Cambodians went to the polls last weekend, but it was a sham of an election, dominated by Hun Sen, the country’s aging autocrat. With the opposition party banned and soldiers at polling booths to ensure the outcome went only one way, no credible organization signed off on the election’s validity—but quite a few fake organizations did. Election observation in authoritarian regimes is a relatively new phenomenon. Beginning in the late 1980s, the number of elections monitored by intergovernmental organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and sovereign states increased substantially. This brought increased criticism of the behavior of authoritarian regimes, which signaled their compliance to the norm of external observation in exchange for certain benefits, such as legitimacy, foreign direct investment, and membership in international organizations. This gave democracy promotion actors, which coordinated a majority of election-monitoring missions, newfound leverage over the behavior of authoritarian regimes. In the last decade, however, dictators have fought back.
Writing in Foreign Policy in October 2013, Christopher Walker and Alexander Cooley identified the sudden emergence and increasing use of what they termed “zombie monitors” among a small group of savvy dictators. In the intervening years, there has been a wider effort to understand how exactly these groups erode domestic perceptions of electoral integrity and corrode the international norm of external election observation.
The inconvenient truth, however, is that our determination to identify and analyze these zombie monitors has not kept pace with the more cunning ways dictators have subsequently deployed them. The last few years has witnessed a few distinct changes in the use of fake election observation groups, which has coincided with the rise of more sophisticated forms of cooperation among authoritarian regimes.