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Caucasus: Analysis From Washington -- How Authoritarian Regimes Use Elections

Washington, 3 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Authoritarian leaders regularly use elections to legitimize or even enhance their powers rather than to promote democracy, a strategy that poses special challenges not only to those who live under their control but also to others who want to advance the cause of popular governance.

Nowhere is this pattern clearer than in the post-Soviet states of Central Asia, where leaders proclaim their adherence to the ideas of democracy but do everything they can to subvert the power of the people to use elections or any other means to determine their own destinies.

The most egregious examples of this misuse of elections are to be found in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The recent parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan, Bigeldin Gabdullin told an RFE/RL press briefing in Washington on Tuesday, were marked by "very serious violations of civil and human rights." Opposition rallies were blocked, ballot boxes stuffed, and opposition observers excluded -- all to ensure that the regime of President Nursultan Nazarbaev would have not just a majority in the parliament but an overwhelming position that would appear to block the emergence of any new challengers in the future.

In Turkmenistan earlier this week, the Central Election Commission announced that all candidates must be registerd as independents because President Sapurmurat Niyazov has decided that his country will not be ready for a multi-party political system for at least another decade.

And in Uzbekistan, the authorities have routinely employed coercion to stifle dissent and drive any criticism of the regime of President Islam Karimov underground. Tashkent has then attacked the opposition for linking up with Islamist groups and demanded Western understanding in moving against those "threats" to democracy.

Because these regimes and others like them have been so apparently successful in using electoral forms as a way of promoting the notion that they are democratic or at least committed to the establishment of democracy in the future, both democratic activists in these countries and elsewhere have been divided on how to respond.

In some cases, these activists have argued against taking part in what they see as a charade of democracy and have urged international monitoring groups like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to stay away lest their presence be exploited by these regimes as evidence of their claimed attachment to democracy.

Advocates of this position have noted that the regimes sometimes are able to co-opt those who do participate in the voting. And they have pointed out that the authorities routinely invoke their willingness to allow outside monitoring as a sign of good faith -- even when these monitors deliver blistering denunciations of fundamental violations of democratic procedure.

But in other cases, democratic activists take just the opposite position, arguing that participation in virtually any election enhances their power rather than that of the regime and that outside observers, however the regime seeks to portray them, typically help push the slow but difficult process of democratization along.

Kazakhstan's Gabdullin falls in this latter camp. Even though he and his colleagues were defeated by the machinations of Nazarbaev and his regime, Gabdullin, who edits that country's only independent newspaper, said that the election had helped to multiply the number of opposition figures.

Where before there had only been one major opposition figure, the democratic activist said, now all 500 of the candidates who were kept from having a genuine chance to compete have become opponents of the regime as well, more ready not only to cooperate with one another but also to stand up for democracy in the future.

Moreover, even though Gabdullin argued that the outside observers had seldom spent long enough in Kazakhstan to see all the tricks Nazarbayev's people used to control the vote, he agreed that the observers had played a role by focusing international attention on the elections and also by signaling to democrats in Kazakhstan that they are not alone when they stand up to authoritarian regimes.

For most of the last century, dictators and would-be dictators have sought to use electoral forms but not genuine elections to enhance their power. But the experience of Kazakhstan's Gabdullin and his colleagues in other Central Asian countries suggests that these regimes may be undermining their own power rather than strengthening it.

With each electoral cycle, ever more people in these countries as well as elsewhere are likely to demand a genuine voice over their own lives. And to the extent that happens, elections there are likely to become genuinely democratic, a development that may ultimately lead to the departure from the political scene of those who seek to use a democratic instrument for patently non-democratic goals.