Come November 3, if Donald Trump loses, he will be the first United States president in 28 years to have failed to win re-election. This last time this happened was when George HW Bush lost to Bill Clinton in 1992. Despite strong accusations from critics that he has mishandled the coronavirus crisis, Trump is very much in the race to the White House. This might be due to the fact that the democratic structure of the US, like many other democracies in the globe, is designed so that the incumbent starts a few yards ahead of the challenger.

In the 231-year history of the US president’s office, only 10 out of 45 presidents have failed to win re-election for a second term when they had attempted to. The party-wise picture is not so grim, though. Over the last 100 years, ruling parties were voted out of the office in 11 out of 25 presidential elections, i.e. 44% of times – six occasions for Democrats and five occasions for Republicans.

Indian situation

In India, ruling parties or coalitions have been ousted in seven of the 17 Lok Sabha elections so far – about 41% of cases, which is quite high with respect to the world average. The corresponding figure for the general elections in the United Kingdom for the last 100 years is 37% (10 among 27).

The National Elections Across Democracy and Autocracy dataset of University of California, Berkeley and University of Houston provides a detailed account of the global percentage of elections lost by incumbents, by year. While the global percentage was 17%-18% during 1946-’50, it went down to just above 10% during the Cold War period of 1961-65. The percentage, however, grew sharply after 1980, but only to reach around 30% level during 2011-’12.

In their 2018 book How to Rig an Election, Nic Cheeseman of the University of Birmingham and Brian Klaas of the London School of Economics outlined several methods that have been used to rig elections. The authors cover a full spectrum of regimes in 38 countries from “electoral democracy” (eg the US) through “competitive authoritatian” (eg Russia) to the “closed authoritarian” (eg China).

Based on their experiences as election watchers and their hundreds of interviews with presidents, prime ministers, diplomats, election officials, and conspirators, Cheeseman and Klaas documented instances of several elections rigging in several countries including the big one – the 2016 US election.

Panches and sarpanches queue to vote in elections for Block Development Councils in Suchetgarh in Kashmir in October 2019. Credit: PTI

The Cambridge Anlytica episode was an eye-opener to illustrate how important elections – including Trump’s 2016 victory and the Brexit referendum – might have been hacked by using digital tools and spreading fake news. But many other ways are attempted to steal an election.

These include the art of political bribery and violence as a political strategy. the authors says. How stuffing ballot-box maybe employed beyond the bounds of credibility, if not legality, was illustrated by Uganda’s 2016 election, where 43 polling stations in Kiruhura District in the heartland of President Museveni’s National Resistance Movement not only recorded a 100% poll, but all the votes were favouring Uganda President Museveni.

Cheeseman and Klaas also discussed about “Potemkin elections” where “the pageantry of campaigning, the parade of voting, the charade of counting, all are engineered with one simple goal – to fool the West into believing that all was conducted fairly in a shining model of democracy”. Azerbaijan’s egregious election of 2013 is a classic example of such “Potemkin elections”.

However, Cheeseman and Klaas concentrated mostly on flaws in the developing world and the post-Soviet countries. Why, then, does an incumbent win so often in the Western countries as well? Only Cambridge Analytica may not be the answer, for sure.

Incumbent’s privilege

Quite often the incumbent takes remarkable advantages within the constitutional framework of the corresponding country. While analysing the reason of 78% of the US presidents winning a re-election, one might remember that President Trump could nominate Justice Amy Coney Barrett in place of the deceased Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the US Supreme Court just weeks before the election – a step that might yield a 6:3 ratio of Republican-and-Democrat-appointed justices in the Supreme Court.

The American electorates and media widely believe that might benefit Trump tremendously as the election may very well be decided through a legal battle this year, as in the “Bush vs Gore” case of 2000 over Florida. One may question the morality of Barrett’s nomination at this stage, especially when the Republican senators refused to hold a hearing of President Barack Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland in 2016, who was nominated for the Supreme Court 237 days before the election. However, it completely falls under the jurisdiction of Trump’s constitutional right.

Then, Cheeseman and Klaas might have missed one very important point – that the incumbency often generates a sense of habit among the electorates. You need sufficiently concrete reasons and also a hard push to dismantle the status quo. And unless that happens, the status quo persists within the mindset of the electorates.

Atanu Biswas is a professor of statistics at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.