All of these countries are quite different, however they all produced similar electoral contests with disputed results. Much of the contemporary literature on the topic focuses on the domestic factors that enable these competitive authoritarian regimes to stay in power, however I focus on the global ontology, or the character of the world as it actually is, and how it has proved to be very conducive to this type of political system over the past decade.

Keywords: Armenia, Kenya, Venezuela, Malaysia, Cambodia, Zimbabwe, Competitive Authoritarianism, Democracy, Democratic Transition, Contentious Politics, International Relations.



In the dying days of August, two of the longest serving heads of state on the planet, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, competed in executive elections where each man had every conceivable incumbent advantage working to his benefit. Despite the vastly different geopolitical and cultural contexts, the Cambodian and Zimbabwean electoral contests played out quite similarly, with overwhelmed opposition candidates publicly stating prior to voting day that they could not possibly hope to win due to the official collusion of the entire state apparatus in the ruling candidates favor. Unsurprisingly, both leaders trounced to victory amidst allegations of widespread irregularities and electoral fraud, many of which were corroborated by domestic and international observers alike.

While the post-election controversy rages on in Phnom Penh and Harare, the international community has either accepted or rejected the results and moved on. After all, the questionable campaigns and elections that transpired in Cambodia and Zimbabwe are merely two among many that have generated considerable controversy this year, with 2013 shaping up to be a banner year for competitive authoritarian systems across the world. To date, there have been similarly flawed polls held this year in Armenia, Venezuela, Kenya, and Malaysia, while elections in similarly precarious regimes like Madagascar, Azerbaijan, and the Maldives are slated for later this year, thus begging the question: where did the ebullient Western democracy promotion project of the 1990s go wrong? 

Instead the most modular model of governance for developing countries is increasingly a system that is neither purely democratic nor completely authoritarian. This model has been labeled as ‘illiberal democracy’ or ‘electoral authoritarianism’ in the past, yet regardless of the title these regimes comprise almost one-third of all existing governments found across the globe. According to Freedom House’s annual Freedom In The World Report, some 30% of states can be classified as ‘partly free’, with another 24% ‘not free’, leaving less than one-half of all nations meeting the necessary requirements to be considered ‘free’. While these numbers represent an improvement from twenty years ago, they have actually remained almost completely static over the past decade, suggesting that the post-Cold War march to democratization tapered off in the first years of the new millennium. (Freedom House, 2013) 

This article will examine the recent elections in Armenia, Venezuela, Kenya, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Zimbabwe as a microcosm of a larger phenomenon: the persistence and proliferation of competitive authoritarian systems in the current global context. Building on the body of literature that focuses on competitive authoritarianism, I analyze how and why the shift in the international dynamic that occurred in the early 2000s has subsequently lowered the cost of competitive authoritarian entrenchment worldwide. 

Building on the Foundations

During the heady global optimism of the 1990s, Fareed Zakaria observed that while many former Cold War era dictatorships were finally democratizing, they were not successfully transitioning to the liberal constitutional model, rather to a non-constitutional ‘illiberal’ form of democratic governance. By adopting all the trappings of a democratic system, these regimes were merely adapting to the ontology of the day, one which placed considerable pressures on non-democratic states. Or as Zakaria notes, ‘Illiberal democracies gain legitimacy, and thus strength, from the fact that they are reasonably democratic.’ (Zakaria, 1997) ¶ In their seminal 2002 article on competitive authoritarianism, Levitsky and Way disaggregated these semi-democratic regimes and provided a clearer definition. According to them, modern democratic systems meet four basic criteria: 1) executive and legislatures are chosen through open, free, and fair elections; 2) universal suffrage; 3) protection of political rights and civil liberties; and 4) elected authorities possess real authority to govern (not subject to tutelary control by another unelected group). Competitive authoritarian regimes, argue Levitsky and Way, are characterized by frequent and serious violations of these four conditions which in turn lead to a highly uneven political playing field between the incumbent and opposition. Yet the former lacks the power to completely negate the latter of all means of contestation, hence the persistence of democratic forms of discourse in these polities. (Levitsky & Way, 2002)

Shifting Ontologies, Increased Acceptance & Entrenchment

The decade of Western liberal hegemony following the end of the Cold War was a time when even historically antagonistic global powers such as Russia were at the mercy of international financial institutions and Western policy makers. Other non-democratic regimes were placed under equal pressure to liberalize both politically and economically, and many of these either succumbed due to the need for international acceptance and access to global capital, or to simply stave off revolution at home. Yet due to the complex intricacies of establishing and sustaining a liberal democratic regime, many of these states in transition never quite moved past the initial steps of creating the requisite political infrastructure and staging regular elections. Conversely, many states which had experienced democratization at an earlier stage found their political systems in a state of decay by the end of the 20th century as a result of their increased vulnerability to the global economy.

The shift in ontology at the dawn of the 21st century created an international environment that was more conducive to competitive authoritarian transition and entrenchment due to the new paradigm caused by the events of September 11th, the intensification of global economic and diplomatic competition, and the failure of liberal economic orthodoxy in various regions of the world. International factors play an instrumental role in shaping and sustaining various forms of statecraft and this type of political system is no different. To borrow from Peter Gourevitch, ‘Instead of being a cause of international politics, domestic structure may be a consequence of it.’ (Gourevitch, 1978)

The method of analysis employed here will compare the recent electoral contests in Armenia, Venezuela, Malaysia, Kenya, Cambodia, and Zimbabwe using the current ontology as a point of reference. An approach that focuses on the electoral process should prove useful given that the electoral arena is the first of four arenas of contestation highlighted by Levitsky and Way where the opposition can actually challenge an incumbent regime. The other three – the legislature, the judiciary, and the media – are indirectly involved in the process of staging elections, as the judiciary is often called in to assess and rule on questionable results by the opposition, while the media is instrumental in incumbent efforts to get out the vote. Legislatures may or may not be involved in the process depending on the degree of opposition representation in said institution. All in all, the electoral arena serves as an excellent point of analysis to observe a competitive authoritarian regime due to the overlap between all four arenas of contestation.

Armenia: Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place

In the lead up to the Armenian presidential election on February 15th, the incumbent Serzh Sargsyan of the Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) emerged as the only viable choice on the ballot after four other prospective candidates dropped out of the race, one of whom was shot in an assassination attempt, while another cited electoral fraud and commenced a hunger strike in protest. The only opposition candidate left was the popular and unconventional ex-foreign minister, Raffi Hovanessian, who despite running a surprisingly effective campaign on the Heritage Party’s ticket, only garnered 37% of the popular vote compared to Sargsyan’s 59%. The runner-up immediately announced that he had in fact won the poll and commenced his own hunger strike in protest at the ‘stolen election’, demanding an electoral repeat and an overhaul of the national electoral commission.

International observers, most notably the contingent from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), congratulated the Armenian people for avoiding the violence that marred the equally controversial 2008 poll in which ten people were killed in post-election violence. The European observers hesitated to proclaim wholesale fraud, however they did raise concerns with the ruling party’s use of state resources for campaigning purposes, inequitable access to media, implausibly high voter turnout at polling stations in Sargsyan strongholds, voter list manipulation, and a lack of impartiality on the part of the public administration. Despite these serious charges, the national electoral commission certified the result and said that it found no evidence of wrongdoing or legal violations during the election and Hovanessian’s subsequent appeal to the Constitutional Court was also rejected. Sargsyan received immediate congratulatory messages from the Russian, Chinese, and American governments for his electoral triumph, although expectedly the latter did raise concerns over the misuse of state resources during the campaign.

Since the HHK became the kingmaker in Armenian politics in 2003, the country’s political rights have declined, while modest civil liberties and press freedoms have remained almost static (see Tables I & II). During Serzh Sargsyan’s first term in office, he cultivated and fostered important diplomatic relationships to satisfy security prerogatives directly related to the unresolved conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh and the ongoing hostility with Turkey as well. Armenia hosts one of Russia’s biggest foreign military bases, offsetting a longstanding OSCE arms embargo against it, yet during President Sargsyan’s first term he also strengthened his country’s ties with NATO and for the most part upheld international sanctions against neighboring Iran, despite the extensive opportunity costs to the Armenian economy.

Kenya: In the Shadow of 2007

The disputed 2007 Kenyan presidential elections between Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga generated an estimated 1200 deaths and hundreds of thousands of internal refugees. Hence, the international community watched the most recent contest on March 4th with great concern, as Odinga was again running as the chief opposition candidate, although this time he was facing off against Kibaki’s former deputy prime minister, Uhuru Kenyatta, scion to one of Kenya’s largest political dynasties. Kenyatta first challenged Kibaki in the 2003 presidential elections and then went to work for him after losing the poll, as he and his deputy president are currently defendants in a highly publicized International Criminal Court trial for their roles as ‘co-perpetrators’ in the 2007 post-election violence.

The electoral contest in early March passed without any unrest, with Kenyatta garnering 50.07% to Odinga’s 43.28%, however the opposition candidate again claimed that the vote was rigged based on the 8000 votes that apparently put his challenger over the fifty percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff. The African Union observer mission proclaimed the contest was conducted in a free and fair manner, while other international missions from the EU, the Carter Center, and the African Great Lakes Initiative noted relative improvements over 2007, but also stated that the poll produced numerous irregularities such as technological issues with electronic voting equipment and a lack of transparency in the tallying of the votes. However, the Independent Electoral and Border Commission declared Kenyatta the victor some five days later, as did the Supreme Court on March 30th, which admitted that the process was fair if not ‘perfect’. China immediately recognized the result with the EU eventually following suit, although the United States only certified Kenyatta’s victory one month after the actual election, backtracking on pre-election threats of trade sanctions due to concerns with the ICC charges against the president-elect.

The perception that Kenya would widen and deepen its democratic practices after the retirement of long serving President Daniel Arap Moi in 2002 proved to be illusory. Freedom of the press has improved modestly, however political rights and civil liberties have remained constant over the past decade with little to no substantial improvements. Despite the transition of power between rivals in 2003, the political trajectory of President Kenyatta is indicative of the current state of the Kenyan polity: access to power is less about partisan allegiances and voter appeal than domestic and transnational elite linkages and ethnic mobilization.

 Table I: Democracy, Political Rights, & Civil Liberties

Freedom House Index2 Armenia Malaysia Cambodia Zimbabwe Kenya Venezuela
2013 Freedom Rating 4.5 4.0 5.5 6.0 4.0 5.0
2013 Civil Liberties 4.0 4.0 5.0 6.0 4.0 5.0
2013 Political Rights 5.0 4.0 6.0 6.0 4.0 5.0
2003 Freedom Rating 4.0 5.0 5.5 6.0 4.0 3.5
2013 Civil Liberties 4.0 5.0 5.0 6.0 4.0 4.0
2013 Political Rights 4.0 5.0 6.0 6.0 4.0 3.0

Source: Freedom House, 2003 & 2013 Freedom In The World Indices

Venezuela: The Bolivarian Succession

When Hugo Chávez died on March 5th, the charismatic former coronel left behind a more equitable and polarized society, albeit one encumbered with serious problems. A snap election was called for April 14th and the late Venezuelan president’s handpicked successor, former foreign minister Nicolas Máduro, ran as the ruling party Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) candidate. His chief opponent was the governor of Miranda state, Henrique Capriles, who had also lost the previous presidential race against Chávez last October. As the polls were counted late into the night, the National Electoral Council finally announced that Maduro had won a narrow victory over Capriles, 50.6% to 49.1%, a result which the opposition coalition, the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática(MUD), steadfastly refused to accept, citing widespread irregularities while demanding a full recount of the vote.

The election was monitored by numerous international missions representing over 170 countries, and regional bodies such as the OAS and UNASUR supported the result, while encouraging a dialogue between the government and opposition to prevent any further post-election violence, which had claimed seven lives in the days following the contested poll. The opposition declared that it had received numerous reports of irregularities from voting centers across the country and would only accept the result if the National Electoral Council (CNE) conducted a full and transparent recount, a demand that was eventually agreed to by the electoral body, but only after Nicolas Máduro was formally inaugurated on April 19th. The formal recount was concluded in early June and certified the initial result. A last resort appeal to the Venezuelan Supreme Court (TSJ) by the opposition was similarly rejected in early August, as it too upheld the official CNE tally. Yet two reports from different international observer missions – the Spanish Instituto de Altos Estudios Europeos and the US-based Carter Center – emerged in the aftermath of April’s poll that have outlined the numerous electoral irregularities they witnessed on election day. These include the widespread abuse of state resources by the ruling party during the campaign, voter intimidation, and various attempts at multiple voting by individual citizens. Following the announcement of the result, the Chinese and Russian governments were quick to congratulate the new Venezuelan president-elect, joining all of Nicolas Máduro’s fellow Latin American heads of state, yet the United States remained publicly skeptical of the result and refused to accept it, a position which has not since changed.

Over the past ten years, the level of press freedom has declined substantially in Venezuela, as have political rights and civil liberties.Under former President Chávez, Venezuela became not only the largest critic of the United States and neoliberalism in the region, but arguably in the entire world. Despite this regression of bilateral relations, Venezuela and the United States have remained major trading partners, with the latter serving as the principal market for the former’s oil exports. During this time, the Venezuelan government has established stronger ties with Russia, China, and other revisionist states such as Iran. But most importantly, Venezuela has spearheaded the drive for a greater regional integration between all the countries found in Latin America and the Caribbean, bolstering its standing in the region.

Malaysia: Inching Towards Bipolarity

Having governed Malaysia without interruption since 1957, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) appeared poised for a historic defeat on May 5th, when it appeared the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN) led by incumbent Prime Minister Najib Razak, might lose the general elections for the first time in Malaysia’s history to the opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat (PR), headed by long-serving political firebrand and ex-political prisoner, Anwar Ibrahim. As the polls came in however, it emerged that UMNO’s electoral dominance would remain intact, with BN winning 133 out of a possible 222 seats in the national parliament giving the ruling party its thirteenth successive victory at the ballot box. With 85% percent voter turnout, the final result was underscored by the fact that Razak’s coalition lost the popular vote with 47% of the tally, yet somehow it ended up with 60% of seats in parliament. Anwar Ibrahim cried foul and refused to recognize the result as reports of numerous irregularities surfaced despite previous promises from the Prime Minster and the Elections Commission guaranteeing a fair process.

Early on the prospects for this appeared unlikely due to the Election Commission’s refusal to permit international observers access to monitor the process, save a handful of observers from ASEAN member states, who par for the course declared that the elections were carried out in a free and fair manner without any notable irregularities. In contrast, members of the opposition and numerous independent media sources highlighted among other things the poor quality of indelible ink – the first time it was used in a Malaysian election – which could be washed off almost immediately, early voting for servicemen and civil servants, state domination of media and repression of independent journalists, and perhaps most troubling of all, the mobilization by Barisan Nasional of foreign guest workers to vote in key constituencies. Even the Election Commission recognized these discrepancies, although this did not prevent it from immediately certifying the result and denying any instances of fraud. For its part, Pakatan Rakyat has brought a case against the Elections Commission before the High Court which is currently under review, accusing the elections body of gross incompetence, however international opinion has long since accepted the results and moved on, with both the United States and China accepting the result immediately following the poll in early May.

Subsequent protests labeled the ‘Blackout 505 Movement’ led by Anwar Ibrahim drew hundreds of thousands of disgruntled voters to the streets, however the Malaysian government responded by persecuting and jailing numerous opposition activists, underscoring the tenuous state of political rights and civil liberties in the country. While these have slightly improved over the course of the past ten years, the level of media freedom found in Malaysia has markedly dropped to a shockingly low standard. Yet Malaysia under Najib Razak has vastly improved bilateral relations with the United States, as two-way trade now totals some $49 billion annually and both leaders are pushing forward the proposed bi-regional free trade proposal for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP). Malaysia also hosts the South-East Regional Center for Counterterrorism (SEARCCT), which operates with the full support of the American government.

Table II Media & Information Freedom, Global Education Magazine

Cambodia: Realpolitik in Southeast Asia

Having participated in Cambodian politics since the introduction of democracy in 1992, opposition leader Sam Rainsy has since competed in numerous fraudulent electoral contests and is intimately familiar himself with how President Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) govern. He only returned to his native country from self-imposed exile in France ten days prior to the election on July 29th, and was only able to do so due to a timely royal pardon for a politically motivated 10-year sentence passed against him three years prior in absentia. Despite the fact that the incumbent looked weaker and more vulnerable to electoral defeat than ever before, Rainsy’s predictions were fulfilled on election day as Hun Sen and the CPP claimed victory with 68 out of a possible 123 seats, a result disputed by the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party, who insist that the true tally saw them win a close poll 63 to 60.

Election observers from regional body ASEAN expressed satisfaction at the process, however other international election monitors from the EU and the United States claimed that despite previously monitoring the 2008 poll, this time they were not invited to participate at all. Western NGOs Human Rights Watch and Transparency International ruled that the poll was heavily manipulated in favor of the CCP, listing multiple irregularities such as unequal access to media, voter intimidation by the security forces, faulty indelible ink, manipulation of voter lists, and the lack of impartiality of the national electoral commission. The National Election Committee (NEC) stated that it had not found any voting irregularities on election day, despite earlier accusations by the opposition in May that up to one million people were missing from the electoral register. Regardless, the NEC recently confirmed the result on August 12th, leaving the opposition demanding an investigation by an impartial and independent committee. China and Vietnam instantly congratulated Prime Minister Sen on his re-election, as did the United States, although this acceptance was accompanied by the usual concern regarding the numerous irregularities which surfaced during the campaign and election.

Cambodia has managed to stabilize after the trauma it endured in the 1970s and 1980s, however it has been less successful at establishing political infrastructure that upholds democratic values and basic human rights. For the past decade, political rights and civil liberties in Cambodia have remained at a consistently low standard while freedom of the press has deteriorated notably. Meanwhile, Cambodia has recently witnessed a geopolitical realignment of sorts, as even though it still maintains decent, if not robust relations with neighboring Vietnam and the United States, Hun Sen has dramatically increased ties with China, not only economically but diplomatically as well.For example, at the 2012 ASEAN summit held in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian government blocked the drafting of a joint communiqué that condemned Chinese actions against Vietnam in disputed areas of the South China Sea. Currently one of the fastest growing economies in the region, it appears that Cambodia has pegged its future prosperity to China while the United States has attempted to counter this by inviting Vietnam into the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, leaving China and Cambodia in the cold.

Zimbabwe: Summer of the Patriarch

On July 31st, the 89 year-old former freedom fighter and President of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe went to the polls to compete in yet another contest on his mandate and similar to the violent 2008 electoral cycle, the incumbent was again facing opposition leader and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). The buildup to this contest was equally, if not more skewed in the ruling party ZANU-PF’s favor than the previous election, where a first round victory by the MDC provoked a vicious campaign of official repression by ZANU-PF and the military against the opposition. This time the incumbent received 61% of the vote compared to Tsvangirai’s 34%, according to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), while ZANU-PF won some two-thirds of the available seats in the legislature. For his part, the opposition leader again accused Mugabe of massive vote rigging and refused to accept the result.

The main international observers monitoring the election were regional entities due to the prohibition of Western observers, as both the African Union (AU) and the South African Development Community missions certified the result and declared the process to have been free and fair. In contrast, the locally based Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) had thousands of observers on the ground and subsequently cited numerous irregularities during the process, ranging from the state’s domination over the administrative apparatus, security forces, and media, to the lack of transparency on the registration process, which was considerably higher in rural Mugabe strongholds, compared to urban areas where support for the MDC is more prevalent. Even after the ZEC certified the result on August 3rd, the electoral body observed that over three hundred thousand voters were turned away from polling booths, while some two hundred thousand received assistance in casting their ballots. The ZESN claims that the number of citizens prevented from voting was much higher, a figure they put somewhere between 750000 and one million. Regional allies such as South Africa and Mozambique automatically recognized the result, whereas others such as Botswana rejected it due to the high number of alleged irregularities. The international community is equally divided as the US, the UK, and the EU dismissed Mugabe’s victory outright and insisted that it will maintain the current economic sanctions against Zimbabwe, while China and Russia were quick to congratulate him.

For the past decade, Zimbabwe’s political rights and civil liberties have remained at an atrociously low standard, however the freedom of the press has improved slightly. This achievement notwithstanding, Mugabe’s repressive policies have earned his country wide ranging economic sanctions from most Western governments, yet it appears that his regime has learned to live with this level of diplomatic isolation largely due to its strong and diverse relations with the rest of the developing world, enabling Mugabe and ZANU-PF to weather any economic downturn caused by external sanctions.


In spite of the varying geographic, cultural, and socio-historic backgrounds of these six case studies – not to mention the diverging trajectories – their current political regimes bear many important similarities in regards to their interpretation of both the democratic process and civil liberties, namely that they exist and are tolerated to the extent that they work to the incumbent leadership’s advantage. The data displayed in Tables 1 and 2 implies few if any improvements have been made in the democratic quality of any of these six polities over the past decade, with longstanding personalist leaders, imperious ruling parties, and oligarchic political opportunists alike demonstrating their ability to continuously manipulate existing political institutions to impose their mandates over substantive domestic opposition. Although this from of governance is often buttressed by populist, majoritarian justifications, the recent elections in Armenia, Kenya, Venezuela, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Zimbabwe brought into question the legitimacy of not only the supposed winners, but also the entire social and political system that enabled these disputed victories to occur.

Whereas certain domestic factors such as a pliant media, electoral body, and judiciary played an instrumental role in all of these recent polls, exogenous factors found in the current international sphere also played an important part in facilitating a favorable result for each of the incumbents. For the sake of brevity, I have aggregated these factors into three groupings defined below:

The Growth of International Patrons: Contrary to the post-Cold War ontology of the 1990s, international states now have multiple options in terms of alliance formation and national development strategies. This dynamic creates diplomatic and economic competition between stronger powers for influence in weaker developing states, which in turn leads to reduced expectations regarding democracy and human rights, empowering incumbents in precarious democratic regimes to manipulate domestic institutions to their own benefit. Armenia under Sargsyan has taken advantage of this dynamic by balancing relations with both the United States and Russia to further its own interests, as have Kenya and Malaysia, although with China instead of Russia. Zimbabwe, Cambodia, and Venezuela have also all mitigated American economic and diplomatic pressure by giving primacy to their foreign relations with China.

Strengthened Regional Alliances: The current global ontology has seen a massive proliferation of regional organizations which have fostered greater political, economic, and diplomatic ties between developing countries in every region of the world. This has benefitted competitive authoritarian regimes insofar as increased regional alliances have made isolation more difficult and impractical due to the benefits of increased trade, investment, and diplomatic cover provided by these organizations. The value of this is enormous as it enables competitive authoritarian regimes to avoid international isolation, as in each of the case studies examined, a prominent regional organization monitored and legitimized the controversial election results without question (AU, UNASUR, ASEAN, OSCE, etc.) providing support for the international legitimacy of the regime in question.

Borrowing Repertoires: In an era of increased technological innovation and access to information, competitive authoritarian regimes are increasingly aware of the methods employed by similar polities to consolidate and maintain their grip on power and have employed common tactics to tilt the institutional playing field in their favor, reducing international standards and expectations in the process. The manipulation of democratic infrastructure is given greater legitimacy when influential global powers accept the electoral results of regimes that engage in this type of behavior, regardless of any double standard that may exist. Zimbabwe, Malaysia, and Cambodia all prohibited foreign election monitors from observing their disputed polls, while voter roll discrepancies were rampant in all six case studies, denying the vote to thousands of eligible, registered citizens.

Table III Index of International Engagement, Global Education Magazine

 Elections do not make a country democratic. Democracies require a popularly elected government that is accountable to the electorate and free from external coercion, and all forms of contestation and participation must be equally accessible to all. There are a variety of states across the globe that meet these basic requirements with different amalgams of institutions, yet they currently constitute a minority of all the world’s different political systems. Instead, traditional dictatorships and competitive authoritarian systems continue to serve as a viable alternative to liberal democracy, as the latter in particular has become a very attractive model in the current international environment. Neither fully democratic nor fully authoritarian, we can only hope that the competitive authoritarian regime will prove useful as a warning to all states in transition about the pitfalls found on the road to democracy, yet given the alarming number of flawed elections we have seen in 2013, this may only be wishful thinking.


Gourevitch, Peter (1978). “The Second Image Reversed: The International Sources of Domestic Politics”. International Organizations, vol. 34, no. 2, p. 882.

Levitsky, Steven & Lucan Way (2002). “Elections Without Democracy: The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism”. Journal of Democracy, vol. 13, no. 2, p.53.

Zakaria, Fareed (1997). “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy”. Foreign Affairs, vol. 2, no. 3, p.42.

The Observatory of Economic Complexity. Last accessed on 18 August, 2013 at: http://www.atlas.cid.harvard.edu/

The Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook. Last accessed on 18 August, 2013 at: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2107.html

Freedom House. “Freedom In The World”. Last accessed on 18 August, 2013 at: http://www.freedomhouse.org/report-types/freedom-world

The World Trade Organization. “Participation in Regional Trade Agreements”. Last accessed on 18 August, 2013 at: http://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/region_e/rta_participation_map_e.htm?country_selected=none&sense=b


1Charles Larratt-Smith is the Vice President of Latin American Affairs for the The Peace by Piece Initiative, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to dialogue on sensitive issues of local and global scope. Mr. Larratt-Smith is also a PhD Student in the University of Toronto’s Department of Political Science.

2 The score is ranked out of 7, on a scale with 1 the best, 7 the worst possible grade.


This article was published on September 15th: International Day of Democracy, in Global Education Magazine.

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