Professor Nic Cheeseman is Research Director of the University of Birmingham’s International Development Department and plays a prominent role within the University’s new Institute for Global Innovation, co-leading a major research programme on how we can best fight gender inequality. 

What role can the academic community play in getting to grips with the changing face of democracy across the globe?

One of the great things about this job is that you get to be great places at great times. I was on the ground in Zimbabwe the day that Robert Mugabe resigned. We drove around Harare, around the government offices, among thousands of Zimbabweans who had taken to the street to celebrate. 

On the one hand you are soaking it in, spending time among people who have struggled for regime change. Yet at the back of your mind, you find yourself thinking “What are the prospects for genuine transformation?” There may have been a change of leadership but we still have the same party in power, we still have structural challenges in the economic and political structures, and we still have a divided opposition.

That is the academic mindset kicking in. Perhaps I am more careful than most, we know that transition can be a complicated thing indeed. In the days that follow, I started to think not only about what is particular to the Zimbabwean context but also how we can learn more by drawing comparisons to what we’ve learned from other examples in places like Sri Lanka, Nigeria, and Myanmar.

There are plenty of people who are interested in how power transitions in a country. Politicians, NGOs, and most importantly, ordinary citizens. I have always seen our role to be provide those people with a deeper kind of insight and context.

Is there a risk in having the wider international community becoming too involved in promoting democracy in a country?

Well, mistakes have been made in the past and at it is important that international support comes in the form of genuine partnership rather than simply Western leadership – we need to be more humble and to recognise that we don’t have all the answers.

The role of the international community in places like Zimbabwe is also very complicated because authoritarian leaders can bolster their own support base if they can use perceived Western support for the opposition to depict themselves as being under siege.

It is also important to retain a sense of neutrality because if donors are seen to be bias it undercuts their own legitimacy, and hence their credibility.

What we have seen more recently is an appreciation that the more fruitful method is to become facilitators, by supporting domestic groups to do what they would have done anyway, but with better resources.

The conversation therefore goes from democracy promotion towards democracy strengthening.

That realignment towards supporting people to achieve their own goals, rather than pushing a certain set of values, is very timely, when you look at the current landscape not only in Africa but also in Europe and North America.

Does that signify quite a significant shift from the mid-1990s?

Absolutely. I think there are two things going on there.

Firstly, the mid-1990s was a time of optimism for democracy promotion. We witnessed the end of the Cold War and a lack of international players arguing against the merits of democracy. The Soviet Union had just collapsed and China was yet to emerge as a global behemoth that it is now, so there was less physical and ideological opposition to the interventionalist style of democracy promotion we saw from the likes of the United Kingdom and United States.

Nowadays, the idea itself that democracy is the best model for economic development and human rights is under threat from alternative models, and from much more radical voices too.

Secondly, it simply was not as successful as ‘we’ thought we would be. Failed attempts to transition power to democracies made us doubt ourselves, and made it clear how difficult it would be to make it work. This reduced confidence, combined with domestic pressures to put international democracy lower on the list of priorities, has seen a clear shift towards a more cautious approach.

That is quite a seismic shift, it must have had an impact on the research community?

Yes and no. Although the headline is a big shift, underneath that is a continuation of people trying to strengthen democracy – particularly where they think that is what local actors want – so there is still a lot of academic engagement there.

The key role we play in this shifting environment is to provide the broader context to help decision makers. One of the most interesting debates of the last few years has been “do places like Africa need democracy to grow, or actually would they be better under authoritarian rule?”

This is probably one of the most important questions of our time, and one that we don’t yet have an answer to, and we need better research to guide us.

We often see people cherry-pick their case studies to support their argument. They can look at the worst performing democracy and compare it with an authoritarian state like Rwanda, that has secured higher economic growth, lifting people out of poverty. This is where researchers can provide more reliable analysis. We can look at a number of states, see what is typical and atypical, and point out the outliers that we perhaps shouldn’t be using to measure the merits of democracy.

When you do that, on average, democracies outperform authoritarian states when it comes to development. You can only do that with quality data from a number of places, and it is oftentimes the academics who help to collate that data and frame those important discussions. In that regard, our role has not changed.

Surely it is difficult to talk about ‘average democracies’ when they differ so much?

Without question. We have democracies that are more or less inclusive in terms of minorities and gender, we have parliamentary systems and presidential systems, and we have well-established democracies and those that are newly emerging. So yes, the idea of an ‘average democracy’ is a myth and therein lies a challenge: how do we talk about democracy without going in to so much detail that we lose people?

We also know that while almost all African countries are now holding elections of some sort, the quality of these varies massively. So talking about “African democracy” is misleading, because in some cases these are free and fair polls, and in some cases they are illusions of democracy because they are rigged from start to finish.

It’s a really murky area, and again, all the more reason to look at the wider context and try to recognise the variation that exists.

How is it possible to rig an election?

One might think that the most stable kind of regime you can imagine would be a consolidated democracy that holds elections that are free and fair, or an authoritarian state that holds no elections and clings to power with an iron fist.

Yet, surprisingly, what we find in our new book, How to Rig an Election, is that the most stable states are authoritarian regimes that hold elections. Why? Rather worryingly, it must be because it is actually easier and more beneficial to rig and election than it is to not hold them at all.

What I think we had failed to fully realised before is that leaders are not just rigging elections and limping back into power, they are actually using elections to strengthen their own positions. One reason for this is that elections legitimise you both domestically and internationally. For donors, for example, it is easier to fund a government that holds elections.

The other part of this story is that when governments refuse to hold elections it often inspires a broad coalition of parties coming together to oust the current power. The effectiveness of that groups stems from its unity. But by holding elections you can turn this group of powerful reformers into a disparate group who are fighting among themselves for leadership of the opposition.

If you add those two things together and you can start to see how holding elections can actually make things easier rather than harder for authoritarian leaders.

If we know this to be happening, why does the international community continue to support those regimes?

That is the key to it. You have the authoritarian regime pulling the wool over people’s eyes and an international community who are rhetorically committed to strengthening democracy but are also highly selective about who they criticise.

In some countries, leaders have set up ‘zombie observers’ for elections. These are groups, given official sounding acronyms, who are recruited to say that the elections are fair. This then leads to a situation in which you have genuine observers condemning the polls and zombie observers applauding them. The news headline then becomes ‘observers split on election quality’ and the leaders have generated plausible deniability.

There are also things that are both horrible, and horribly difficult to combat. Take Zimbabwe for example. If you want the elections to appear to be open and fair you cannot send state institutions like the police or army out to attack people. But what you can do is have people go out to rural areas who suffered greatly in 2007/2008 and do what people refer to as ‘shaking the matchbox’ – send a warning. You do not have to burn someone’s house down to intimidate them if you burnt their house down a decade ago and you are standing in front of them with a matchbox. That is a very powerful thing for people who remember what has happened in the past.

When this happens, international observers often say that it was a largely peaceful election with not that much direct evidence of human rights abuse, because it has been done through threats rather than actual violence. And yet we know it happens because that is exactly what happened in 2013.

Unfortunately, this is compounded when it comes to countries with great natural resources or of strategic importance. International actors may pull their punches as they need to remain friends with the regime. We see this very clearly when you compare the treatment of governments with oil and those without. We’ll typically push the latter towards democracy, and tolerate human rights abuses and rigged elections in the former.

Put it all together and you can see how leaders can rig elections and get away with it.

Does that put the idea of democracy in crisis?

It certainly poses a threat to the credibility of elections and the legitimacy of results, it gives people more chance to question if the right side won.

How much do you rely on local sources for your research?

Without hundreds of face-to-face interviews across dozens of countries, I would simply not be able to really grasp the issues and complexities. I try to spend as much time on the ground as possible. If you were not actually in Zimbabwe and you don’t talk to the victims of political violence, then it is near impossible to truly understand what ‘shaking the matchbox’ means.

And this is a very humbling experience. A lot of the material that I use only exists because of very brave people who are writing honest accounts and collating vital data in what are, more often than not, incredibly challenging circumstances.

Are there common themes as to how people describe democracy in the countries you visit?

There are certain commonalities; the right to have a say in things that have an effect on your life, fair and open elections, and freedom of speech.

There are variations too. People in Southern Africa tend to be more likely to refer to democracy in economic terms, whereas in other parts of Africa it is more common to talk about things like civil liberties, elections and rights.

Uganda presents an interesting case study. Under President Museveni, the government developed a ‘no-party’ democracy model where people where elected on individual merit rather than as part of a larger party. This was a flawed and problematic system for a number of reasons, but it is important that we understand how that shapes how people think about democracy in Uganda today. For all of its problems, people still believe in the individual merit model, thus strengthening the role of individuals and reducing the role of parties.

Compare that to South Africa, where ANC supporters believe so much in the movement that the party is significantly more important that than the individuals within it.

These histories of how democracies evolve can also shape ideas about what democracy is, and hence whether people think it is working well or not. In other words, the ideas are important, not just descriptive – they shape how politics plays out. As researchers, we gain so much from talking to people about these ideas and ideologies – we cannot provide reliable analysis without them.

2017 was seen as a significant year for democracy, are we likely to see that in 2018 too?

Very much so, although every year feels like a big year for democracy at the minute! There is a tendency for us to have a couple of results that we are surprised by each year, be it an unexpected democratic breakthroughs or a shift to authoritarianism.

This year we have a number of elections in what you would probably consider to be challenging environments for democracy to flourish – places like Zimbabwe. That is where the academic community can truly help by moving us from a focus on individual cases to broader patterns, and helping interested parties to understand the history and ideas at play.

Does that tendency for elections to surprise us create challenges for researchers?

Yes! I know people who have been halfway through a book on why Nigeria does not have transfers of power only to see it hold an election and change leadership.

What I often tell my students is that many of the places we work with are in a period of transition, they are not fixed, and as such you have to be flexible. A good motto for those working on new democracies is “expect change”.

Is there a danger that people are exposed to oversimplified views of what is happening in an election?

Absolutely. Nowadays you are asked to provide soundbites or provide a few hundred words for a blog, which forces you to condense these complexities into clear, easy to digest messages. This often does not give you the space you need to include caveats, depth and context.

Given the pressure that the media puts on us to provide glib answers and big predictions, we should be careful when it comes to forecasting the future, and always make sure that we bring in some complexities in a historically rooted analysis. I think that if knowledge is worth acquiring then it is worth sharing – and so I try to encourage my students, colleagues and others to persevere in trying to join the debate and enrich it by providing that nuance.

Banner image - photo by Gabrielle Lynch. All other photos courtesy of Professor Nic Cheeseman.


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