Elections, Legitimacy, and Compliance in Authoritarian Regimes
Can authoritarian regimes use elections to strengthen their legitimacy and reinforce compliance with their rule? An insightful literature demonstrates how elections enable autocrats to coerce and co-opt more effectively, but the relationship between elections, legitimacy, and compliance in authoritarian regimes remains under theorized and empirically untested. This paper develops an argument for why elections can strengthen legitimacy and compliance under autocratic rule, and it draws on observational and experimental survey data from authoritarian countries in the Arab world to evaluate this relationship. The evidence demonstrates 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 challenging the regime's power. 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.