Visibility of Autocratization, Voter Behavior, and Election Outcomes Contemporary democratic erosion is often carried out by democratically elected executives who, once in office, consolidate their power by changing or violating the country’s democratic institutions. While there is a clear role for elites in countering such executive aggrandizement, citizens also have the power to halt democratic erosion by voting out the autocratizing executive. However, the relative subtlety and incrementalism of this form of democratic erosion may make it harder for citizens to recognize the creeping authoritarianism. This study conceptualizes “visibility of autocratization” as a key factor shaping citizens’ reactions to autocratizing incumbents at the ballot box. Through a case study of Zambia and a comprehensive analysis competitive African elections since 1990, this study shows that voters punish autocratizing incumbents, but only when their tactics are visible to them. Democratically elected presidents who employ blatantly autocratic tactics to consolidate their power are far more likely to be voted out of office than incumbents generally, and autocratizing incumbents that pursue more subtle tactics. These findings have important implications for understanding when citizens are willing and able to counter democratic erosion. The Microdynamics of Voting Against an Autocratizing Incumbent The world is currently undergoing a period of autocratization that, in many cases, is led by a democratically elected president who begins to dismantle democratic institutions. In countries that retain reasonably free and fair elections, the electorate’s ability to vote out the autocratizing incumbent is an important democratic safeguard. What motivates citizens to vote against autocratizing incumbents? This study examines the case of Zambia’s 2021 election, in which an autocratizing incumbent was voted out with overwhelming margins. Using an iterative approach, I first compare official election results from 2016 and 2021 to determine where the additional votes came from. Next, I generate hypotheses regarding voter behavior from responses to open-ended questions from an original survey carried out in key constituencies several months after the 2021 election. Next, I test these hypotheses using the nationally-representative Afrobarometer survey. The results indicate that the opposition’s victory was due to increased turnout and party switching in competitive constituencies and incumbent strongholds. Voter motivation differed across partisan contexts. Key voters in competitive constituencies were motivated by both economic woes and concerns of democratic decline, while voters in the incumbent stronghold defected to the opposition primarily for economic reasons. The study has important implications for understanding voter motivations across partisan contexts under autocratization.
Partisanship and Beliefs about Democracy in Africa and the Middle East (with Yael Zeira)
Agents of Change: Executive Leadership and Effective Gender Quotas in Africa