In some of the world’s most infamous dictatorships, such as North Korea, China, and Russia, elections are a peculiar fixture. Despite these countries being known for their totalitarian regimes, which have been in place for decades, they still hold regular elections. This paradox raises the question: Why would an authoritarian regime allow its citizens to vote if the outcome is already decided? To understand this phenomenon, we need to delve into how elections unfold in these countries and the purpose they serve.

Elections in North Korea

North Korea, under the rule of the Kim Dynasty since 1948, holds elections for local officials every four years. However, these elections are a far cry from democratic processes. Citizens aged 17 and older line up to cast their ballots, which typically contain only one name. Voters can either place the ballot in the box, signifying a “yes” vote, or cross out the name to indicate opposition. Voting against the regime is dangerous and almost unheard of, as it can lead to severe repercussions such as being tracked by the secret police or being declared insane. The high voter turnout, nearly 100%, is due to the compulsory nature of voting. Not voting can raise suspicion and lead to dire consequences.

Despite the clear lack of freedom, the regime ensures that elections appear as grand national events, with cheering crowds and a facade of enthusiastic participation. This spectacle of unity and loyalty serves to reinforce the regime’s strength and legitimacy.

Elections in China

In China, the election process is more structured but equally controlled. The president is elected by members of the National People’s Congress, not by a popular vote. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which has ruled since 1949, selects the candidates, ensuring no opposition. While local elections at the town or village level allow for some direct voting, the CCP heavily monitors and controls these processes. The local officials elected have minimal actual power, with true authority residing in the regional CCP officials.

These controlled elections serve to maintain the appearance of democratic practices without threatening the CCP’s hold on power. They provide a semblance of participation while ensuring that the party’s dominance remains unchallenged.

Elections in Russia

Russia’s elections, particularly under Vladimir Putin, are designed to mimic democratic processes. Presidential elections occur every six years through a two-round popular vote system. However, the real competition is non-existent as true opposition candidates are barred from running. Alexei Navalny, Putin’s most prominent rival, was prevented from running in the 2018 election, poisoned, and subsequently imprisoned. Even less threatening opposition figures face similar fates, ensuring that no real challenge to Putin’s rule exists.

The illusion of a competitive election serves multiple purposes. It reinforces the legitimacy of Putin’s leadership, intimidates potential opposition, and allows the regime to identify and suppress dissent. The controlled media coverage ensures that Putin remains the dominant figure in the political landscape, further entrenching his power.

The Purpose of Elections in Dictatorships

Given the lengths to which these regimes go to control elections, one might wonder why they bother holding them at all. The reasons are multifaceted:

  1. International Legitimacy: Post-Cold War, the United States emerged as the dominant superpower, championing democracy. To align with international norms and gain legitimacy, even authoritarian regimes began holding elections, however flawed they might be. This facade helps them participate in international forums and avoid total isolation.
  2. Internal Propaganda: Elections, even if rigged, serve as powerful propaganda tools. They create an image of legitimacy and popular support for the regime. In North Korea, for instance, elections are treated as national celebrations, reinforcing the unity and loyalty of the populace to the leadership.
  3. Control and Surveillance: Elections provide an opportunity for regimes to gauge public sentiment and identify potential threats. By forcing people to vote, regimes can monitor dissent and take preemptive action against those who oppose them. This helps maintain internal stability and suppress any budding opposition.
  4. Psychological Intimidation: The overwhelming victories often reported in these elections serve to demoralize opposition and discourage dissent. The message is clear: the regime is unchallenged and will remain in power, making resistance seem futile.
  5. Maintaining Institutional Habits: Over time, the habit of holding elections has become institutionalized, even in authoritarian regimes. The process itself, regardless of its fairness, has become a norm that dictatorships adhere to, providing a veneer of legitimacy both domestically and internationally.

Risks and Challenges of Elections

Despite the benefits, holding elections in authoritarian regimes is not without risks. Elections can stir political involvement and inspire opposition movements, as seen in historical examples like South Korea in 1960 and the Philippines in 1986. The heightened political activity around election time increases the risk of protests, coups, and regime destabilization.

Moreover, organizing elections requires significant resources and coordination. In countries where the outcome is predetermined, this can seem like an unnecessary burden. However, the potential long-term benefits of reinforcing the regime’s power and legitimacy often outweigh these challenges.


Elections in authoritarian regimes like North Korea, China, and Russia serve a complex array of purposes. They provide international legitimacy, serve as propaganda tools, help control and monitor the populace, and maintain institutional habits. While they pose risks of political unrest and require substantial resources, the long-term benefits of reinforcing the regime’s power make them worthwhile for dictatorships. By holding elections, these regimes perpetuate the image of civic freedoms and maintain their grip on power, navigating the paradox of appearing democratic while being fundamentally totalitarian.

FAQ Section

Q1: Why do authoritarian regimes hold elections if the outcomes are predetermined? A1: Authoritarian regimes hold elections for several reasons, including international legitimacy, internal propaganda, control and surveillance of the populace, psychological intimidation, and maintaining institutional habits. These elections create a facade of democracy and civic freedoms, reinforcing the regime’s power and stability.

Q2: How do elections in North Korea differ from those in democratic countries? A2: In North Korea, elections involve a single candidate ballot, where voters can either approve the candidate or cross out their name in opposition. However, voting against the regime is dangerous and almost unheard of due to severe repercussions. The process is compulsory, with nearly 100% voter turnout, and serves as a propaganda tool to display unity and loyalty to the regime.

Q3: What role does the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) play in China’s election process? A3: In China, the president is elected by members of the National People’s Congress, not by popular vote. The CCP selects candidates and ensures no opposition. Local elections at the town or village level allow some direct voting, but the CCP heavily monitors and controls these processes. True local power lies with regional CCP officials, making the elections largely inconsequential in giving the Chinese people a voice in their government.

Q4: How does Russia’s election process create an illusion of democracy? A4: Russia’s election process mimics democratic practices, with presidential elections occurring every six years through a two-round popular vote system. However, true opposition candidates are barred from running, and the controlled media coverage ensures that the incumbent remains the dominant figure. This illusion of competition reinforces the regime’s legitimacy while suppressing real political dissent.

Q5: What are the benefits of holding elections for authoritarian regimes? A5: Holding elections provides several benefits for authoritarian regimes, including reinforcing internal and international legitimacy, serving as propaganda tools, identifying and suppressing dissent, and creating an image of stability and popular support. These factors help maintain the regime’s power and control over the populace.

Q6: What risks do elections pose for authoritarian regimes? A6: Elections can stir political involvement and inspire opposition movements, increasing the risk of protests, coups, and regime destabilization. The heightened political activity around election time makes these periods fragile for dictatorships. Additionally, organizing elections requires significant resources and coordination, which can be a burden for the regime.

Q7: How do elections in authoritarian regimes impact international relations? A7: By holding elections, even if flawed, authoritarian regimes can align with international norms and gain legitimacy. This helps them participate in international forums, avoid isolation, and gain recognition from other countries. It also allows them to counter criticisms of their lack of democratic practices.

Q8: How do propaganda and media control influence elections in authoritarian regimes? A8: Propaganda and media control play a crucial role in elections in authoritarian regimes. State-controlled media outlets focus on the incumbent’s achievements and positive image while downplaying or attacking opposition candidates. This manipulation of information ensures that the regime maintains control over public perception and minimizes the influence of dissenting voices.

Liked it? Take a second to support Ryan Hite on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

By Ryan Hite

Ryan Hite is an American author, content creator, podcaster, and media personality. He was born on February 3, 1993, in Colorado and spent his childhood in Conifer, Colorado. He moved to Littleton in 2000 and spent the remainder of his schooling years in the city. Upon graduation from Chatfield Senior High School in 2011, he attended the University of Colorado at Boulder. He graduated from the university in 2015 after studying Urban Planning, Business Administration, and Religious Studies. He spent more time in Colorado in the insurance, real estate, and healthcare industries. In 2019, he moved to Las Vegas, NV, where he continued to work in healthcare, insurance, and took his foray into media full time in 2021. His first exposure to the media industry came as a result of the experiences he had in his mid to late teens and early twenties. In 2013, he was compelled to collect a set of stories from his personal experiences and various other writings that he has had. His first book, a 365,000-word epic, Through Minds Eyes, was published in collaboration with Balboa Press. That initial book launched a media explosion. He learned all that he could about creating websites, marketing his published works, and would even contemplate the publication of other works as well. This book also inspired him to create his philosophy, his life work, that still influences the values that he holds in his life. Upon graduating college, he had many books published, blogs and other informative websites uploaded, and would embark on his continued exploration of the world of marketing, sales, and becoming an influencer. Of course, that did not come without challenges that would come his way. His trial-and-error approach of marketing himself and making himself known guided him through his years as a real estate agent, an insurance agent, and would eventually create a marketing plan from scratch with a healthcare startup. The pandemic did not initially create too many challenges to the status quo. Working from home did not affect the quality of his life. However, a series of circumstances such as continued website problems, social media shutdowns, and unemployment, caused him to pause everything between late 2020 and mid-2021. It was another period of loss of momentum and purpose for his life as he tried to navigate the world, as many people may have felt at that time. He attempted to find purpose in insurance again, resulting in failure. There was one thing that sparked his curiosity and would propel him to rediscover the thing that was gone from his life for so long. In 2021, he started his journey by taking on a full-time job in the digital media industry, an industry that he is still a part of today. It was at this point that he would also shut down the rest of the media that he had going at the time. In 2023, he announced that he would be embarking on what has become known as PROJECT30. This initiative will result in the reformation of websites, the reinvigoration of social media accounts, the creation of a Youtube channel and associated podcast, the creation of music, and the continued rediscovery of his creative potential. Unlike past projects, the purpose of this would not expound on the musings of a philosophy, the dissemination of useless news and articles, or the numerous attempts to be someone that he was not. This project is going to be about his authentic self. There are many ways to follow him as he embarks on this journey. Most of all, he wants everyone to be entertained, informed, and, in some ways, maybe a little inspired about the flourishing of the creativity that lies within the mind and soul of Ryan.

Leave a Reply