2017: The Year of the Stolen Election

November 30, 2017
November 30, 2017
World Elections


One of the developments that led many to echo Francis Fukuyama’s phrase that the “1990s” were the “end of history” was the massive increase in the number of liberal democracies around the world. While the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War drove much of the attention, the real increase occurred in Latin America, Africa and Asia where one-party, de facto one-party, or outright authoritarian regimes gave way to multiparty politics. The reversal of this trend, which began in the mid-2000s, therefore caused quite a bit of concern, though it never quite grasped the degree of attention the democratization of the early 1990s did, and again, was overly focused on developments in Russia, which was never a perfect democracy, or Eastern European states like Poland and Hungary, which are a bit alarmist given there is no evidence that either government would at any point have lost an election. Neither has banned or restricted the activities of opposition parties, nor has the ruling party in Poland or Hungary trailed in the polls for more than a short period. That is a far cry from the case of, say, Venezuela, where the governing alliance trailed by as much as 30 points before “miraculously” winning 18/23 states in this fall’s regional elections.

Venezuela is in this sense a lot more illustrative of this trend, one which has accelerated this year.

·         *Cambodia banned the major opposition party which holds(or held) 55/123 seats in the parliament and won 45% of the vote in the last elections.

·         *This follows on the heels of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega pulling a similar stunt, where rather than banning the opposition, he had a court order the party turned over             to a crony, who then fired all of its MPs when they objected, ensuring he would face little or no opposition in the November 2016 Presidential elections. Previously, he had             overcome a constitutional prohibition on reelection in 2011 by having the constitutional court declare it invalid.

·         In Honduras, the President also stacked the supreme court in order to bypass a constitutional single term limit, an offense which triggered a coup in 2009. In a drawn-out           counting process which has taken almost a week, the incumbent has gained a slight lead with 87% of the polling stations tabulated after trailing for five days.

A couple things to note here. As someone who got fame/notoriety for pointing out problems with the 2009 Iranian Presidential elections, I feel that the differences between prelection actions which negate the exercise, management of the election which prejudices the outcome, and outright falsification of results are vital, and get annoyed when people conflate them. Outright falsification, especially on a mass scale is rare. It is rare for a very good reason, namely that it is often not credible. People will not believe massive deviations from polling and public expectations. The greatest mistake of those who manipulated Iran’s 2009 numbers did not lie in the fact that they did so or that Ahmadinejad won, but rather that the speed of the reporting of the results, with more than third supposedly counted after little more than 35 minutes in a nation without electronic voting,  and the margin.

Vote rigging then tends to work best either when the margin that needs to be adjusted is very small due to the race being close in any case, or when governments could care less about credibility, see states like Azerbaijan or Belarus. There is a reason figures like Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, or Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega prefer to “win” before votes are casts or the campaigns even begin. Because they feel it is less difficult if opposition supporters don’t bother organizing or voting in the first place than if their votes need to be stolen.

Even in a case like Honduras, where expectations were both that the incumbent would win, and that there would be foul play, there are problems with the numbers that stand out. For one thing, there is a massive gap between the support received by Hernandez, and by his National Party in the National Assembly elections, 42.48% for Hernandez and 47.77% for his party. Now in abstract this would not seem odd, but the National Assembly is elected by proportional representation while the Presidency is won with a plurality. As such, it would seem intuitive that voters would vote strategically for President, and then cast ballots for preferred parties in the Assembly. Except the reverse seems to have happened.

Admittedly, more votes are counted in the Presidential race than for National Assembly, 88% to 80%, though how this came about when the votes are recorded on the same ballots is less clear. But if that were the case, we would expect the uncounted votes for National Assembly, ie. Those in the precincts located between the 88% counted in the Presidential race and the 80% of National Assembly, to heavily favor the two opposition parties, whose candidates are winning 56% of the vote for President but only 44% for National Assembly. Except, those are the votes which, when counted, gave the National Party candidate, Hernandez the lead.

A different possibility, that different precincts are missing in different races, raises the complex question of why some ballots would be counted only for a single race, with votes for other contests ignored, and vice versa. Unless of course such was deliberate.

It is of course possible that there is a sensible explanation, namely that voters did split their ballots this aggressively, with Hernandez running substantially behind his party, though in that case one might suspect that those strategic voters might have voted a bit more, well strategically, in the presidential race. Ultimately, however, these results look suspicious and highlight the dangers of simply fabricating results, namely that one has to not just fabricate numbers that are credible, but do so all the way and down a complex electoral process lest one create oddities that create suspicion by their very implausibility.


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