Subnational Elections and Media Freedom in Autocracies: Diffusion of Local Reputation and Regime Survival

AuthorJunHyeok Jang
DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1177/10659129211066895
Published date01 December 2022
Date01 December 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Article
Political Research Quarterly
2022, Vol. 75(4) 13211334
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
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DOI: 10.1177/10659129211066895
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Subnational Elections and Media Freedom
in Autocracies: Diffusion of Local
Reputation and Regime Survival
JunHyeok Jang
1
Abstract
What is the effect of subnational elections on autocratic regime survival? The existing literature suggests that holding
subnational elections help foster autocratic regime stability. I argue that the benet of subnational elections for regime
survival is conditional on a lack of media freedom: As the level of media freedom increases, the positive inuence of
holding subnational elections on regime survival decreases. This is because subnational elections provide local politicians
with opportunities to build good reputations, and when good reputations formed at the local level spread to other
jurisdictions via relatively free media, citizens can use them as a focal point to coordinate against the regime. Using the
quantitative analysis of Time-Series Cross-Sectional data, I nd empirical support for my theory.
Keywords
authoritarian regime survival, authoritarian institutions, subnational elections, media freedom
Introduction
What is the effect of subnational elections on autocratic
regime survival? The extant literature on authoritarian
elections has argued that elections serve to stabilize the
regime (Gandhi, 2008;Magaloni, 2006;Geddes, 2005).
Holding elections not only provides an autocrat with
domestic and international legitimacy (Levitsky and Way,
2010;Schedler, 2002), but also signals the strength of the
regime to opposition elites (Little, 2012;Magaloni, 2006;
Rozenas, 2016;Simpser, 2013), thereby deterring chal-
lenges to the regime. More importantly, the recent liter-
ature has paid close attention to how elections enable an
autocrat to co-opt oppositions (Gandhi, 2008;Gandhi and
Lust-Okar, 2009;Magaloni, 2006) as well as how they
provide information about the popularity of the regime, its
ofcials, and its opponents (Brownlee, 2007;Miller,
2015). Despite the difference in foci, the literature has
largely argued that autocratic elections can enhance re-
gime survival.
As a part of the autocratic election literature, recent
scholarship has begun to study subnational elections in
autocracies. It has been argued that subnational elections
serve to co-opt competent opposition local elites by al-
lowing them to take the local ofce and have some extent
of discretion (Gandhi and Lust-Okar, 2009). Moreover,
subnational elections allow citizens to select their own
local leaders who are familiar with local affairs (Buckley
et al., 2014), and send a signal of discontent about in-
cumbent leaders (Gandhi and Lust-Okar, 2009;Geddes,
2005). By enabling autocrats to gather information about
the competence of local elites, replace incompetent
subordinates, and/or co-opt competent oppositions, sub-
national elections are believed to stabilize authoritarian
regimes.
But are subnational elections always conducive to
regime survival? Take the recent case of Turkey. In 2019,
Turkey held a mayoral election, and many opposition
local leaders, including Ekrem
˙
Imamo˘
glu, of Istanbul,
won control of local governments. If the election had been
a part of government efforts to co-opt competent local
leaders, as the extant literature has commonly posited,
President Recep Tayyip Erdo˘
gan should have let
˙
Imamo˘
glu take ofce. Instead, he attempted to dismiss the
result of the election in Istanbul by demanding a new
election. Why did Erdo˘
gan oppose
˙
Imamo˘
glus taking
1
University of California Merced, Merced, CA, USA
Corresponding Author:
JunHyeok Jang, Political Science, University of California Merced, 5200
North Lake Rd, Merced, CA 95343, USA.
Email: jjang23@ucmerced.edu

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