Since the 1990s, vast sums of money and time have been invested in training and resources to hold elections around the world, including in parts of Southeast Asia. The conventional wisdom is that elections either enable or consolidate democracy. Where they do not have either of these effects, the reasoning goes, it’s because the design of elections is not yet right, or conditions in which they have been held are not yet sufficiently matured as to make democracy possible. In Behind the Facade: Elections under Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia (SUNY Press, 2016), Lee Morgenbesser departs from these positions and seeks to explain why and how dictators also hold elections. Through close comparative study of Cambodia, Myanmar, and Singapore, Morgenbesser argues that even when held competitively, elections can be pliable instruments for dictators to obtain information, manage subordinates, distribute largesse and claim legitimacy.
Lee Morgenbesser joins New Books in Southeast Asian Studies to talk about the functions of elections under authoritarian government in Southeast Asia (tabulated here), the targets of electoral functions (tabulated here), and the relevance of the region for study of authoritarian electoral politics elsewhere.