When the Great Power Gets a Vote: The Effects of Great Power Electoral Interventions on Election Results

In democracies, national level elections are important events, enabling a peaceful change in the makeup of the main decision-makers and at times leading to major foreign and domestic policy shifts. Likewise, in quite a few regimes which are far from being full democracies, relatively competitive elections can have significant effects, in some cases even leading to the fall of the existing leadership or regime and a full scale transition to democracy. As a result, competitive elections can become an important target for foreign interveners.

Great powers have not ignored this opportunity. Indeed, partisan electoral interventions- attempts by outside powers to determine the election results in another country, are a quite common form of foreign intervention. Between 1946 and 2000, the U.S. and the USSR/Russia have intervened in this manner 117 times - or, put another way, in about one of every nine competitive national level executive elections during this period. A large range of covert and overt (and usually non-violent) methods has been used for this purpose from campaign funding for the preferred side to public threats to cut off foreign aid (or public offers of various benefits) in the event of victory by the disfavored side. Nevertheless, there has been scant scholarly research on this topic. This paper investigates one particular aspect of partisan electoral interventions- its possible effects on election results.

I make two major arguments about the effects of electoral interventions on election results. First I claim that partisan electoral interventions are usually effective: the great power intervention increases the electoral chances of the aided candidate or party. Would-be interveners tend to avoid supporting electoral ‘lost causes’ usually preferring to avoid the costs involved in such a futile intervention. Likewise, would-be local recipients of electoral aid usually prefer to reject it if they are in a situation where they already have a pretty good chance of winning. This is due to the various medium and longer term costs that such assistance may impose on the recipient. For example,  overt electoral interventions can erode a party’s  domestic appeal in subsequent elections  with voters increasingly preferring parties perceived as less ‘beholden’ to a particular foreign power. Accordingly, the resources provided through the electoral intervention to the preferred candidate (or party) will usually be given only in situations where they have a good chance of benefiting the assisted side in practice (i.e. marginal elections).

Second, I claim that overt electoral interventions are more effective than covert interventions. This stands in stark contrast to the widespread belief that any public foreign intervention of any kind in domestic affairs is bound to fail due to domestic ‘backlash’. Electoral interventions usually involve significant amounts of cooperation between the two sides where the recipient, utilizing its ‘local knowledge’, informs the intervener about the best ways to intervene in its favor.

A great power will intervene publicly only when it is informed by the recipient that the intervention won’t lead to a domestic backlash. If a backlash is likely, the great power will intervene covertly. However, in situations in which a backlash is unlikely, an overt intervention is usually more effective than a covert one. The greater effectiveness of overt interventions in such situations is because the great power usually has a resource advantage over the target’s politicians and can thus publicly  out-promise  the transfer (or denial) of various goods to the target’s public  in return for it voting for the preferred party. In contrast, a covert intervention, from its very nature, is limited in the amount of or type of resources it can provide without ‘blowing the cover’.  As a result of this strategic behavior, when an overt electoral intervention is used, the intervener is more likely to succeed than when it uses a covert intervention.

Utilizing a new dataset of such American and Soviet/Russian interventions, I find support for both arguments.  Overall electoral interventions are quite effective, increasing the vote share of the preferred candidate or party by about 3% on average.  Likewise, overt interventions are significantly more effective than covert interventions in both the substantive and statistical sense. When I afterwards analyze the ‘real life’ effects of electoral interventions in a few specific cases of important intervened elections,  I find that the effect predicted by my statistical model in those instances is frequently large enough to have determined who won or lost the election.

This study shows that even when foreign powers do not use force (whether overtly or covertly) towards a democracy, they can still exert a major influence over the nature of its leadership- and they are frequently willing and able to use this option.  Accordingly, in a world in which military interventions are increasingly costly and democracies are more common, partisan electoral interventions are likely to become even more widely used. 


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