The old rulers of the Soviet Union were terrified of facing contested elections. Those of us who studied political systems presumed they must be right: Elections would empower citizens against the arrogance of government. And with the fall of the Iron Curtain, elections indeed swept the world. Yet democracy doesn't seem to have delivered on its promise. Surprisingly often, the same old rulers are still there, ruling in much the same old way. Something has gone wrong, but what?
To answer this question, I put myself in the shoes of an old autocrat -- say, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak -- now having to retain power in a "democracy." What options do I face? Hard as it is to bear, I have to be honest with myself: My people do not love me. Far from being grateful for the wonders that I have achieved, they may increasingly be aware that under my long rule our country has stagnated while similar countries have transformed themselves. There are even a few cogent voices out there explaining why this situation is my fault. I shake my head in disbelief that it has come to this, seize my gold pen, and start listing my options. I decide to be systematic, in each case evaluating the pros and cons.
Option 1: Turn over a new leaf and embrace good government
Pros: This is probably what most people want. I might start feeling better about myself, and I might even leave a legacy my children could be proud of.
Cons: I haven't much idea how to do it. The skills I have developed over the years are quite different -- essentially, retaining power through shuffling a huge number of people around a patronage trough. My God, I might have to read those damned donor reports. And even if I worked out what needed to change, the civil service wouldn't be up to implementing it. After all, I've spent years making sure that anyone who is exceptional or even honest is squeezed out; honest people cannot easily be controlled.
Worse still, reform might be dangerous.
My "friends," the parasitic sycophants with whom I have surrounded myself, might not put up with it: They might decide to replace me in a palace coup. They would probably dress it up to the outside world as "reform"!
But suppose I did it. Suppose I actually delivered good government. Would I get reelected? I start to think about all those rich-country political leaders who over the years have met me, often lecturing me on the need for good governance. I do a rough tally: They seemed to win their own elections only about 45 percent of the time.
So, even if I pull it off, I’m still more than likely to lose power. Best to cheat. But how?
Option 2: Lie to the voters
Pros: I control most of the media, so it is relatively easy. What’s more, my citizens have neither much in the way of education nor good reference points by which to tell how bad things really are. So, I can tell them how fortunate they are to have me as president.
Cons: I have been doing this for years, so people heavily discount anything I say. On balance, though lying seems to be worth doing, I simply cannot rely on it to deliver victory.
Option 3: Scapegoat a minority
Pros: This one works! I can blame either unpopular minorities within my country or foreign governments for all my problems. The politics of hatred has a long and, electorally speaking, pretty successful pedigree. In the Ivory Coast it was the Burkinabe immigrants; in Zimbabwe, the whites; in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Tutsi. Failing all else, I can always blame
Israel America. I can also promise favoritism for my own group.
Cons: Some of my best friends are ethnic minorities. In fact, they have been funding me for years in return for favors. I prefer doing business with ethnic minorities because, however rich they become, they cannot challenge me politically. It is the core ethnic groups I need to keep out of business. Scare the minorities too badly, and they will move their money out. So, though scapegoating works, beyond a certain point it gets rather costly.