These post-Soviet governments find many ways to disadvantage potential opponents.
These post-Soviet governments have tools that are not available everywhere. The centralized structure of post-Soviet political systems means that presidents select governors, who in turn appoint or can put pressure on district heads and mayors. This top-down control extends all the way to school principals, university presidents and factory managers — who can be counted on to do the leader’s bidding. What’s more, many state employees are concentrated in what are effectively company towns — so it’s relatively easy to march workers to the polls and then watch over them as they vote.
U.S. presidents can’t use government power for personal gain as freely — but they can find ways if they want to.
By comparison, incumbent U.S. presidents are legally and logistically constrained. The Constitution’s separation of powers limits presidents’ ability to concentrate authority in the White House. Many executive actions can be challenged or halted by other branches of government. More limits come from the combination of a competitive two-party system and the fact that citizens vote separately for their local, state and federal government officials. The president cannot rely on, say, the governor of California or the head of the Miami school district to work for his reelection.
But the United States and post-Soviet governments have more similarities than it may appear. For instance, while the United States does not have state-run television, it does have media outlets that act as the president’s megaphones. Although the White House cannot spend taxpayer dollars without congressional consent, the president has some discretion to allocate federal funds in ways that reward political supporters or fulfill campaign promises.
What’s more, the U.S. system of government gives a sufficiently determined president at least three powerful weapons to shape the field of play. First, if he or she is willing to buck post-Watergate norms intended to insulate the Justice Department from White House interference, the president could have a loyal attorney general open investigations into political opponents. That’s what happens among post-Soviet prosecutors, who typically prioritize their boss’s political interests over the rule of law. For example, in Ukraine, several years before its 2014 pro-democracy revolution, President Viktor Yanukovych used his prosecutor general’s office to arrest his chief rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, on false charges.
Second, the U.S. president can see intelligence from domestic criminal investigations. If he wished, he could collect and selectively release damaging information on his opponents. Again, that’s how it’s done in post-Soviet countries.
The memo reporting on Trump’s call with Zelensky suggests that he tried to damage his potential rival by exploiting a third prerogative: the president’s nearly unconstrained power to conduct foreign policy. This makes sense. Having the Justice Department prosecute Trump’s rivals without solid evidence would look politically motivated. But a foreign government’s investigation might appear more legitimate, especially if the facts and faces are complicated and difficult for citizens to follow.
Trump still has more opportunities to use government power to his advantage.
If Trump survives this impeachment inquiry, he still has more ways to use his office to gain advantages in 2020. He has shown his willingness to violate long-standing norms that prevented most previous presidents from using all the tools at their disposal and may well do so again.
Using government power, in other words, doesn’t guarantee victory. Other factors matter, including whether the voting is free, how popular the incumbent might be and the opposition’s strategy. But doing so violates the fundamental democratic principle that elections should be a fair fight.
Scott Radnitz (@SRadnitz) is the Herbert J. Ellison Associate Professor of Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Jackson School of International Studies and director of the Ellison Center at the University of Washington.