Understanding Electoral Defeat
Understanding Electoral Defeat
Wednesday, November 12,2008 10:02
By Shadi Hamid

Watching the fascinating debate on the Right (bookmark The Next Right) in the wake of defeat highlights some of the things we know about how democracy functions – and how dictatorships don’t. One of the few things that will force a political party to adapt to changing circumstances and engage in long-overdue intro/retrospection is a drubbing at the ballot box.   

We lost bad in 2002 and 2004, so we were forced to re-build our institutional and intellectual infrastructure, a process which continues today (let’s hope it continues with the same intensity as before). The Republicans lost last week, and I expect that, as a result, the ideas of Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam, David Frum, and the young Turks of groups like The Next Right and Rebuild the Party, will gain increased currency in conservative ranks. This is a healthy process.

At the risk of stating the obvious, this is also why authoritarian regimes are quite bad at adapting to the preferences of their citizens. There is never any real incentive to engage in policy innovation, because there are no channels of direct electoral accountability. There is, however, a real incentive to not engage in policy innovation. You have a situation where the most qualified, uncorrupted political appointees (in, say, a country like Egypt) are most likely to be sacked the soonest, for the very reasons that they would have been successful if they had the good fortune of living in a democracy. Intelligent, well-meaning technocrats (or, worse, visionaries) serve little purpose in the confines of an authoritarian system lubricated by bribes, backstabbing, and patronage. These are the types that rock the boat.

A related problem has to do with opposition parties in authoritarian polities. In the absence of real elections, the opposition does not face any threat of “losing” an election. They will lose regardless of their performance, so “performing well” (for example, coming up with practical program for addressing unemployment) becomes less important than it otherwise would be. This is why the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has become a big, somewhat immobile elephant of an organization, capable of protecting its organizational prerogatives, but unable or unwilling to demonstrate any kind of bold innovation on a variety of key challenges facing the country. What they probably need is a real, rather than an artificial, electoral drubbing. 

Then we have a country like Jordan which more often than not holds relatively free and fair elections (I emphasize the word "relatively" here). That, of course, is good. What is less good is the fact that these elections don’t matter as much as they should, because parliament"s powers are quite limited, and because electoral laws make it impossible for the opposition to win anything close to a majority. Still, elections in Jordan do matter. But in the case of widespread election fraud, as we saw in 2007, the lessons of election losses become less clear. Did the Islamic Action Front do worse than expected because of failures on their part (which would necessitate introspection and revising their whole political approach), or did they lose because the government massively rigged the elections (which would necessitate more minor tactical revisions, as well as spending a large amount of time blaming and attacking the government)?

In an authoritarian country, it is difficult for opposition parties to engage in full-on political introspection, because it is always more likely their loss was due to government interference adn electoral fraud.