North Korea holds the most forecastable election ever

North Korea’s state news agency reported Sunday night that elections in the country saw “99.97 per cent” turnout. While results have not yet been reported, observers are expecting a decisive victory for Kim Jong-un’s Worker’s Party. As The Telegraph reported, ballots only included one name, and voters who don’t want to cast their ballot for the pre-ordained candidate have to go to a separate polling booth and cross the name out — an extreme act of bravery and/or idiocy in a regime militaristically sensitive to sleights against its complete legitimacy.

The Pyongyang-based Korean Central News Agency described a “festive atmosphere” at polling locations, with voters “singing and dancing” as they made their way to cast their ballots.

Elections in North Korea may be a farce, but they’re hardly new. As The Telegraph explained:

Local elections have been held every four years since 1999. They are partly an effort to legitimise the use of “democratic” in the nation’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – with 27,390 delegates elected in the last vote, held in July 2011.

North Korea via Shutterstock

North Korea, via Shutterstock

In an attempt to create the guise of ideological pluralism in the country, the regime has established multiple political parties, which all parrot the party line. So while Kim Jong-un receives 100 percent support from the 687-seat Supreme People’s Assembly, his Worker’s Party only holds 606 of those seats.

Elections are also used to confirm the whereabouts of citizens.

North Korea is likely the most extreme case, but elections are fairly common practice in authoritarian regimes. As noted above, they can be used to grant the facade of legitimacy to rulers — and academic research has shown that these sham elections do in fact increase these regimes’ durability.

During the Cold War period, from 1946 to 1989, the average authoritarian regime lasted twelve years. Today, the average authoritarian regime has existed for 25 years. Additionally, dictatorships that incorporate democratic institutions into their regimes last up to seventeen years longer than those that don’t. So while the overall number of authoritarian regimes has fallen since the Cold War ended, each one is lasting longer, suggesting that the co-opting of democratic institutions could continue to undermine democratic goals for a very long time.

There are a number of reasons for this. Establishing democratic institutions can attract foreign aid, or stave off foreign criticism. It can allow the regime to manipulate electoral institutions to engineer desired outcomes, which is less likely to produce violent backlash than the use of overtly coercive force. Psychologically, people prefer a fake choice over no choice at all, and as the acceptance of liberal democratic values spreads across the globe — aided by the Internet — pseudo-democratic regimes are co-opting and capitalizing on those values in an attempt to stay a step or two ahead of their bodies politic.

Of course, this doesn’t come without a hint of irony. By adopting unfree, unfair elections, the illegitimacy of pseudo-democracies itself legitimizes the democratic project. It is an admission that, given the choice, people like to make choices for themselves. That the Supreme Leader of North Korea — a man who by the regime’s own definition is nothing short of a God — feels the need to bother with democracy would be absurd if it weren’t so damn cagey.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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15 Responses to “North Korea holds the most forecastable election ever”

  1. Bill_Perdue says:

    Wrong. Evidently you’re not up on the vast racist, anti-worker prison system in the US, or the limitless detention provisions of Obama’s NDAA, or the thousands of repressive local and state laws, or the omnipresent and pervasive spying and the myriad federal and state agencies that engage in it, or in the militarization of the police and the assignment of police state duties to the US military.

    I admit to knowing few details about the DPRK’s police state but I’d never base my opinions on the kept news, where Fox is the mirror image of MSNBC, as we saw during the Olympics or on Obama’s propagandists in his spy agencies, the war department or the State Department.

    And you’re wrong about the 50 to 60 % of eligible voters who don’t vote. They’re not apathetic, they’re disgusted with the Democrat/Republican party and who can blame them?

  2. Skye Winspur says:

    Sorry, Bill – there is an important qualitative difference between the DPRK’s blanket of totalitarianism and the US’s very spotty patchwork of police state repression. Yes, Obama has claimed extensive powers to execute US citizens by drone, which I deplore. However, in the US citizen apathy is a much more serious threat to democracy than state repression. If asked to state my “beginning of political wisdom” I’d echo Alice Walker and say that “the most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”

  3. Denver Catboy says:

    I think the argument isn’t that the US and NK have identical mockeries of Democracy, but that the US and NK are both mocking democracy for their particular goals — supporting the dictatorship in NK’s case, supporting the 1% in the US’s case.

    I happen to agree with Perdue on this point….

  4. dcinsider says:

    Nate Silver has some statistics on the election and a prediction.

  5. Doug105 says:

    The Kim family is considered divine, like some of the old imperial bloodlines.

  6. ammy.toilor says:


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  7. Indigo says:

    Atheism has a god? That’s curious. Or was that a case of mixing metaphors to see what comes out on top?

  8. nicho says:

    You’re right. The US version is a charade. People have the illusion of democracy. North Korea is more straightforward.

  9. nicho says:

    No. Wouldn’t make a difference at all.

  10. Bill_Perdue says:

    It’s not a question of not living to “up to its nominal democratic ideals”. The US, like the DPRK is not a democracy. Neither states are authentic democracies and neither reflect the desires and needs of working people.

    Their differences are based on the differences between Stalinism and capitalism, both anti-democrat and anti-worker ideologies. Both The DPRK and the US are police states.

    NDAA, FISA, the racist murder of US citizens by Obama, a huge, racist, militarized police force, the creation of the U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) and the Paytriot Act are all elements of the now completed structure of the American police state.

    It may be uncomfortable to think of the US as the world’s most reactionary power, totally controlled by the rich and utilizating police state methods but that realization is the beginning of political wisdom.

  11. Doug105 says:

    If people hadn’t been told for so long that the parties are the same and their votes don’t matter along with having one party whose goal is to prove government doesn’t work, maybe just maybe enough would bother to make a difference.

  12. Jon Green says:

    Hold up. Hooooooooold up.

    Yes, the United States does not live up to its nominal democratic ideals. No, the United States’ version of democracy is not like North Korea’s.

  13. Bill_Perdue says:

    They’re stalinists and their election results are no more authentic than those in the US, which is also not a democracy.

    “A new scientific study from Princeton researcher Martin Gilens and Northwestern researcher Benjamin I. Page has finally put some science behind the recently popular argument that the United States isn’t a democracy any more. And they’ve found that in fact, America is basically an oligarchy.

    Comparing the preferences of the average American at the 50th percentile of income to what those Americans at the 90th percentile preferred, as well as the opinions of major lobbying or business groups, the researchers found out that the government followed the directives set forth by the latter two much more often. It’s beyond alarming.

    As Gilens and Page write, ‘the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.’ In other words, their statistics say your opinion literally does not matter.”

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