Guest essay by Kay Mohlman
I was moved to write in the wake of your analysis, which is pessimistically compelling. However, under the conditions of uncertainty that come with elections in far-less-than-democratic conditions, it’s impossible to accurately know what lies behind voter swings except that each of the past two elections have been exercises in uncertainty: an uncertain (surprising) outcome in 2011 and uncertain (frustrated) predictions in 2015.
Fine-grained analyses of the 2011 and 2015 general elections can be made, but I think it’s important as well to look at Singapore in some comparative perspective. Doing so may help us realise what, exactly, opposition parties and those who vote for them are up against when measured side by side with the many other countries that also hold far-less-than-democratic elections around the world. And fortunately, Andreas Schedler has done just that in his “Politics of Uncertainty: Sustaining and Subverting Electoral Authoritarianism” (Oxford 2013).
I’ve attached an overview with selected passages to give readers a sense of the whole. What emerges is a picture of just how unique Singapore is in this electoral authoritarian world: now the longest-lived and wealthiest such formation, with almost all of the concomitant conditions and manipulative skills that enable it to survive and thrive. While you may not agree with Schedler’s somewhat crude characterization of the country as a dictatorship, you may appreciate his own highlighting — as probably the most informed scholar of the electoral authoritarian landscape, based on carefully measured and analysed world data — of just how formidable the Singapore case is. What are the other countries that share Singapore’s hegemonic electoral authoritarian characteristics today? Apparently only Gabon and Tanzania. With these countries as the closest comparable cases, it’s pretty obvious that Singapore is in a class all by itself.
And knowing this, I myself would see the outcome as the result of local shortcomings of both the electorate and the opposition, but also as the result of conditions of authoritarian development. These conditions of truly world-historic proportions mean, as you know, the game of elections and of politics is played under highly skewed conditions. It’s no small thing for Workers’ Party to have managed to hold on to almost all of the seats they won previously. As Schedler says, “To repeat my mantra: Elections are not causes, but arenas. The cause of democratizing change cannot be won unless opposition gladiators step into the arena and face the authoritarian lion. No fight, no victory.”
I’ve now got the benefit of looking at all this from a comfortable distance away in Malaysia, glad that I don’t have to stomach the triumphalist celebrations firsthand. But I hope my contribution here can at least provide some idea of just how “out there” Singapore is on the spectrum, when seen from a comparative perspective. The demoralized and defeated should not be beating themselves up.
(Explanatory note by Yawning Bread: In the extracts below, text in blue are quoted from Andreas Schedler’s book. Text in black are clarifications by Kay Mohlman.)
Notes from Andreas Schedler, “The Politics of Uncertainty: Sustaining and Subverting Electoral Authoritarianism” (Oxford 2013)
What is electoral authoritarianism? What’s the difference between competitive and hegemonic electoral authoritarian regimes? Which type is Singapore—competitive or hegemonic?
Electoral authoritarian regimes establish the institutions of liberal democracy on paper, yet subvert them in practice through severe, widespread, and systematic manipulation…Their manipulative maneuvers are neither light nor accidental, but severe and systematic enough to fracture the minima moralia of democratic elections.
Six electoral authoritarian regimes included in the dataset were founded before 1980: Mexico (1929), Paraguay (1954), Indonesia (1968), Malaysia (1957), Philippines (1972) and Singapore (1965).
Within the broad family of electoral authoritarian regimes, hegemonic regimes succeed in establishing a stable set of interlocking perceptions and expectations: the ruling power always wins, and is expected to, for it is popular and powerful, and perceived as such. In competitive regimes, the nested game of authoritarian elections is more open. Both the power and the popularity are more uncertain and contested, and the outcome of elections less predictable…
…cases of ‘competitive’ authoritarianism… allow for higher levels of electoral uncertainty. They manipulate the electoral game, but they do not control it as tightly as hegemonic regimes do. Lacking the aura of invincibility hegemonic parties possess, competitive regimes are more insecure, less institutionalized. Ruling parties keep winning those elections that allow them to occupy the chief executive office. Yet, on average, their margins of victory are smaller and more volatile; they often do not control constitutional majorities, and sometimes not even absolute majorities, in the national legislature; and they frequently have trouble controlling non-elected state officials… In competitive [electoral authoritarian] regimes, opposition parties are still supposed to lose the big prize of the electoral game, the presidency. Yet they may win lesser prizes and can always hope to land a surprise and dislodge the incumbent in a ‘stunning election’.
I rely on two observational proxies to distinguish hegemonic [electoral authoritarian] regimes from competitive [electoral authoritarian] regimes: a minimum duration of ten years (since the assumption of power by the ruling coalition) and the continuous control of legislative supermajorities (with the ruling party holding at least two-thirds of seats in the Lower House).
Appendix A, Table A3, Hegemonic party regimes 1980-2002:
Albania, Mexico, Paraguay, Egypt, Tunisia, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Gabon, Guinea, Mauritania, Senegal, Tanzania, Togo, Zimbabwe, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore
Hegemonic regimes are long-lived by definition and inherently stable. They are not immortal, though. Except for Singapore, Gabon, and Tanzania, none of the hegemonic regimes in my dataset has survived beyond the year 2012. That does not mean they have all democratized. Actually only a handful did. The two stellar cases are Mexico and Indonesia…After President Suharto resigned in 1988 in the wake of economic crisis and popular unrest, Indonesia took a direct leap from hegemonic party rule to electoral democracy. Other hegemonic regimes have evolved into competitive [electoral authoritarian] regimes. Malaysia did so in 2008 when the governing UMNO lost its legislative supermajority.
With the exception of Singapore, all hegemonic [electoral authoritarian] party regimes that predated the fall of the Berlin Wall have disappeared.
What conditions support electoral authoritarian regimes?
Regarding economic development:
…The more well-to-do a competitive [electoral authoritarian] regime, the lesser the chances that it will sustain high margins of victory. In hegemonic regimes, by contrast, wealth works the way it works under democracy: stabilizing the status quo. The more well-to-do a hegemonic regime, the greater its chances of sustaining dizzying margins of victory. If poverty is a source of electoral security in competitive regimes, in hegemonic regimes it is wealth. The former are safe under conditions of scarcity, the latter under conditions of affluence.
Regarding economic performance:
…I use a standard indicator of macroeconomic conditions to assess the impact of economic junctures on authoritarian electoral outcomes: annual changes in per capita income (average values for the five years preceding the election year). Hegemonic regimes behave as expected. Just as they benefited from average wealth, they benefit from medium-term growth. Competitive regimes, by contrast, move counter the clock of economic conditions. Just as they were harmed by affluence, they seem hurt by growth. Rather than bolster the incumbent, past economic growth rates seem to embolden the opposition. Competitive [electoral authoritarian] regimes seem to suffer from macroeconomic success.
Regarding societal cleavages:
To trace the impact of social cleavages on authoritarian electoral politics, I focus on one prominent structural variable: income inequality (Gini index)…In principle, we should expect inequality to erode the electoral support of incumbents and aid the cause of opposition parties. Yet…my data frustrate this simple hypothesis…in hegemonic regimes [social inequality] seems to aid the electoral dominance of incumbents rather than debilitating it…Apparently, the production of social inequality is a rational strategy for hegemonic regimes.
Which kind of strategy most benefits hegemonic electoral authoritarian regimes at election time?
Hegemonic regimes are highly effective manipulators. At similar levels of manipulation, they enjoy much higher levels of institutional security than their competitive counterparts…the magic wand of their authoritarian effectiveness is the exclusion of competitors. Hegemonic regimes are more exclusionary on average than competitive regimes, and exclusion stands out as their most effective authoritarian strategy…More than we commonly realize, their electoral hegemony seems to be grounded in their exclusionary nature.
While highly institutionalized by definition, hegemonic regimes benefit from further strengthening their institutional framework. Their power and duration allow them to shape their societal environment. In part, their electoral dominance derives from the ability to create the structural conditions that support electoral dominance: wealth, growth and social inequality.
What about prospects for change?
Since the mid-1990s…hegemonic [electoral authoritarian] regimes have become more stable than closed [non-electoral] regimes, while competitive [electoral authoritarian] regimes have turned into the least stable regime category…
The exciting panorama of transitions from and to hegemonic party rule should not make us forget existing instances of continuing hegemonic persistence. The most puzzling case is Singapore under the PAP. Singapore is a scary creature. On its glittering surface, it projects the frightening image of a consumerist dictatorship where everyone is happy and quiescent, content with inhabiting a clean and orderly desert of concrete, postmodern design, and the latest generation of smart phones. The public image of consensual authoritarianism may be deceptive, though…. The regime is implacable in imposing its full weight on its frail and feeble opposition. It is one of those hyper-allergic dictatorships that respond with regulatory hysteria to the smallest manifestations of dissidence. And yet. The regime, a Westminster-style parliamentary autocracy with majoritarian election rules, has enjoyed an unbroken near-monopoly of legislative seats since its foundation. However, in all general elections since 1984 (except for 2001), it has received less than two-thirds of thelegislative votes. Despite the self-evident futility of the act, more than one-third of Singaporeans regularly waste their votes on opposition candidates. At some point, which we cannot predict but anticipate, the brave new world of the clinically clean dictatorship without corruption, protesters, or chewing gum on the streets, may exhale its artificial life without warning.
To repeat my mantra: Elections are not causes, but arenas. The cause of democratizing change cannot be won unless opposition gladiators step into the arena and face the authoritarian lion. No fight, no victory.
Kay Mohlman used to teach at the National University of Singapore, Department of Sociology.