Elections have traditionally been interpreted as fair and competitive just as long as they were free of blatant fraud on election day. Modern authoritarians took note. Increasingly, they have developed strategies that aim to fix the outcome of political contests weeks, months, or even years before the ballots are cast. Their goal is to win elections while avoiding the brazen acts of vote rigging that inevitably trigger international opprobrium.
This phenomenon was clearly evident last month in two elections whose outcomes were widely interpreted as legitimate victories for incumbents. In Venezuela, President Hugo Chávez overcame his challenger, Henrique Capriles Radonski, with about 55 percent of the vote. In Ukraine, the results of parliamentary elections were a bit murkier, but it would appear that the ruling Party of Regions, loyal to President Viktor Yanukovych, held its own against a divided opposition.
While both elections drew critical comments from specialized monitoring organizations, the consensus of media and political opinion is that they were flawed, but the overall results were legitimate. Unlike in last December's parliamentary contests in Russia, a process marked by obvious ballot stuffing in favor of the ruling United Russia forces, the election-day polling in Ukraine and Venezuela proceeded smoothly and did not provoke sustained protest.
In fact, in both cases the conventional assessments are well off the mark. Only by limiting one's observations to conditions on election day can one conclude that the results in Ukraine and Venezuela reflect the free choices of the electorate.
Election rigging today is a holistic process that entails control of the judiciary, the legislature, electoral commissions, and the media. It is designed to shape the outcome without losing a crucial veneer of plausibility. With some exceptions, modern authoritarians find it worth their while to retain the trappings of democracy. They want to avoid being relegated to the status of Belarus's dictator, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who rolls up preposterous figures of 80 percent or more in national elections, uses violent police tactics to quell the inevitable protests, and as a result is treated as an international pariah. Instead, their preference is to control the ballot with professional finesse, permitting the opposition to compete, but preparing the terrain and distorting the process so thoroughly that the leader's defeat is next to impossible.
In Ukraine, the elections were seriously marred by the erosion of democratic institutions under the current government, which took power in early 2010. The extent of this decline has been laid out in a monitoring report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).
The ODIHR election-observation mission takes note of the use of government workers and resources to support the Party of Regions, the quick passage of a flawed electoral law a year before the voting, and a media environment in which unbiased news was scarce. The report also zeroes in on the prosecution, on spurious charges, of two important leaders of the opposition-former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko and former interior minister Yuriy Lutsenko. The message is clear: an election cannot be regarded as fair if charismatic and appealing opposition figures are arbitrarily disqualified with the help of a pliant judiciary.
Superficially, the Venezuelan balloting came off as more consistent with democratic standards than many had predicted. Capriles conducted an impressive campaign, showing great self-discipline and patience in the face of repeated provocations by Chavistas. The voting itself took place without serious violence or major complaints of irregularities.
But to a far greater degree than in Ukraine, the results in Venezuela were determined by the regime's actions well before the elections.
There is, first and foremost, Chávez's iron grip on the media. The system he has built since taking power in 1999 controls six of eight national television stations and about half of the country's radio stations. In some regions, he has a virtual information monopoly. The opposition was effectively shut out of the Chávez-controlled outlets, earning mention only as cartoonish villains. Indeed, commentators on state media regularly indulged in florid tirades against Capriles and his supporters.
Chávez benefited especially from a practice whereby all radio and television stations are obliged to preempt normal programming to accommodate his speeches to the nation. Throughout 2012, Chávez took advantage of this tool to dominate 100 hours of broadcasting, 47 of them in the 90 days prior to the election. Aurelio Concheso, an analyst with Transparency Venezuela, placed the value of this free air time at $1.8 billion. Another government mandate requires radio and television stations to broadcast ten 30-second spots free of charge each day; the state messages, not surprisingly, dovetailed with the arguments of the Chávez campaign. Concheso estimates the value of this free air time at $292 million. In addition, the government spent an estimated $200 million on advertising with private radio and television stations. By contrast, the opposition had access to five minutes a day in air time, at a cost of $102 million. Capriles was thus limited to an incredible 4 percent of the air time enjoyed by Chávez.
There is more. According to Concheso, the state oil company, PDVSA, spent some $20 billion on gifts of home durables, apartments, and outright cash subsidies to purchase the allegiance of Venezuelan voters and underscore the message that without El Comandante, this largesse would dry up.
Finally, a measure of fear was introduced through a campaign suggesting that although the balloting was secret, the government had ways of ascertaining a voter's choice. This threat had a special effect given public memories of an episode in 2004, in which those who signed a petition for a referendum to remove Chávez from office were blacklisted and excluded from government jobs, benefits, and contracts.
The good news is that serious election-monitoring entities like ODIHR are increasingly focusing their attention on developments in the months prior to election day, and are thus identifying the most important methods used to distort the political process, like media manipulation and the jailing of opposition leaders on spurious charges. The not-so-good news is that neither the international press nor democratic governments fully appreciate how the mechanisms of modern authoritarianism are threatening the very possibility of competitive elections in countries like Ukraine, and destroying them in settings like Hugo Chávez's Venezuela.