Despotic democracies

China focusing on environment, fighting corruption
The Chinese National People’s Congress, March 5th, 2013
credit: AP/Ng Han Guan

On March 9th, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)- known as North Korea, though they don’t like a name that implies there’s more than one- held its latest parliamentary election. Elections have occurred throughout North Korea’s history, just as they once did in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, and continue in China, Laos, and many other countries that would be classified as non-democratic by most uses of the term. The result was unanimous- 100% support for Kim Jong-un and 100% turnout. Clearly my recent concerns about voter apathy don’t apply to the DPRK.

An elaborate sham, of course- a UK minister stated “our Pyongyang Embassy visited a polling station and, contrary to media reports, concluded there is no ‘D’ in ‘DPRK’”. No independent parties, no civil society, no free speech. You can vote against the one candidate provided in your district, but that requires going into a special booth to cross it out. So a show of opposition is sure suicide.

Why does the DPRK, or any other one-party state bother with an election that serves no governmental purpose? They could ban elections and not care- certainly Eritrea hasn’t held a national election since independence in 1993, and has about zero interest in holding one. You’ve got uncontested power, everyone knows it.

The makeup of the DPRK’s Supreme People’s Assembly.
Dark red: Worker’s Party. Other colors are puppets under the same front.

Several years ago I took an independent study in comparative government. I didn’t do all that much (it was my senior year of high school, what do you expect), but I did read a few interesting textbooks on the subject. One put forth the idea of the “democratic idea.” Not democratic ideals- values like equality, justice, and human rights we see as part and parcel with representative government. Rather the simple idea that a country is a democracy.

11th Congress of the Socialist Unity Party of East Germany (SED), 1986.

In the modern era- say, since the end of World War I, very few countries will openly state that they are anti-democratic. Germany under Nazi rule held an election in 1938. The year before the Soviet Union did the same. Even if the elections ain’t fooling anyone, there seems to be a need to use elections as a means to legitimacy. Often a regime supported by military force will switch to politics-  the Burmese junta held regular elections ( in 1981, for instance), before making the mistake of having a free election and losing. The trend indicates that democracy has an intrinsic attraction- it’s a matter of world consensus that democracy, at least the veneer and symbol of it, is a good thing. The United Nations is full of voting members who’d never conceive of an open debate on their own soil. If a nation can be a part of the General Assembly, yet not give up a smidgen of political power, they go for it.

There is also the idea of elections as a patronage system. From a Big Think piece of sham elections:

According to Bueno de Mesquita a dictator or autocrat can conduct a rigged election, not to confer legitimacy or choose the right person to govern the country’s affairs but to cultivate loyalty. Bueno de Mesquita argues that a ruler will let sham elections run in their country so that they can communicate to the politicians around them that they are expendable should they stray from the desired agenda.

If you have ultimate control over who gets elected, it’s a way of doling out bits of political prestige. With the North Korean election, it provides a more diplomatic way of moving to a new generation. Kim Jong-un certainly was fine with executing the old guard, but he doesn’t have to do that as his sole weapon.

These sham processes are not impervious to change. Currently the People’s Republic of China is holding its annual National People’s Congress. The NPC is becoming something new and different- more responsive to local concerns and increasingly willing to defy the official party line. Vietnam is on the same route. In many ways there isn’t a huge gap between the era of rubber-stamp parliaments and a new era where the democratic process actually shows up for some of the party- all the elections and meetings may ultimately have provided a platform for reform at a later time. Ludicrous as it sounds, authoritarian states practice many things that will be needed, in a similar form, if that state becomes democratic. It’s a dry run for a real, competitive election. Perhaps that redeems the farce. Perhaps not.

An interesting paper weighing democratic feeling among East Asian states can be found here, which debates how important democratic institutions are on a practical regime level.

 

 

 

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