Russian protest leader and mayoral candidate Alexei Navalny, left, addresses his supporters.  (Grigory Dukor/Reuters)

There is more and more research these days in political science on the subject of elections in what are termed “competitive authoritarian regimes.” These are regimes where elections are held — and held regularly — but in which the process is far from free and fair. In the following guest post, University of Wisconsin political scientist Scott Gehlbach takes up this question with an application to last month’s Moscow mayoral election, where in retrospect the surprising question may have been why the regime allowed the election to proceed in as free and fair a manner as it did.


The recent Moscow mayoral election highlights an important choice for incumbents in countries with weak democratic institutions: whether to manipulate elections to guarantee an easy victory or take one’s chances with a free and fair contest. The decision to allow the anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny to run and collect votes with minimal interference was a gamble — a gamble that incumbent mayor Sergei Sobyanin appears to have lost, even though he was declared the winner and soon thereafter inaugurated for a second term. Expecting an easy victory, Sobyanin emerges from the election diminished in the eyes of the apparat. Sensing that his hold on power is insecure, bureaucrats will be less likely to carry out his orders promptly, and the selectorate in the Kremlin will be less likely to view him as a potential successor to Putin.

Alberto Simpser and I provide a model of this choice in “Electoral Manipulation as Bureaucratic Control.” Like Sobyanin, the incumbent in our model worries about his “legitimacy” among the bureaucracy, whose cooperation is important for the incumbent’s career success. But the bureaucracy worries about investing effort in an incumbent who is unlikely to be around in the long run. In such circumstances, electoral manipulation can help to assure the bureaucracy that the incumbent’s hold on power is secure — say, by confusing bureaucrats as to the incumbent’s actual popular support.

But electoral manipulation isn’t always the right strategy. In particular, it doesn’t make sense to manipulate when the incumbent believes that the public is firmly behind him, as was apparently the case in Moscow. Sobyanin now knows better, but given his initial belief it would have been foolish to side with those who wanted Navalny in prison rather than on the hustings. Doing so would have denied the apparat the opportunity to verify the popular support that Sobyanin thought he had. Having lost his gamble, Sobyanin should now be asking himself why he overestimated his standing with the public.