Why Do Dictators Like Kim Jong Un Bother To Hold Fake Elections?

Why do dictators feel the need to pretend that they have the consent of the people over whom they rule?

Kim Jong-un casts ballot

Kim Jong Un is celebrating an election victory:

If Sunday’s vote in North Korea is any indication, supreme leader Kim Jong Un is the most popular politician of all time.

North Korea state media reported Monday that Kim was elected to the Supreme People’s Assembly, the highest legislative body in North Korea, in a vote that had 100 percent turnout. What’s more, not a single ballot was cast against him. It was the young leader’s first election since the 2011 death of his father, Kim Jong Il, and the national turnout topped the nation’s traditional 99 percent showing.

The state-run Korean Central News Agency was pretty pumped about the news: “This is an expression of all the service personnel and people’s absolute support and profound trust in supreme leader Kim Jong Un as they single-mindedly remain loyal to him.”

In previous elections of this kind, which are more symbolic than political, 687 deputies are also elected to the Supreme People’s Assembly. Only the results of the election involving Kim, which involved his home district of Mount Paekdu, were announced Monday.

For him, turnout was so high that even the infirm, elderly, and North Koreans living abroad were compelled to vote for him, the North Korean news agency says. Indeed, those reports show North Korea was “seething” with “election atmosphere.” “A Korean in China noted he keenly realized the truth that the socialist system represented the genuine life and destiny of the people and their eternal future,” the news agency says.

Ballots in North Korea only have one candidate to choose from for each district. They can, in theory, chose “no” for a candidate — but according to official accounts, everyone usually votes “yes.”

This is due in no small part, one imagines, to the fact that voting no would essentially be a one-way ticket to a “re-education” camp.

Election results like this are, of course, absurd. North Korea has nothing resembling a functioning democracy and there are no opposition candidates. And yet, for some reason, they choose to hold these mock elections and pretend to the world that they actually mean something. We see similar faux elections in other parts of the world, of course, and we’ve also seen them in the past in nations such as the Soviet Union, which also used to hold its own form of elections in which only one party was actually allowed on the ballot. Nobody in the outside world actually takes these “elections” seriously, and it’s doubtful that the average citizens supposedly given the opportunity to vote do either. And yet, the practice of faux elections in nations where democracy doesn’t really exist is fairly common. Dictators didn’t always deign to stand for election, of course, even if it is an election that they are guaranteed to win. The Absolute Monarchs of Europe never did it. The Czars never did it. It’s only been in the relatively recent past that we’ve seen this type of behavior from nations ruled by dictators, and one has to wonder why they bother to hold elections that no serious person believes are legitimate.

The best explanation that I’ve seen is that, beginning at least in the 20th Century and arguably before then, the idea of consent of the governed has become inextricably tied to national legitimacy to such an extent that even dictators find themselves having to establish at least the illusion that their rule is supported by the people. Because of this, even dictators feel the need to h0ld “elections” in an effort to claim to the rest of the world that they have the same legitimacy as, say, the President of the United States or the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Consent of the governed, then, has replaced the Divine Right Of Kings as the determining factor when it comes to legitimacy. While the rest of the world rightly recognizes that these elections are fraudulent, the fact that dictators feel the need to hold elections implies that they recognize the fact that, to the world as a whole, only rulers who are elected by the people are truly legitimate.

The current Ukrainian crisis illustrates this quite well. If they wanted to, the Russians could use military force to grab control of Crimea and evict Ukrainian forces at the drop of a hat. There would likely be some bloodshed, but in the end there’s no real doubt that Russia’s superior military power would win out in the end. Rather than taking that step, though, the Russians, through their allies in Crimea, are going through with a referendum that will likely come out in favor of Crimea becoming part of Russia as it was before 1954. It’s possible that there will be military action after that, but if there is then the Russians will claim that they are simply acting to protect the wishes of the Crimean people.


FILED UNDER: Democracy, Uncategorized, , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. CSK says:

    Off the top of my head, I’d guess also that psychotic megalomaniacs like Menta Lee Ill, or whatever his name is, need the ego gratification of knowing that 99.9 percent of the populace loves him, really loves him.

  2. Anderson says:

    Dude, nobody told Kim the election was fake ….

  3. Pinky says:

    I don’t remember who it was who pointed out that repeating the party line is more demoralizing the more obviously false it is. At some point, propaganda becomes more powerful the less it’s believed.

  4. Mu says:

    Even funnier are the “unification list” elections, where you have multiple parties, but everyone “voluntarily” agrees on a predetermined list of candidates, and the voters only get a yes or no vote.

  5. North Korea state media reported Monday that Kim was elected to the Supreme People’s Assembly, the highest legislative body in North Korea, in a vote that had 100 percent turnout. What’s more, not a single ballot was cast against him.

    Sheese, get with the times man. Most dictators have figured out you only want to get about 80-85% in your phony election so that the world will just be outraged instead of openly mocking you.

  6. Jr says:

    They do it just to troll. Hell, I would too if I was a dictator.

  7. Tillman says:

    It’s so that when the dictator visits a foreign democracy, he can claim he has a greater mandate to govern than his counterpart. If his counterpart points out how fraudulent his elections are, he just insults the dictator and makes business impossible.

    That said, I have no clue why North Korea bothers since I don’t think they do business with that many other countries.

  8. rudderpedals says:

    It looks like they solved their voter ID problem at the same time. Two birds with one kimchi-packed stoneware pot.

  9. DC Loser says:

    North Korea has to contend with a rival democratic South Korea that is better in every respect. It was like East Germany trying to convince its people that life was better in the DDR than the decadent west.

  10. michael reynolds says:

    It’s all about the victory party.

  11. Ron Beasley says:

    I still have to question if Kim Jong Un is actually in charge.

  12. Andre Kenji says:

    Dictatorships are not absolute. They work more or less like Democracies in the sense that they have to deal and appease all kinds of interest groups. That´s why so many Dictatorships spends so much money with infrastructure projects. In theory, you don´t have to have elections, but you must either massacre or keep sufficiently happy or fearful the people that might rebel against you – specially the military and the middle class. Dictatorships also wants to have some degree of legitimacy.

    Kim Jong un knows that he might have the same end that Ceausescu,Gaddaffi and Mussolini had.

    By the way, Mexicans are extremely resentful of reelections precisely because Porfirio Diaz used rigged elections to act as a dictator.

  13. humanoid.panda says:

    @Pinky: Absolutely true. The universal participation in Soviet elections was a crucial ritual ,in which everyone signaled to themselves and others that they were part of the system.

    On the other hand, after Stalin, one could use strategic refusal to vote until his demand’s are met to get the local party cell to fix your bathroom or something (as the leader of the cell was evaluated on whether he got all residents to vote). I suspect that in North Korea, that tactic won’t get you far.

  14. Paul Hooson says:

    The miracle of democracy in Democratic People’s Republic Of Korea? Another sign from the worst country on Earth…..

  15. KM says:

    Validation, plain and simple. Perverse validation.

    The ego is a powerful thing and when running rampant, a greedy and hungry one. The personality type needed to be a dictator craves obedience and respect. It used to be you made your subjects bow and scrape the ground in your presence, so they knew they were no better then the dirt they knelt in. But that’s so twelve-century, and the modern despot doesn’t want to be seen as backwards. Now you make them submit to a meaningless ritual intending to demonstrate that in the great supermarket of ideals, they can’t get shelfspace. Have the ability to exercise free will and choose your leader, your destiny? No you don’t!! Want to have an opinion? Nope, not if you want to keep breathing. The dictator basks in his control and the populace dies a little more inside. Just the way he wanted….

  16. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Consent of the governed, then, has replaced the Divine Right Of Kings as the determining factor when it comes to legitimacy.

    “Watery tarts lyin’ about in ponds distributin’ swords is no basis for government!”

  17. Woody says:

    I suppose it might be useful in the sense that there is immense professional and social pressure to participate – as quickly, publicly, and emphatically as possible – that one stands behind the Leader and his Party. The village-level Party bosses who deliver the desired percentages go on the shortlist for promotion and so forth.

    I imagine those who vote for the Washington Generals Party candidate aren’t given their ration of Victory Cigarettes, etc.

  18. stonetools says:

    With a nod to La Rochefoucauld, sham elections are the tribute that dictatorship pays to democracy.
    The idea has taken hold around the world that in a modern country, government should be led by a democratically elected head, not just by some autocrat. who declares himself leader.
    So autocrats arrange sham elections is a way of validating their rule.

  19. Surreal American says:

    No one looks at the bright side of North Korean sham elections. Like how it makes prognosticating easier for the NK punditry.

  20. Mike says:

    If they didn’t hold elections they would have to change their – name – duh – Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – not the Dictatorship of Korea – do i have to explain everything.

  21. wr says:

    @Surreal American: “No one looks at the bright side of North Korean sham elections. Like how it makes prognosticating easier for the NK punditry.”

    Although to be fair, if Peggy Noonan lived in North Korea, she’d probably be able to get this one wrong, too.

  22. JohnMcC says:

    It occurred to me that it’s kind of like Calvinists (who believe they are predestined for either heaven or hell) still go to church. There is a meaning to the whole civic ceremony whether it affects the outcome or not.

  23. Surreal American says:


    And there’s the thing about the yard signs. In Wosan a few weeks ago I saw Kim Jong Un signs, not Other Guy ones. From Kaechon I hear the same. From tony Northwest Pyongyang, I hear the same.

  24. anjin-san says:

    Is our democracy in such great shape that we can afford to sneer at others?

  25. Tillman says:

    @anjin-san: It’s the rotten sneering at the nonexistent.

  26. gVOR08 says:

    @wr: If Peggy Noonan lived in N Korea she’d be an enthusiastic supporter of Menta Lee Ill or whatever his name is. Thanks @CSK: I’m going to keep stealing that one.

  27. gVOR08 says:

    I suspect @Andre Kenji: is closest to the truth. In an unrelated thread I mentioned a poll that shows 60% or so of churchgoers are OK w/ gay marriage, but they think 80-90% of their fellow churchgoers are opposed, so they keep quiet. A part of it is that these sham elections help to hide from any dissident the existence of other dissidents.

  28. Green Eagle says:

    How absurd it is for a country like North Korea to hold a patently rigged election which nobody in the world finds credible. Would it not have made far more sense to let the people vote, and then have five corrupt Supreme Court justices tell them who their President is going to be?

    I guess it would take an incredibly repressive society for the people to just sit still and accept that without a struggle, though. North Koreans demand at least a pretense of fair elections.