United States and USSR/Russia intervene in about one of every nine competitive national-level executive elections

When the Great Power Gets a Vote: The Effects of Great Power Electoral Interventions on Election Results

International Studies Quarterly, Volume 60, Issue 2, 1 June 2016, Pages 189–202, https://doi.org/10.1093/isq/sqv016
Published:13 February 2016



What are the electoral consequences of attempts by great powers to intervene in a partisan manner in another country’s elections?

Great powers frequently deploy partisan electoral interventions as a major foreign policy tool. For example, the U.S. and the USSR/Russia have intervened in one of every nine competitive national level executive elections between 1946 and 2000. However, scant scholarly research has been conducted about their effects on the election results in the target.

I argue that such interventions usually significantly increase the electoral chances of the aided candidate and that overt interventions are more effective than covert interventions. I then test these hypotheses utilizing a new, original dataset of all U.S. and USSR/Russian partisan electoral interventions between 1946 and 2000. I find strong support for both arguments.


What are the effects of great power electoral interventions? In democracies, national-level elections are pivotal events, enabling a peaceful change in the makeup of the main decision makers and their domestic coalitions. They often lead to major shifts in a country’s domestic and foreign policies and affect its propensity to experience both domestic and international conflict.1

Even in electoral authoritarian regimes, relatively competitive elections can have significant consequences on domestic and international politics. In some of these cases, competitive elections even lead to the fall of the existing leadership, the rise of a new regime, or a full-scale transition to democracy.

Given these stakes, foreign actors face strong incentives to intervene in competitive elections, which now take place in more than half of all states (Freedom House 2012). Indeed, attempts by a great power to meddle in an election of another country in favor of a particular candidate or a specific party may shape electoral outcomes.

Between 1946 and 2000, the United States and the USSR/Russia intervened in this manner 117 times, or, put another way, in about one of every nine competitive national-level executive elections during this period.

Their methods ranged from providing funding for their preferred side’s campaign (a tactic employed by the Soviet Union in the 1958 Venezuelan elections [Rabe 1982, 136–37]) to public threats to cut off foreign aid in the event of victory by the disfavored side (as the United States did during the 2009 Lebanese elections [Ghattas 2009, 1]).

Observers often claim that partisan interventions, when known or subsequently exposed, make the difference in election outcomes. For example, in the 2000 Yugoslavian elections, one of the main figures in the successful campaign of the democratic opposition headed by Vojislav Kostunica against Slobodan Milosevic admitted in an interview shortly afterwards that “The foreign support [to the campaign] was critical” to its electoral success (Dobbs 2000, 1).

-two years beforehand, and less than three days after the conclusion of the overt US intervention against the Communist Party in the 1948 Italian elections, Palmiro Togliatti, the then-head of the Italian Communist Party, openly blamed the surprising defeat of his party on what he described as the “brutal foreign intervention” of the United States (Togliatti Accuses U.S. 1948).

Nevertheless, scholars pay very little attention to the effects of partisan electoral interventions. This article provides the first cross-national statistical analysis of these effects. I demonstrate that electoral interventions systematically increase the electoral chances of the aided candidate. I also show that overt interventions are usually more effective than covert interventions.

I begin by briefly reviewing the existing literature on this topic. In the second section, I describe in detail the two hypotheses I propose as to the electoral effects of great power electoral interventions. Then, I explain the method by which I operationalize and evaluate these hypotheses. In the fourth section, I test these hypotheses using a new dataset of US and Soviet/Russian interventions and describe my results. Finally, I conclude by expanding upon the scholarly and practical implications of my findings.

Research on Electoral Interventions

In spite of the ubiquity and possible importance of electoral interventions, they receive very little attention from political scientists. This stands in contrast to their extensive investigation into the effects and effectiveness of other types of interventions and foreign policy tools. Some scholars, for example, conduct significant quantitative research on the effects of external military interventions for the purpose of regime change or democratization (Meernik 1996; Hermann and Kegley 1998; Peceny 1999; B. Bueno de Mesquita and Downs 2006; Lo, Hashimoto, and Reiter 2008; Willard 2012; Downes and Monten 2013). Others focus on economic sanctions (Drury 1998; Drezner 1999; Hart 2000; Letzkian and Spercher2007; Peksen and Drury 2009; Bapat and Kwon 2015) or on interventions in civil wars (Balch-Lindsay and Enterline 2000; Regan 2002; Gent 2008; Schultz 2010).

We usually find interest in the effects of electoral interventions among scholars in two very different subfields. On the one hand, diplomatic historians note such interventions as part of larger studies on a particular era or bilateral relations between states. On the other hand, scholars in intelligence studies discuss cases of such interventions as part of broader qualitative analysis of the effectiveness of various activities conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and other intelligence agencies. Among these scholars, significant controversy exists as to the short-term effects, if any, of such interventions.

For example, quite a few historians studying particular cases involving electoral interventions either largely dismiss their effects on the results of the relevant elections or view them as counterproductive—as harming the side they were trying to help (DeConde 1958, chp 13–14; Miller 1983, 52–53; Gustafson 2007, 49, 73–74). In contrast, other scholars, usually from intelligence studies, see electoral interventions as both effective and decisive in electoral outcomes (Daugherty 2004, 4–7; Prados 2006, 627; Haslam 2005, 13–15).2

Two recent quantitative studies provide the exception to the overall qualitative approach to the study of electoral interventions by foreign actors.3 Corstange and Marinov (2012, 659, 664–69) conducted a field experiment, the first of its kind, on the effects of an overt foreign intervention on the views of the targeted voters toward the intervener. Conducted in Lebanon two months after the 2009 parliamentary election, it found that an overt intervention in favor of one of the sides contesting the election—in other words, the intervener explicitly declaring its support—polarizes the electorate. Those who support the side favored by the intervener view the intervening power in a more favorable light and vice versa.

Shulman and Bloom (2012, 460–64) conducted a conventional public opinion survey on domestic reactions to electoral interventions in the Ukraine fourteen months after the 2004 presidential election in which such an intervention occurred. They found that the public sees such interventions as universally improper, with US or Western interventions perceived as more improper than Russian interventions.

Given their single-country nature, neither study offers conclusive evidence for the perceptions or effects of electoral intervention beyond the specific context that they studied. Thus, a cross-national large-N study that includes numerous cases of electoral interventions in different countries and periods may prove especially useful for analyzing the direct effects of such interventions.


I argue that electoral interventions usually occur when two concurrent conditions exist. One involves motive, the other opportunity.

First, a great power must perceive its interests as being endangered by a certain candidate or party within a democratic target. That candidate or party has inflexible preferences on important issues that diverge from that of the great power. These inflexible preferences are due to that candidate or party being either greatly constrained by its political base on these issues and/or ideologically committed to particular positions. That, in turn, makes many of the conventional policy responses (various forms of carrots and sticks aimed at resolving disagreements) appear potentially ineffective or too costly to the great power.

Second, a significant domestic actor must consent to, and willingly cooperative with, a proposed electoral intervention by the great power.4 Without the domestic actor’s cooperation in providing information (or “local knowledge”) about the electorate’s preferences and the best ways to intervene in its favor, the great power will usually see its chances of succeeding as too low to justify an electoral intervention.

In the absence of either one of these conditions, the great power will not intervene in the elections. In fact, the great power will “sit out” an election, even in the face of an intervention by an unfriendly great power and even if it sees such a situation as highly threatening to its interests, unless it can find a significant domestic actor willing to accept its assistance.5

Partisan electoral interventions by the great powers are not the only factor that can affect the results of a particular election, but they nevertheless can significantly increase the electoral chances of the supported candidate or party. This is the result of the process by which a would-be intervener and a would-be client “choose” each other and agree to an electoral intervention.

Thus, a great power will not likely support a potential client if that client will still likely lose the election. Under these circumstances, a great power will usually judge that other means, such as post-electoral efforts to influence (or violently remove) the regime, will better serve its interests.6

Similarly, a potential client will likely reject an offer of electoral aid by an outside power if she believes that she will win the election in the absence of such assistance. In these circumstances, the greater risk comes from the possible medium- and long-term costs involved in receiving such an intervention in her favor.

These costs include harming the client’s electoral position in the longer term by alienating voters who, for a variety of reasons, may resent or fear the influence of the foreign power. Such electoral aid also often includes a quid pro quo in which the candidate enacts policies favored by the intervener in return for electoral support. Such promises impose upon the client “sovereignty costs”: they reduce her freedom of action with respect to those, and perhaps other, policies preferred by the foreign power.7

As a result, we should expect most cases of electoral interventions to occur in marginal elections: those in which the result is highly uncertain or one side lags but remains electorally viable. In such situations, great-power intervention is most likely to have a significant effect on the results of the election.8 Given that, all else being equal, the more resources that a particular candidate or party has, the more likely they are to win (Sudulich and Wall 2010, 1; Benoit and Marsh 2008, 874), we can assume that interventions usually increase the electoral chances of the aided party or candidate.

Hypothesis 1:An electoral intervention for a particular candidate or party will increase its electoral chances.

Whether a great power chooses covert or overt forms of electoral intervention likely matters a great deal. Conventional wisdom expects that overt electoral interventions, as other kinds of overt interventions, rarely work as intended. It assumes that public intervention produces a backlash against the intervener and thus harms the prospects of the side that it supports.9 Covert interventions, therefore, should prove more efficacious.

However, this ignores the potential benefits of overt interventions. Moreover, great powers that engage in electoral interventions will take steps to minimize the risks of a backlash: they benefit from the information provided by their client about how best to calibrate their electoral intervention in light of local sensibilities, preferences, and politics. Indeed, if overt interventions always failed, we would have difficulty explaining why they have not become rare.10 And, as noted earlier, the evidence for blowback effects remains uncertain; Costange and Marinov (2012, 664–69) failed to find evidence of a backlash in their study.11

Covert and overt electoral interventions involve different mixes of costs and benefits. Overt electoral interventions allow for more extensive electoral manipulation (and higher chances of success) but carry with them some risk of blowback. Consider the distributional politics model of Dixit and Londregan (1996, 1136–40), in which politicians can win elections by promising the transfer of resources to various “persuadable” voter groups (thus buying their votes). Taken in the context of an intervention, this model suggests that great powers, owing to their resource advantage, will usually enjoy a superior ability to promise the foreign population the transfer of particular resources (or threaten the loss of existing resources) to that of any local politicians.

As a result, direct overt messages from the great power conveying threats or promises to the target’s public can produce a significant shift in the public’s voting patterns. However, overt electoral interventions are risky. If the public in the target country dislikes any facet of the overt intervention, it can lead to a backlash against the preferred candidate, hurting rather than helping his or her chances of being elected.12

In contrast, a covert intervention carries far lower chances of a backlash due to the inherent secrecy in the provision of the electoral aid. However, the lower risk comes with reduced effectiveness. This is due to the nature of covert interventions. A covert operation needs to provide enough assistance to the client, so it will have a good chance of winning the elections while being, at the same time, greatly limited in the means (or the magnitude of the means) it can use.

This limitation is necessary in order to avoid exposure and to enable “plausible deniability” (for this general feature of covert operations, see (Lowenthal 2003, 173–74)). The chances that this delicate balancing act will lead to the under-provision of electoral aid to the client and a subsequent defeat in the elections are far higher than in overt interventions.

The intervener, knowing the benefits and risks of each subtype, will act strategically when choosing the method of intervention, using the information it has on the target public’s preferences (as usually provided by the client) in order to maximize the client’s electoral prospects. For example, in the US electoral intervention in the 1969 Thai elections, the US government chose to intervene in a covert manner largely because the side that it aided demanded complete secrecy in the provision of the US electoral aid, claiming that “A leak would destroy them” (FRUS 27 1964-1968: Document 398).

Likewise, one major reason the United States decided to intervene in an overt manner in the 1953 West German Elections, despite fears of some US officials of a possible backlash, was because the aided side, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer (and the Christian Democratic Union (CDU)), relentlessly pushed for various overt acts of intervention in his favor (Levin 2013, 22–23).13

As a result, when the intervener knows or receives information from the client indicating that an overt electoral intervention is likely to lead to a backlash, it will choose a covert intervention. However, because of the lower effectiveness of covert interventions, the intervener is more likely to fail in such cases.

Alternatively, when the intervener knows or receives information indicating that much of the target public is likely to positively respond to an overt intervention, it will choose this more effective option. As a result of this strategic behavior, when an overt electoral intervention is used, the intervener is more likely to succeed. In contrast, when the intervener uses a covert intervention, it is more likely to fail.

Hypothesis 2: Overt electoral interventions are more likely to benefit the aided candidate or party than covert electoral interventions

Estimated Effects in Particular Election Cases

Of course, a question may be raised regarding how much the estimated electoral intervention effects found here apply in practice to specific elections in which such an intervention had actually been done. Accordingly, in order to illustrate some of the real-life effects of electoral interventions, Table 4 gives the estimated effects on election results in four cases of intervened elections. Each one of these elections (and their results) is widely seen as an important turning point, in retrospect, in the nation’s history.48

Table 4.

Estimated effects of the electoral intervention on election results-selected real intervention cases (interventions in favor of challengers in bold)

Election Aided side Intervener Actual incumbent vote share Estimated incumbent vote share w/out the intervention Decisive effect?
W. Germany Nov. 1972 Incumbent USSR 45.8 43.6 Yes
India Aug. 1977 Incumbent USSR 34.5 32.3 No
Israel June 1992 Challenger US 24.9 30.3 Yes
Yugoslavia/Serbia September 2000 Challenger US 38.2 43.4 Yes

View Large Note: Table created by deducting from the true election results the predicted electoral intervention effects in that election. The predicted intervention effect was estimated by generating the predicted vote share from my model for that election and then recoding that case as a non-intervention on the intervention variable, generating a second prediction and deducting this result from the first prediction. The predicted results of Hypothesis 2 were used for estimating the effects.

As can be seen in Table 4, in most cases the electoral intervention had an important and decisive effect on the outcome in the “desired” direction. In the 1972 West German parliamentary elections, for example, my model estimates that the Soviet intervention in favor of Willy Brandt and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) was an important factor in its winning a narrow five seat margin (in a 496 seat lower house or Bundestag) over its main rival Rainer Barzel and the CDU (230 to 225).49 Without the increase in vote share due to this intervention, given West Germany’s electoral system, I estimate that the SPD would have narrowly lost the election to the CDU, 216 to 236, probably leading to Willy Brandt’s loss of the chancellorship.

Likewise, the US intervention against the incumbent, then Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, in the 1992 Israeli parliamentary elections is estimated, according to my model, to have cost Shamir’s right-wing Likud party the quantity of votes equivalent to about five or six seats in the 120-seat Israeli parliament (the Knesset).50 Given that in this election, the left wing opposition parties won a narrow, one-seat absolute majority in the Knesset for the first time since the 1974 elections, this intervention was likely an important factor in enabling the coming to power of Yitzhak Rabin, following this election, as the head of a center-left coalition.

Of course, like any other domestic or international factor known to affect elections, an electoral intervention in one’s favor does not always guarantee success to its intended beneficiary. In the 1977 Indian parliamentary elections, the covert Soviet intervention in favor of Indira Gandhi and the Congress party is estimated by my model to have done little to prevent, or to even soften, the crushing blow that it had suffered from the Janata party. In this defeat, which led the Congress party to lose power for the first time since India’s independence, the Soviet intervention is estimated to have assisted the Congress party in keeping only eleven or so seats51 from being lost to the Janata party and/or other parties. This is a number too small to have any serious effect on the election results given that the Congress party lost more than 150 seats in this election and the Janata party won 295 seats and a solid 24-seat absolute majority in the 542-seat lower house (the Lok Sabha).

In contrast, the US intervention against Slobodan Milosevic in the 2000 Yugoslav election is estimated by my model to have been decisive in bringing about his final downfall. Without this US intervention, my model predicts that Slobodan Milosevic would have run neck and neck with his main rival, Vojislav Kostunica (43.4 percent to 46.5 percent52). If the first round of the Yugoslav elections had concluded in this inconclusive manner rather than in an outright Kostunica victory (51.7 percent), Milosevic quite probably would have been able, as he had in the past, to “steal” the elections without bringing about the massive wave of demonstrations, which eventually forced him to acknowledge his defeat and resign from the presidency.

Diagnostics and Dealing with Possible Selection Bias Issues

A final concern, as to the possibility of selection bias, involves the electoral intervention variables. Two types of possible selection bias may exist in this regard. The first is selection bias due to missing cases of covert electoral interventions. The data collection strategy of this measure was carefully designed to prevent missing cases of such interventions.39

For example, in order to allow sufficient time for evidence on recent covert interventions to come to light, the dataset stops at the end of 2000. Likewise, the electoral intervention dataset focuses on the United States and the USSR/Russia because of the unique availability of relatively complete data on covert electoral interventions performed by these two great powers.

The former USSR is unusual among post-1945 authoritarian powers (for example, China) in that summaries of the archives of its secret services for most of the twentieth century (the Mitrokhin Archives) were smuggled to the West by a defector (see further description in Online Appendix 2).

As for the United States, owing to a somewhat more relaxed declassification process for many of the relevant archives, the Pike and Church Committees, and greater domestic and international interest, far more information is available on its post-1945 covert activities than for any of the other democratic great powers (for example, France or Great Britain).

The variety of types of reliable (yet, also frequently ”uncontrolled” or ”unauthorized”) sources from which this dataset was constructed for both interveners also make it highly unlikely that only particular kinds of covert interventions (such as only success cases) were collected. For example, the main source of evidence used for coding the unsuccessful covert Soviet intervention in the 1977 Indian elections noted in the following subsection (see later description) came from the above-noted Mitrokhin archives. The Russian government (and the FSB, the successor service to the KGB) had no ability to control the process by which this failed intervention (as well as other interventions noted in this archive) was exposed. Neither was the Russian government able to block its exposure.

Likewise, the main source of evidence for coding the unsuccessful US covert intervention in the 1980 Iranian elections was a subsequent investigation by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations (reported in Corn 1993), a process of exposure over which the executive branch had very limited control.40 In another case, one of the main sources of evidence for coding the unsuccessful US covert intervention in the 1955 Indonesian elections came from the (unauthorized) memoirs of a former CIA agent named Joseph Smith who was stationed in that country (Smith 1976). Internal data from the nature of the intervention cases in this dataset also provides evidence for the thoroughness of the data collection process and lack of bias.41

A second concern in regard to selection bias relates to which types of competitive elections the gre

Discussion and Conclusion

Vojislav Kostunica’s campaign team had good reason to see the foreign support as critical to their victory. My findings demonstrate that, overall, partisan electoral interventions seem to substantively benefit the aided candidate or party. Furthermore, overt interventions prove to be significantly more effective than covert interventions in swaying elections.

Of course, given the average effect that I find (about a 3 percent change in vote share), electoral interventions will not always assure victory for the great powers’ preferred candidates. However, such interventions often do swing elections.

The evidence presented in this article suggests in the foreseeable future, partisan electoral interventions will continue to be an effective way for great powers to determine the leadership of other states, regardless of whether their targets are governed by “competitive authoritarian,” partially democratic, or fully democratic regimes.

These results also provide further—and cross-national—support for the finding of Corstange and Marinov (2012, 664–669) that no popular backlash effect existed in their survey experiment of overt intervention.

Future research should focus on other effects of electoral interventions. Partisan electoral interventions affect a key democratic institution—the national level elections and the process by which the executive is peacefully replaced or retained. As a result, such interventions may have major effects on the target.

For example, one important direction for future research in this regard would be to investigate whether electoral interventions have ramifications for the level of democracy in the target over the medium and long term. Another important direction for future research would be the possible effect of electoral interventions on the target’s domestic stability. Research on this question could investigate, for example, whether such interventions may inadvertently encourage various kinds of extra-parliamentary opposition (such as mass protests, general strikes, riots, and terrorism) by the frustrated losing side.

This study shows that even when foreign powers do not use force (whether overtly or covertly) toward a democracy, they can still exert a major influence over the nature of its leadership, and they are frequently willing and able to use this option. Indeed, in a world in which military interventions are increasingly costly and democracies are more common, partisan electoral interventions are likely to become an ever more central tool of the great powers’ foreign policy.

For example, had the Arab Spring led to a new, more enduring crop of democratic and democratizing regimes (in addition to Tunisia) in the Middle East, it is quite likely that some of these countries would have become targets of partisan electoral interventions in order to prevent “undesirable” parties or leaders from winning power. Indeed, carrying out electoral interventions for this purpose was an option openly advocated during the initial aftermath of the Arab Spring by some segments of the US foreign policy community.53

Furthermore, given the fact that many of China’s and India’s neighbors and potential peer competitors are full or partial democracies, a future attempt by either power to rise to regional or global prominence may not necessarily lead to warfare as some theorists predict (compare Mearsheimer 2001, 396–402).

Instead, either power may choose initially to invest its efforts in replacing foreign leaders strongly hostile to their geopolitical ambitions with “friendlier” ones through a partisan electoral intervention, thus preempting much of the resistance to their rise. Ballots thus may well supplant bullets in the twenty-first century but in a way quite different than usually conceived.

Dov H. Levin is a Lecturer in the Political Science Department at the University of California, 4289 Bunche Hall, Box 951472, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1472. Email:dovlvn@ucla.edua. His areas of interest include the causes and effects of partisan electoral interventions and interventions in general, the causes of regional war and peace, nationalism, ethnicity and conflict, and terrorism.
(Editor’s note: technical specifics, including metthods and data – are ommitted from this version intentionally for space considerations. For the maths inclined, these can be found at the original paper here.)

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