Elections, Legitimacy, and Compliance in Authoritarian Regimes: Evidence from the Arab World

An insightful literature demonstrates how elections enable autocrats to coerce and co-opt more effectively, but scholars have not evaluated empirically whether elections also allow autocrats to establish their commitment to democratic standards of governance. This paper argues that authoritarian regimes can and do use elections for this purpose, which increases citizens’ perceptions of their right to govern and decreases citizens’ willingness to engage in non-compliant behavior. To test this argument, the paper draws on observational and experimental survey data from authoritarian countries in the Arab world to show that respondents who perceive elections as more free and fair are more likely to express acceptance of the regime’s right to govern and less likely to participate in political protests. The findings suggest that authoritarian regimes can increase their durability by using elections to convince some of their citizens that they govern in accordance with the legitimating norm of electoral democracy

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