Opinion: Dictators and elections

Why do they bother?

Last week, Vladimir Putin, the Russian dictator, got himself ‘re-elected’ to his fourth six-year term by a 76 per cent majority on a 76 per cent turn-out. This week the Egyptian dictator, former general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, will be ‘re-elected’ with close to 100 per cent support, although probably on a very low turn-out. A quarter-billion people are being inconvenienced in order to wield what amounts to giant rubber stamps.

So why do they bother? Both dictators control the mass media in their countries, so they can be reasonably confident that most people will not be exposed to much criticism of their actions. They both can and do have people who oppose them arrested or killed (and Sisi’s enforcers also torture people). Yet they feel the need to go through these fake democratic elections in order to validate their rule.

Egypt’s pharaohs felt no need to ask the people’s opinions on their performance as rulers. The kings of 18th-century Europe ruled by ‘divine right’, not by the popular will (and they didn’t actually ask God’s opinion on their performance either). But at some point in the past century, democracy has won the argument world-wide.

It has not won all the power struggles, and many dictators survive in practice, but they are all obliged to pretend to have popular support. This is a very big change from the past, when tyrannical power was generally based on a combination of religious authority and brutal armed force. Why, and in particular why now?

The anthropologists may have an answer. It is now pretty widely agreed in their profession that pre-civilized human beings almost all lived in bands where all adult men, at least, were treated as equals, and all had an equal right to share in decision-making. They even had well-established methods for making sure that nobody got too big for his boots.

These primitive ‘democracies’ all collapsed in the early stages of civilization, when the huge rise in population (from dozens to millions in a thousand years) made it physically impossible for everybody to take part in the discussion about means and ends any more.

At the same time all the traditional social controls that kept ambitious people from seizing power failed too. You can’t shame people into respecting the opinions and personal freedoms of other people if the numbers get so big that you don’t even know them personally. Result: five thousand years of tyranny.

But give these mass societies mass media, and they regain the ability to communicate with one another. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that they want to be treated as equals again. The first successful democratic revolution happened in the American colonies in 1776 because printing presses were everywhere, and over half the population was literate.

Now mass media are everywhere, and even the dictators have to pretend that they are in power by the will of the people. It will be a long time before they actually disappear (if they ever do), but they already rule less than half of the world’s people, and they all have to go through a charade of democracy to legitimize their rule.

When the first results of the Russian election were coming in last week, a reporter asked Vladimir Putin if he would run again in six years’ time. “What you are saying is a bit funny,” Putin replied. “Do you think that I will stay here until I’m 100 years old? No.” But that’s what Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s former ruler, would also have said when he had been in power for only eighteen years.

In the end Mugabe stayed in power for 37 years, and he was 93 and planning to run for another term when he was finally overthrown last year. Putin would be a mere 85 years old when he broke Mugabe’s record, although China’s Xi Jinping would have to live until he was 97 to do the same. I’ll bet neither one makes it.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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