Between now and 2015, there will be some predictable crises in global politics. The most predictable political crises have become the moments in which dictators ask tech-savvy voters to participate in a rigged election. Social media allows people to call out big organized lies, so rigged elections have become sensitive moments in international politics. Since we know these moments are on their way, and both foreign policy makers and journalists act surprised when they arrive, we can call such moments "predictable surprises". Most of the Color Revolutions involved tech-savvy citizens rallying after farcical elections. It was because of rigged elections in Tunisia and Egypt that activists became so tech-savvy. While some of the countries affected by the Arab Spring were not specifically caught up in the fervor of protest against a rigged election, protests spread most quickly to Arab countries where, in the past, voters have been asked to participate in fraudulent elections. With social media, people now figure out they have shared experiences in fraud, misdirection, and manipulation. (By tapping into social media feeds in other countries, the CIA can figure this out too.) Even in countries where rulers had not even pretended to have elections, protests were about tossing dictators out and having real elections. In the last 10 years, international politics has been dominated by 9/11 and related attacks, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and natural catastrophes that have resulted in complex humanitarian disasters. But a growing number of national and regional instabilities have come from the digitally-enabled social protest that follows after rigged elections. And sometimes, these kinds of protests happen in politically sensitive parts of the world where instability has global consequences. Social movements in a dozen countries have sprung out of stolen elections. These movements do not always have a clear policy agenda, but they tend to share two features. First, digital media is the infrastructure that allows individuals to figure out that fraud is widespread. Digital media is great for telling personal stories, and photos from the poling station, blog posts about cheated ballots, and tweets about corrupt politicians spread like wildfire in countries where the national news media does not investigate such things. Voters might experience individuated acts of fraud, misdirection, and manipulation. But through digital media they come to realize that their experiences--and their grievances--are shared. Second, the movement organizes not just against the ruling elite, but against the electoral system that keeps a dishonest victor in power. This means that the movement does not easily forgive the "licensed opposition parties" who participated in the lousy electoral system. In Egypt, the leaders of the opposition parties have not taken on significant leadership roles in the emerging political system. Given the chance to vote in a real election, Tunisian voters chose to punish the official opposition party, relegating it to 5th place in the Constitutional Assembly. In both cases, Islamist parties, who had been persecuted and excluded entirely from the rigged election system, have arisen as credible opposition parties. So what are the predictable surprises going to be in the next few years? North Korea and Burma don't have much of an internet, China has built its own social media world, and Russia and Venezuela are countries where political elites have annexed almost all media. For the political world that is connected to the global internet, can we guess, with some confidence, when the front page of the New York Times will run headlines like "Protesters Use Social Media To Oppose Regime" or "Political Crisis Grows With Digital Media".
Between now and 2015, here are the 13 most likely social media revolutions waiting to happen. These are some of the countries with relatively tech-savvy citizens and authoritarian rulers who have made unlikely commitments to running elections:
- Algeria, Bouteflika, Legislative some time in 2012, Presidential some time in 2014
- Azerbaijan, Aliyev, Presidential October 2013, Parliamentary November 2015
- Bahrain, Al Khalifa, Parliamentary some time in 2014
- Cuba, Castro, Parliamentary January 2013, Presidential some time in 2013
- Djibouti, Guelleh, Parliamentary some time in 2013
- Ethiopia, Meles, Presidential October 2013, Parliamentary some time in 2015
- Iran, Ahmadinejad, Parliamentary March 29 2012, Presidential June 2013
- Jordan, al-Hussein, Parliamentary some time in 2014
- Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev, Parliamentary January 15, 2012
- Qatar, Al Thani, Parliamentary June 2013
- Rwanda, Parliamentary September 2013
- Uzbekistan, Karimov, Parliamentary December 2014, Presidential some time in 2014
(I tried to get it down to 10, but these 13 fit the criteria) These may be moments in which ruling elites allow a free and fair election (but probably not), and these election dates may never happen for other reasons. And obviously it is a diplomatic faux pas to call an election rigged. But it is dishonest to not recognize when experts--and voters--say the outcome of an election is rigged. If you are planning to rig an election in these countries sometime over the next few years, I'll bet against your success.