Timing and Targeting of State Repression in Authoritarian Elections


Political Science and International Affairs

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Autocrats face a fundamental tension: how to make elections appear credible (maintaining legitimacy) without losing control over outcomes (losing power). In this context, we claim that incumbents choose the timing and targets of state repression strategically. We expect that before elections, regimes will moderate their use of violence against ordinary citizens, while simultaneously directing state-sponsored repression towards opposition elites. Ordinary citizens are likely to experience greater repression after the election. We test these expectations using unique events-based repression data, conducting cross-national analysis of all presidential elections in authoritarian regimes from 1990 to 2008 to understand the timing and targeting of repression around elections under authoritarian regimes. In keeping with our expectations, we find that in the months prior and during the election, opposition leaders experience greater rates of repression than voters. We suspect that incumbents find it more effective to repress electoral challengers, since these pose a direct threat to their victory. Conversely, incumbents resist repressing voters whose support they need at the polls to win and to legitimize the election itself.