Understanding the Uneven Playing Field. The Multifaceted Role of Unfair Electoral Competition in a Non-Democratic Regime
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If you are running as an opposition candidate in an election in a non-democratic regime, you know that you are running against a candidate who has better access to the state than you. As a result, you are likely to have less resources at your disposal than your opponent, you are likely to receive less attention from the media, and if you need the assistance of supposedly independent arbiters such as the Electoral Management Body (EMB) or the court system, you are less likely to receive that help. All else being equal, you are at a disadvantage. You are competing on an uneven playing field. The opposition candidate understands would understand this, but a researcher would not be able to tell him why or what he can do about it. We still do not systematically understand what variations of unevenness exist, what drives this variation, what consequences it has, or what can be done to alleviate it. This has been the focus of this thesis project.
Minimally competitive but somewhat unfree and radically unfair electoral competitions has become increasingly common since the end of the Cold War, both as a result of authoritarian regimes being forced or volunteered to adopt multiparty elections (Schedler 2006; Levitsky and Way 2010) and more recently as democracies have started backsliding but preserved elections as the institutional path to power (Bermeo 2016). This thesis project contributes to the debate about the role of institutions in non-democracies in general and elections in particular by increasing our understanding of the role of the uneven playing field in nondemocracies. It does so by creating a general framework for empirical analysis of the playing field, and applying various aspects of the framework to the analysis of a particular regime: the National Resistance Movement (NRM) regime in Uganda. Through a series of articles, the project uses original data collected over six different fieldworks to describe what kind of variation in the playing field we find both across and within electoral cycles under NRM rule, as well as how subtle and non-visible practices such as self-censorship in the media are critical for understanding the playing field.
The design of the thesis is premised on recent reviews of the growing literature on election in non-democracies, which all highlight the lack of analyses based on small-to-medium-N studies that are built on general frameworks but nevertheless allow for contextualized and rich empirical descriptions of variations in non-democratic elections (Brancati 2014: 323; Gandhi and Lust-Okar 2009: 417; Haggard and Kaufman 2016: 127; Morse 2012: 189). The first set of contributions is conceptual. The basis of the thesis is a general framework constructed for analyzing the contested concept of the playing field. The playing field is defined as the balance between incumbent and opposition in access to resources, media and the law, and the different dimensions of the playing field are operationalized. This disaggregated but general understanding of the playing field allows for context-specific analysis that nevertheless addresses issues that are universal across countries and regimes. The project also addresses conceptual issues tied to complex concepts such as self-censorship and incumbent power retentions strategy.
The second set of contributions is methodological and empirical. First, the project discusses the methodological challenges of collecting data on the playing field in a non-democracy, and highlights the advantages of spending time in the field over longer periods and using interpretive techniques such as word association games. Second, the project utilizes the framework to present empirical mappings of the playing field in Uganda as described above, highlighting how the framework can be used to measure the playing field across time and space within a single regime. Third, the project uses this variation to probe causal questions the focus on both the causes and consequences of the uneven playing field. With regards to the consequences, it finds that formalization of unfair political competitions can consolidate an authoritarian regime in power that faces dissent from within the regime, but that the costs of doing so might potentially undermine the regime in the long run. However, both the analysis at the national level in Zambia and the analysis at sub-national level in Uganda highlight that the opposition does not necessarily win and incumbent lose when the playing field is at its most even.
With regards to the causes, the thesis highlights that variation in the strategy employed by the incumbent over time affects the tilt of the playing field by affecting the space available to mobilize on and the commercialization of politics. It also highlights that the playing field in the 2016 elections were significantly less uneven in areas where actors outside the regime such as opposition parties or media organizations were present and able to counteract the state-sponsored advantage of the NRM. Finally, it shows that non-observable practices such as self-censorship need to be accounted for when evaluating the playing field. Overall, the thesis shows that the complexity of the playing field deserves more attention than a simple verdict of even or uneven, and that the application of a general framework that allows us to drill deep and scale back up is a good point of departure for systematically doing so.