Undermining Democracy? ‘Independent’ Election Commissions in Non-Democratic Regimes

Most non-democratic regimes today hold periodic elections, a phenomenon that has attracted considerable interest of scholars around the world. While we now have a relatively good understanding why authoritarian rulers allow their populations to go to the polls, and the ways in which they try to manipulate these polls to ensure the power does not change hands, we still know very little about the institutions responsible for organising them. Often referred to as election commissions or in some cases councils (Venezuela) or committees (Cambodia), these institutions have a substantial impact on the quality of elections making them prime targets for political pressure and manipulation, especially in non-democratic regimes.

A common solution to this problem, frequently recommended by scholars and practitioners, has been the introduction of formal independence – in other words, legally separating election commissions from the executive branch of government. Yet, as we show in our article in Politics, far from being an effective solution to undue political pressure and influence, formal independence comes with its own problems and challenges. Using the example of the Election Commission of Thailand, we argue that formal independence creates opportunities for long-term capture of electoral commissions by actors who wield power outside of formal politics and are unaccountable to public interest. As a result, formal independence may become part of the problem that perpetuates low-quality elections in countries like Thailand, which have 1) high levels of political polarisation, 2) weak or no liberal democratic tradition and 3) entrenched political elites.

The Election Commission of Thailand (ECT) was established in 1997 as a result of elite-driven liberal political reforms aimed at institutionalising a form of rule that would preserve the power and interests of Thailand’s old elite – the monarchy, military and senior bureaucracy – amid growing demands for greater democracy. Its primary purpose was to protect the old elite from politicians, not to foster the country’s democratic development. When it failed to do that, following the rise of Thailand’s controversial former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (2001-2006), the old elite took control of the election commissioner selection process and increased the ECT’s formal independence so much so that it became virtually unaccountable to public interest. This led to decreasing electoral standards and increasingly contentious polls culminating in the 2019 election, when the ECT was more interested in pleasing the old elite than ensuring administrative efficiency, effectiveness of voting and level-playing field for all parties involved. The ECT’s actions during the 2019 election reduced Thailand’s prospects for a peaceful return to democracy after almost five years of direct military rule as those who oppose the old elite cannot effectively challenge it through formal means.

What our article shows is that the introduction of formally independent electoral commissions to certain non-democratic contexts might forestall rather than support the development of democratic processes as these ‘independent’ commissions become available to actors outside of formal politics. These are important findings given the fact that elections in more than 80 per cent of non-democratic regimes are organised by formally independent election commissions.

“There is no alternative”?

The term ‘populist’ is so nebulously undefined, due ironically to it being an over-defined term, that the eternal chicken-and-egg question of meaning has never held such weight. In other words, are we defining ‘populist’ by its expressions in the world, or are we defining political movements according to a clearly defined set of criteria that we can label ‘populist’? And, most importantly, are we simply defining as populist those political movements we simply dislike?

The aim of my recent article in Politics was to join previously unconnected dots in the two fields of populist/m studies, and depoliticisation, especially following the emergence in both fields of interest in the term ‘anti-politics’. Populism has, at times, been given the epithet ‘anti-politics’, due in part to its attempt to silence critics, often using the very mechanisms of official political systems it seeks to challenge; consider Hugo Chavez’s use of the Venezuelan Constitution to close down independent media, or Viktor Orbán’s suspension of the Hungarian Parliament in the face of the coronavirus crisis in April of last year. Similarly, but unconnected, was a proliferation of interest in depoliticisation studies of how the practice can be considered to be ‘anti-politics’, usually due to a Laclauian-Mouffean attempt to redefine politics qua agonism.

However, the paper to which I made major references – Canovan’s ‘Trust the People!’ – stressed heavily the idea that populism emerges in frustration, specifically with institutional politics seemingly lying beyond the capacity of the people’s control, and usually because of conscious acts by elites to do so. Canovan, in many ways, predicted the iconic ‘Take Back Control’ line of 2016, as well as Trump’s semi-official ‘Drain the Swamp!’ chant. I remember this striking me as prescient, and yet unnoticed by depoliticisation studies, which were making so much out of the very phenomenon Canovan was identifying.

In sum, in my article I attempted to show three things: one, that depoliticisation does not always tend in the direction of ‘anti-politics’; two, that populism is not ‘anti-politics’, but quite the opposite; and three, that depoliticisation can be a major factor in the emergence of populism. Indeed, two popular books published closely together – Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere, and Goodwin and Eatwell’s National Populism – dedicated healthy page counts to the ‘revolt’ of voters who felt their views were not only unrepresented, but consciously removed from the electoral agenda.

It is my hope that this paper sparks debate over how far political leaders and the political class ought to ‘depoliticise’ topics, especially for an extended period of time, if they wish to avoid a ‘populist backlash’.

The second-order spell: How domestic politics determines the outcomes of European elections

The European Parliament (EP) has evolved into one of the most important parliamentary bodies on the planet. Directly elected since 1979, it represents almost half a billion people and exercises great power over the lives of Europeans. The growing influence of the European Parliament has renewed interest in EP elections – a unique large-scale democratic exercise, considering that the EP is the world’s only directly elected transnational parliament.

More than forty years ago, German political scientists Karlheinz Reif and Hermann Schmitt famously argued that EP elections are second-order national contests that are dominated by national issues and have little to do with European integration. Because EP elections do not lead to the formation of government, little is at stake for voters as well as parties. In this context, voters use EP elections to send signals to domestic political parties, instead of expressing preferences regarding European integration. Symptoms of second-order status include low turnout, losses for large, mainstream and government parties, and gains for small, fringe and opposition parties. According to the second-order model, voters are particularly inclined to punish political incumbents when EP elections occur in the middle of the national election cycle.

The second-order model of EP elections has been challenged on a number of accounts. Over the last few decades, the question of European integration has been politicised and has entered mass politics, constituting an important political divide and driving the rise of populist, extremist, and Eurosceptic parties. Several studies have shown that voters have policy preferences not only at the domestic level but also at the European level, and that they take these into account when casting a vote in EP elections. Finally, it has been argued that while the second-order model applies well in Western Europe, it does not explain electoral outcomes in Eastern European member states — a difference often attributed to unconsolidated party systems in new democracies.

In our recent article in Politics, we ask whether the second-order model of EP elections still applies.  We analysed the electoral performance of political parties in all EP elections held between 1979 and 2019 and found considerable support to the second-order model. Turnout in EP elections continues to be significantly lower than in national elections, except in countries with compulsory voting such as Belgium. Large parties systematically lose votes in EP elections, compared to preceding national elections. Government parties also lose support, and incumbent losses are especially pronounced in a mid- or late phase of the national electoral cycle. We also found that second-order predictions hold almost equally well in Western and Eastern Europe, and that the model’s performance does not appear to depend on the level of party system consolidation.

Thus, despite its advanced age and the profound transformation of both the EU and the EP, the second-order elections model appears to be doing well. This, however, does not constitute good news for the EU, as the second-order electoral logic is associated with a range of risks and problems, including a fragmented parliament with a questionable mandate to determine the extent and course of European integration, a strong representation of extremist and protest parties, and built-in friction between the EP and the EU’s intergovernmental institutions controlled by national political incumbents. The persisting gap between the EP’s vastly increased powers and its questionable mandate will continue to fuel efforts to turn EP elections into genuine European contests. Breaking the second-order spell, however, may require nothing short of major institutional reforms.

Shared Values or Shared Interests: Revisiting ‘the Arab Spring’

With the tenth anniversary of the Arab Spring approaching, political and academic analysis  will revisit possible causes for the failure of popular movements across the region to deliver upon their aspirations for peaceful political change. One crucial part of the answer is of course the ferocious response by authoritarian regimes. Early on, the brutal repression these regimes employed in their quest for survival raised the question of what, if anything, the international community could do about it.

In the case of Libya, the debate centred around the decision by Western countries to escalate their efforts beyond the immediate protection of civilians at risk of government violence to bring about the fall of the regime of Gaddhafi itself. This example as well as the earlier experience with regime change in Iraq then shaped arguments over whether the international community should intervene in Syria as well.

Our recent article in Politics contributes to the wider debate over foreign intervention in the region by utilizing data on support for a hypothetical military intervention to remove Bashar al-Assad from power during the early stages of the uprising. We show that in 2012 publics in two central Arab Spring countries (Egypt and Tunisia) were not uniformly hostile to the idea of forcibly removing Assad from power. The central question was thus not whether or even what type of intervention (sanctions or military force) should occur, but who should be in charge. While support for sanctions and military force led by Arab governments achieved similar levels of support, the use of military force led by the United States was rather more controversial. Our analysis sought to explain this pattern.

Building on the crucial distinction between policy-driven and culture-driven Anti-Americanisms, we find that in Egypt and Tunisia support for military intervention led by the United States correlated with the perception that the Obama administration was pursuing policies, which were of benefit to the respondent’s country. We thus see evidence for a nuanced and calculated evaluation of the policies of external actors toward the region, which contradict Orientalist tropes about a supposedly irrational ‘Arab street’.

At the same time, we find that noticeably positive views of US culture explain the considerably stronger support for US intervention among the Tunisian public. In other words, beyond the calculated evaluation of the US and its foreign policies sits a deeply sceptical view not just of what the United States does, but of what it represents. This view of US culture as inherently inferior and/or threatening translates into a perception that the United States is inherently hostile to Arab interests. It thus becomes clear that the United States is capable of generating support for its foreign policy initiatives even in supposedly hostile environments by designing policies that international audiences see as beneficial and through rebuilding and more effectively utilizing its remaining soft power capabilities.

The anti-slavery and anti-trafficking rhetoric of UK non-government organisations

Modern slavery and human trafficking is an exemplary case of the strong framing effect of rhetoric on public policy. It is textured by passionate discourse about the exploitation of victims  and the crimes of traffickers. Drawing on a proud history of British abolitionists, contemporary anti-slavery campaigners envision themselves as carrying on the fight, taking a central role in framing the modern slavery problem through their mobilising efforts to arouse public sympathy, raise awareness and attract resources.

Through rhetoric, non-government organisations engage in a politics of representing modern slavery in a humanitarian frame, to elicit compassion and support for victims, in opposition to the crime and security frame supported by government. Understanding the grain of anti-slavery rhetoric within this humanitarian frame contributes to a better understanding of modern slavery framing politics.

Our recent article in Politics examines the rhetoric of UK contemporary anti-slavery NGOs, supplemented by a historical comparison with 19th century anti-slavery rhetoric. The research examines continuities and disjunctions in the representation of the problem to discover the persuasive appeals that generate the audience’s sympathy for victims and motivation to act.

We examined the webpages of 212 British NGOs active in anti-slavery work, identifying key themes and rhetorical strategies of persuasion. We supplemented this with a study of texts held in anti-slavery archives at the John Rylands Library. The most common appeals of contemporary NGOs are based in pathos, in which the audience is motivated to hold positive feelings for victims, who would benefit from experiencing empowerment, hope, compassion, love, belonging and dignity in the eyes of others. Ethos also features, in values of freedom and honesty/integrity. It is notable that logos is not present at all. These modes of persuasion confirm the highly emotional tone of activist rhetoric. They are also compatible with liberal Christian values. Practically, they aim to reduce the feeling of distance between audience and victim. Despite the criminality that concerns anti-trafficking policy, the crime frame was marginal.

When we compared contemporary rhetoric with historical anti-slavery rhetoric, we found many similarities, but also differences. Contemporary activists, like their predecessors, primarily appealed to the pathos of the audience, their compassion for victims of exploitation and desire to help. They also appealed to ethos, shared liberal values, in many cases grounded in explicitly Christian ethics and sense of responsibility. Contemporary activists draw strong continuities with their predecessors. But where contemporary rhetoric differed was that, in the past, orators had to convince the audience that slaves were equal human beings. Today, the problem for NGOs is to persuade the audience that slavery still exists and is close to home. In short, rhetoric aims to overcome the sense of distance from the problem in order to motivate the audience to care and to act. We argue that, given the necessity for NGOs to enlist supporters and raise funds in an environment of scarce resources, their rhetoric will continue to frame trafficking through emotional language, and will continue to frame the problem in terms of slavery.

The role of ethnicity in the perception of pork barrel politics

Since elections are repetitively organized in democratic systems, politicians are incentivized to think about their electoral prospects. Political science provides ample evidence that incumbents try to distribute public budgets in a way that aims to improve their chances to be re-elected. However, public resources are not unlimited and hence politicians cannot please everyone, therefore a good question is how they decide where to direct the financial flow? Scholars of divided societies and new democracies have observed that, in these contexts, clientelism and ethno-politics appear to go hand in hand and politicians often direct the public funds predominantly towards the ethnic group closest to their own background, because its members are already inclined to cast a ballot along this ethnic link.

Though, prioritizing one’s own social group (or ingroup, if you will) constitutes an apparently unfair and partial strategy. On the one hand, members of the benefiting group may experience an important psychological boost deriving from being treated well. On the other hand, evolutionary psychology suggests that individuals have aversion to political leaders who are believed to act from their own selfish ambition, and thus endanger the interest of the larger group. These two conflicting lines of thinking impose a question: Does shared ethnicity between an individual and a decision-maker constitute a bond strong enough so the individuals tend to become less critical when they evaluate politicians’ pork barrel practices?

In our recent article in Politics, we present results of an original survey experiment in ethnically heterogeneous Slovakia (whose population includes 8.5% Hungarians). Our respondents were randomly presented with one of the scenarios in which the newly designated EU funding scheme included either Slovakia or Hungary as a result of either partial or impartial decision of a Slovak or a Hungarian decision-maker.

When we compared responses of Slovaks and Hungarians in our sample, the results revealed that shared ethnicity makes individuals less critical of the decision-makers who implement pork barrel practices. Hungarians were comparably likely to trust and willing to vote for both Slovak and Hungarian decision-makers even though the decision by the Hungarian politician to direct the funds to Hungary brings them no benefit (because all our respondents resided in Slovakia). This is in stark contrast to Slovaks, whose trust level and willingness to vote drop once the resources are assigned by a Hungarian decision-maker to Hungary. Hence, Hungarians remained positive in their evaluation of ethnically close decision-maker even though his decision brought them no benefit.

However, this applies only to the personal evaluation of the decision-maker. When we asked respondents how much they support such a distribution policy, Slovaks and Hungarians alike were less likely to support biased distribution of public resources. Therefore, individuals may be more favourable in their evaluation of decision-makers with whom they share ethnic origins, but shared ethnicity does not blind their perception of “pork barrel” practices and they are less likely to support such policies.

Miroslav Nemčok, Olivera Komar, Nemanja Batrićević, Michal Tóth & Peter Spáč



Algorithmic rhetoric

With the Brexit political drama and the Trump presidency, analysts and journalists alike have accounted for a transformation of the common sense and the dealignment of the political landscape by focusing on the use of language, questioning the limits of acceptability and the effectiveness of rhetoric. In parallel to this shifting political reality, rhetorical analysis has been flourishing in political studies: for instance, studies have focused on the ritualistic character of speech moments in the British political calendar, on the use of anecdotes or on the use of melodrama in conflictual rhetoric. We now have useful tools to study changes in rhetorical culture, however what is often missing in this debate is the role of technology in transforming speeches. What does social media do to rhetoric?

In my recent article in Politics, I examine in detail the role played by social media platforms and their algorithms in the production and delivery of political speeches. Using the recent literature on critical algorithms studies, I develop a new approach in rhetorical political analysis. I demonstrate that by ignoring the means of communication, we continue to adopt an outdated conception of technology as a set of simple tools used by orators to get their ideas across. On the contrary, social media platforms and their algorithms condition our experience of political speeches as well as the design of speech situations. More specifically in my article, I break down this influence by turning to four conditionalities of algorithms on rhetoric:

  1. Programmed speech content: social media platforms favour specific content and influencers have trained themselves to get maximum exposure (by ‘gaming’ the algorithms) by adapting both the form and the content of their posts. Online celebrities are now using politics and the so-called ‘culture wars’ to make a living, becoming ‘rhetorical entrepreneurs’ (through donations on websites like Patreon).
  2. The verticalisation of political communication: I show the processes by which certain political speeches get prioritised and stay on top of news feeds. Rhetoric is not an even playing field and mediators categorise and filter the content presented to users. I have called this process a verticalisation of speech to help us make sense of the multitude of operations that help certain speeches get seen and heard.
  3. Digital biases: when algorithms select content to be prioritised, they do so according to social norms, values and assumptions. Rhetoric is not immune from the digital biases that compose our technology-enhanced reality. I therefore conclude that this is one of the reasons why rhetoric is so white. A solution is not simply to fix the algorithms or ‘racist bots’ but to tackle the social reality of racism itself.
  4. The rhetorical machine learning: speechwriters and politicians are hiring Artificial Intelligence (AI) companies to help with campaigning. Computer scientists created a basic AI machine ‘Political Speech Generation’ to demonstrate the possible uses of machine learning in rhetoric. I show how this example can help us imagine the future effects of AI on the creativity of rhetoric.

In sum, I provide a new framework in rhetoric that integrates into it a technological analysis in the hope that it alerts us to the role of algorithms in speech interventions while contributing more widely to the growing debate on rhetoric and the media.

Populism, the media and the mainstreaming of the far right: The Guardian’s coverage of populism as a case study

Populism seems to define our current political age. The term is splashed across the headlines, brandished in political speeches and commentaries, and applied extensively in numerous academic publications. In fact, it has become so ubiquitous that The Cambridge Dictionary made it ‘word of the year’ in 2017, since it represented ‘a phenomenon that’s both truly local and truly global, as populations and their leaders across the world wrestle with issues of immigration and trade, resurgent nationalism, and economic discontent’.  This trend can also be witnessed in academia, where the volume of studies on populism has skyrocketed. For example, searching the Web of Science database reveals that the number of publications containing populis* in the title, abstract or keywords has risen sharply, from 310 between 1970-79, to 1498 between 2000-09, before more than quadrupling to 6482 from 2010-19.

Through a combination of Discourse Theory, Critical Discourse Studies and Corpus Linguistics, we explore the way in which the concept of populism has been hyped in elite discourse and the consequences this has had. Building on the growing body of literature that provides a critical account of populism and ‘populist studies’, with particular attention paid to anti-populist trends and the populist hype, this article uses The Guardian newspaper and its ‘new populism’ series as a case study to explore the ways in which the populist hype has not only been constructed and developed, but also the logics it has pushed and imposed in public discourse.

In our recent article in Politics, we outline some of the main issues and dangers deriving from the uncritical use of populism, both as a term and concept. We outline that its careless and uncritical use can have a number of detrimental effects, namely:

  • The denial of agenda-setting power and the process of deflection, whereby media actors, but also politicians, are allowed to shirk their responsibility and power to influence public discourse, placing responsibility on communities such as the working class;
  • Euphemisation and trivialisation, whereby politics traditionally and academically defined as racist, nativist or far right, are either described through the less stigmatising ‘populism’ or associated with all manner of things, thus blurring their meaning;
  • Amplification, whereby certain movements, actors and ideas are given disproportionate coverage at the expense of others.

Through the clear conceptualisation of detrimental effects and their illustration, we do not argue for the complete withdrawal of the term, but hope to contribute towards its more critical and thoughtful use in the media and public discourse more generally.

Are prime ministers held personally accountable for the performance of their government?

In recent decades, parliamentary elections have become more and more leader-centric, with the competition between the leading candidates of main political parties for prime ministerial office, their campaign appearances and TV debates, drawing much attention by the media. Likewise, parties increasingly rely on leaders to mobilise voters and convince them to cast their ballot for the party. This change in electoral behaviour has been described as personalization of parliamentary elections and is also an important feature in the presidentialization of parliamentary systems.

While research into the personalization of parliamentary politics has provided crucial insights into long-term changes in advanced democracies, the rising influence of leaders has also raised concerns over the rationality of voting behaviour in parliamentary elections, in which voters should optimally reward or punish incumbent parties and secure the accountability of the parties in office. In contrast, the rising influence of popular leaders suggests that leaders’ charisma and personality are becoming more dominant drivers of voting behaviour. This may enable political parties to avoid accountability in parliamentary elections by selecting charismatic leaders as prime ministerial candidates.

In my recent article published in Politics, I address these concerns and test whether electoral accountability for government performance can be extended to leaders who have obtained office and serve as prime minister. I argue that prime ministers will be held personally accountable for government performance by voters, because they are influential agenda-setters in parliamentary governments. Therefore, control over the prime ministership serves as heuristic for voters to decide to whom they should assign responsibility for outcomes created under joint-decision making in cabinets. This leads to an attributional assessment in which voters’ evaluation of the prime minister depends on voters’ perception of government performance; even if government outputs are created by joint decision-making in cabinet. To answer my question I study voting behaviour in British, Danish and German parliamentary elections between 1983 and 2017. In addition, I exploit an as-if-random prime ministerial replacement in the German state of Lower Saxony to assess whether reverse causality could be at work and voters’ evaluation of the government’s performance could depend on their evaluation of the prime minister.

My findings show that prime ministers are indeed held accountable for their government’s performance by voters. This also means that the influence of prime ministers on vote choices is likely to be overestimated when government performance is omitted from statistical analysis. Furthermore, my findings on Danish elections indicate that those prime ministers who tend to enjoy less influence over decision-making in their government, will also be held personally accountable for government performance to a lesser extent. However, more definite conclusions on this issue are subject to further research.

In conclusion, it appears that personalisation does not endanger the function of parliamentary elections as a tool of accountability for performance in office, because prime ministers’ influence on vote choice is not only a result of their charismatic relationship with the electorate, but also driven by the performance of prime ministers in office.

Public Consultation Leads to More (and Informed) Civic Participation

Across the globe, governments and civil society organizations are recruiting citizens to participate in public consultation exercises. For instance, a random group of citizens, i.e., a mini-public, meet for an hour or several days to learn about a policy issue and evaluate different policy options. These intensive public consultations are usually designed to provide public input into a policy issue, but these consultations may have additional outcomes. How does participation in these exercises affect citizens’ future participation in civic and political activities? Do they become disinterested and unengaged? Or do they become more interested, better informed and more engaged?

Existing research has not provided consistent findings. Some studies find that participation in these activities increases citizens’ political interest and engagement and other studies do not find changes. These studies rely on asking former participants whether they think their levels of political interest and engagement have increased or they have asked participants about their future willingness to engage in civic and political activities. Studies rarely track participation over a long period of time, which would provide insights into how these deliberation experiences could lead to not only attitudinal but behavioral changes.

Our study, recently published in the journal Politics, tracks 56 participants over 2.5 years to examine how participation in a six-day mini-public about climate change affects political knowledge, political interest, as well as volunteering in the community, contacting officials, participating in boycotts, donating money to civic organizations, and trying to persuade others to change their mind about a political issue. To make sure that the changes over the 2.5 years are related to the consultation exercises and not some other factors, we also conducted a random-digit dialing (RDD) poll of 400 citizens to serve as a comparison group.

We find that people who participated in these consultations were much more likely to be become opinion leaders, trying to persuade others about a political issue. We see a pattern of increasing activity over time, but we also see a clear difference between participants and 400 citizens who did not participate in the event (opinion poll). Participants were also more likely to contact politicians or local government officials, over the course of this 2.5 year time period. They changed. As a result of this change, participants were more likely to contact an official, compared to the poll respondents. Finally, participants reported a higher level of knowledge about the policy-making process – a change that can be attributed to participation in this intense public consultation exercise. Participants, on average, reported higher levels of political knowledge compared to poll respondents.


While these consultation exercises are typically designed to gathered public input into policy-making, our paper reveals that these exercises may have additional outcomes. Citizens may become more informed about the political process and they may take a leadership role in their community, trying to persuade others, using their newly developed knowledge about a policy issue as well as trying to persuade public officials to act upon pressing policy issues. Overall, these citizens seem to become knowledgeable and engaged community leaders.