Election Universe

Challenging presidential election results: a common political strategy?

Challenging presidential election results: a common political strategy?
June 25 2015, 19:21

An interesting and somehow groundbreaking paper about disputed elections in presidential democracies has won this year’s IDEA/EIP award for the best graduate student paper on electoral integrity.

The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) together with the Electoral Integrity Project (EIP; Harvard University & University of Sydney) announced the results of the 2015 award. The winning paper was “Disputed Elections in Presidential Democracies: Challenging Electoral Outcomes as a Negotiation Strategy” by Victor Hernández-Huerta (University of Notre Dame and University of California).

The paper introduces a not so common and quite controversial hypothesis for political losing parties in democracies: “As the margin of seats in congress increases to the detriment of the party that lost the presidential election, it is more likely that the runner-up party will challenge the outcome of the presidential election.” The author argues that in presidential democracies, losing political forces are not rejecting the outcome of the election to protest and publicize fraud -as is the case in authoritarian regimes- but rather to induce the winning party to negotiate benefits for the losing party. Hernández-Huerta calls it “the blackmailing strategy.”

The idea of challenging the presidential results for wanting to strengthen their own capacity for negotiation with the elected government, happens, according to the paper, in cases in which the losing parties have an unfavourable position in congress. “Blackmailing the winner consists in exchanging post-electoral stability for immediate benefits for the runner-up party. Losing parties are particularly interested in negotiating power positions that can help them secure their financial needs,” notes Hernández-Huerta.

According to the author, post-election disputes happen in 21% of the democratic presidential elections in the world. A statement backed by the analysis of an original dataset, that codes behaviours of runner-up candidates in 180 presidential elections (1974-2012) around the world. “Even in democratic presidential elections, there are cases in which the losing party decides to challenge the outcome of the election. This has happened in 21.11% of the whole set of democratic presidential elections in the world since 1974. But the decision to challenge the outcome of an election in a democracy is not necessarily motivated by the presence of fraud or widespread irregularities; rather, political motivations may explain this as an attempt to reap potential benefits from the winner.”

One of the most interesting things about the paper is the comparison of the most common causes that explain why political parties contest election outcomes. Even when they know that this action opens the door to post-electoral violence, political instability, electoral apathy and can even lead to the breakdown of constitutional order. The thesis of Hernández-Huerta adds the blackmailing strategy to the list, and proves the point with examples in Asia and Latin America.

The author critically exposes that the presumption that fraud is the main reason losing parties legitimately reject election results is a limited approach, because it doesn’t consider the goals of party elites into the equation. “Once a party loses an election for the executive, it faces the dilemma of accepting the outcome or challenging it. I argue that despite losing the executive election, losers can still obtain short-term benefits if they negotiate with the new government.”

Hernández-Huerta mentions among the possible negotiation benefits that losing political forces seek, in exchange for conceding defeat, having power to reform the electoral process; legislating key issues to further their parties’ agendas; filling committee chairs in congress; obtaining cabinet positions; etc. “These benefits help increase the losing parties’ chances of success in future elections and also increases their share of power immediately after losing an election.”

Victor Hernández-Huerta is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. His research focuses on institutions, elections and electoral justice, with a regional specialization on Latin America. He currently focuses on post-election disputes in democracies. His dissertation explores the behaviour of losing candidates and parties.

Image: Victor Hernández-Huerta. Image courtesy of Kellogg Institute, University of Notre Dame