North Korea holds the most forecastable election ever

North Korea’s state news agency reported Sunday night that elections in the country saw “99.97 per cent” turnout. While results have not yet been reported, observers are expecting a decisive victory for Kim Jong-un’s Worker’s Party. As The Telegraph reported, ballots only included one name, and voters who don’t want to cast their ballot for the pre-ordained candidate have to go to a separate polling booth and cross the name out — an extreme act of bravery and/or idiocy in a regime militaristically sensitive to sleights against its complete legitimacy.

The Pyongyang-based Korean Central News Agency described a “festive atmosphere” at polling locations, with voters “singing and dancing” as they made their way to cast their ballots.

Elections in North Korea may be a farce, but they’re hardly new. As The Telegraph explained:

Local elections have been held every four years since 1999. They are partly an effort to legitimise the use of “democratic” in the nation’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – with 27,390 delegates elected in the last vote, held in July 2011.

North Korea via Shutterstock

North Korea, via Shutterstock

In an attempt to create the guise of ideological pluralism in the country, the regime has established multiple political parties, which all parrot the party line. So while Kim Jong-un receives 100 percent support from the 687-seat Supreme People’s Assembly, his Worker’s Party only holds 606 of those seats.

Elections are also used to confirm the whereabouts of citizens.

North Korea is likely the most extreme case, but elections are fairly common practice in authoritarian regimes. As noted above, they can be used to grant the facade of legitimacy to rulers — and academic research has shown that these sham elections do in fact increase these regimes’ durability.

During the Cold War period, from 1946 to 1989, the average authoritarian regime lasted twelve years. Today, the average authoritarian regime has existed for 25 years. Additionally, dictatorships that incorporate democratic institutions into their regimes last up to seventeen years longer than those that don’t. So while the overall number of authoritarian regimes has fallen since the Cold War ended, each one is lasting longer, suggesting that the co-opting of democratic institutions could continue to undermine democratic goals for a very long time.

There are a number of reasons for this. Establishing democratic institutions can attract foreign aid, or stave off foreign criticism. It can allow the regime to manipulate electoral institutions to engineer desired outcomes, which is less likely to produce violent backlash than the use of overtly coercive force. Psychologically, people prefer a fake choice over no choice at all, and as the acceptance of liberal democratic values spreads across the globe — aided by the Internet — pseudo-democratic regimes are co-opting and capitalizing on those values in an attempt to stay a step or two ahead of their bodies politic.

Of course, this doesn’t come without a hint of irony. By adopting unfree, unfair elections, the illegitimacy of pseudo-democracies itself legitimizes the democratic project. It is an admission that, given the choice, people like to make choices for themselves. That the Supreme Leader of North Korea — a man who by the regime’s own definition is nothing short of a God — feels the need to bother with democracy would be absurd if it weren’t so damn cagey.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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