Nursultan Nazarbayev is a popular guy. By all accounts, the approval ratings for the president of Kazakhstan would be the envy of most democratically elected leaders. A poll conducted last year indicated that 89 percent of his compatriots had a favorable opinion of him, an incredible figure that was consistent with past surveys. The usual explanation is that he has successfully steered the economy of this energy-rich Central Asian state — and that his regime guarantees that he never faces any serious opposition.
Because, whatever Nazarbayev may say to the contrary, he is no democrat. After 19 years in power, he has no interest in handing over the reins to anyone else. In fact, the only check on his ability to rule may be mortality (which explains why he has repeatedly called on his country’s scientists to discover an elixir of immortality). And the country’s uranium and oil finds may keep per capita gross domestic product on the rise, but the country’s record for human rights, press freedom and corruption is nothing to brag about. But however correct his critics may be, they must admit that Nazarbayev belongs to a special subspecies of autocratic leaders: the popular dictator.
On Sunday, Nazarbayev stood for reelection as president of Kazakhstan. Not surprisingly, he once again won in a landslide, this time apparently garnering 95.5 percent of the vote. But it wasn’t a stainless victory. Representatives from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, whom Nazarbayev had invited to monitor the election, reported ballot-box stuffing and duplicate voting.
Which brings us to the conundrum: Why do genuinely popular dictators engage in outright election fraud? Why would it not suffice for Nazarbayev to win 70, 60 or 52 percent of the vote? If he is so popular — which again, is what the evidence suggests — why not just win the good old-fashioned way and silence a hefty number of his critics at the same time?
It’s most likely a question with no single answer, and it probably varies from dictator to dictator. Some may just need the affirmation that comes with supposedly winning more than 90 percent of a vote. For others, it may be hard to break bad habits. More sophisticated authoritarian regimes have long since recognized that 70 percent is the new 99 percent from the Soviet Union of old.
But last year I put the question to an adviser to another popular authoritarian, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Everyone knows that Putin’s ruling party, United Russia, runs a rigged game. But it is also true that Putin’s approval ratings have often been on the higher side of stratospheric. Why not take the chance on a clean election?
The Kremlin adviser had an interesting answer: It’s beyond Putin’s control. “You should understand the mechanism and how it works,” he said. “Never does Putin say, ‘Get me such-and-such percent.’ He even says he doesn’t need this. What’s Putin’s interest if [someone] has not 50 percent but 70 percent? Fifty percent is also a majority, yeah? He doesn’t care.”
The trouble is, everyone else cares. “Governors and mayors absolutely think about this because it’s a reflection of how popular they are. And that’s why they use it,” he told me.
In other words, lower-level officials engage in election fraud because they are afraid of looking bad against their peers. Whether it is boosting their own numbers or delivering votes for their leader, officials in an authoritarian system have high incentives to tamper with the ballots. We may think that there is no open competition in an authoritarian regime, but we would be wrong. It is just that the competition is between officials competing for favor, not between the dictator and his supposed opponents.
Of course, this explanation hardly absolves Putin or Nazarbayev for creating a system where these are the incentives that exist. But, hey, by the twisted logic of authoritarianism, last Sunday’s ballot-stuffing in Kazakhstan wasn’t Nazarbayev’s fault. They were just trying to make him happy.