Rigging Democracy: Maintaining Power Through Authoritarian Electoral Institutions in Jordan

By Kristen Kao
Submitted to Session P4622 (Shifting Patterns of Authoritarianism and Democratization, 2016 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
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Analysts have shown that dictatorships with elected legislatures last longer than those without elections, but there is disagreement about how elections might contribute to authoritarian durability. In this paper, I explore how leaders in autocracies utilize electoral institutions to maintain splintered political support and neutralize threats to their power through strategic redistribution of state resources. Much scholarly work describes how the distribution of patronage is an essential component to keeping power in many competitive authoritarian regimes. However, rarely does this employ empirical data from primary resources to back up this claim. In this paper, I analyze information garnered from constituent service records I collected from eight MPs in the long-lived hybrid regime of Jordan as well as the results of a nationwide survey (N=1,499) I carried out in 2014.

Almost all dictatorships use clientelist distribution to cement support, but they have difficulty preventing the benefits meant for ordinary citizens from being diverted into elite pockets. I argue that legislative elections increase regime longevity by creating a stratum of mid-level elites with strong incentives to deliver benefits from the central government to ordinary citizens, thus tying citizens into the regime’s support network. The data I present in this paper comprises of more than two thousand letters that parliamentarians wrote to the various arms of the regime on behalf of their constituents over periods from six months to more than two years. The survey provides attitudinal data from the Jordanian voters’ perspective on elections, clientelism, and tribalism. The results of this research offer important insights into the inner workings of clientelism and empirically establish that benefits are actually reaching constituents under authoritarianism.

Dictators want to hold elections to maintain support through clientelism, however they do not want to risk ouster. The data I present in this paper shows how the electoral institutional design in Jordan keeps elites divided as each MP is pitted against the others in the fight for patronage, diminishing their ability to unite in opposition against the regime. Elected elites become beholden to the various appointees of the ruler’s central coalition for their help in providing benefits to constituents. Moreover, I demonstrate empirically that the same tribes have been holding onto parliamentary seats from 1989 to 2013. Thus, the parliament provides the regime an affordable and durable means to favor certain sectors of the population with government benefits.