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The dictator's dilemma: To win with 95 percent or 99?

In the category of least-surprising news of the weekend, Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov was reelected with 97 percent of the vote. The remaining three percent was spread among seven "opposition" candidates who spent most of the campaign lavishing praise on the former dentist.

Berdimuhamedov seems to have gained some support, or at least some confidence, since 2007 when he was elected with 89 percent of the vote following the death of his predecessor and mentor Saparmurat Niyazov. It doesn't quite match Niyazov's 99.5 percent in 1992, but it puts him well ahead of regional peers like Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov and Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev, who won the comparatively paltry totals of 90.77 percent and 80.7 percent respectively in their most recent reelections.   

In today's world, even the most blatantly undemocratic governments feel the need to hold periodic elections to reaffirm their legitimacy. But I'm always interested by the final numbers in elections where there's absolutely no question of who will win. The 90 percent mark seems to be a useful line to distinguish between the authoritarian governments that care about the international perception of their elections and want to present the appearance of having an  opposition, and those that care only about demonstrating their absolute control to their own citizens.

While neither is a democratic contest, there is a difference -- in intended effect at least -- between Hosni Mubarak getting 88.6 percent of the vote in 2005 and Bashar al-Assad getting 97.62 percent in a “presidential referendum,” with no opposition candidates, as he did in 2007. Then there’s the 99 percent club, which includes the Castro brothers, and Kim Jong Il. Saddam Hussein went for the full 100 percent in 2002, but then again, he was overthrown a year later. (Why a dictator decides between winning by 97 percent or 99 percent isn't quite clear.)

In general, when a former 90-percenter start slipping below that mark – as Mubarak did in 2005 -- it’s not a good sign for the future of the regime. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union won 100 percent in every legislative election until 1984, when the party, led by General Secretary Konstantin Chernenko, won 71.5 percent, with the rest going to handpicked “independents.” Seven years later the Communists were done.

Today's Russia is something of a hybrid. In the last legislative elections, the ruling United Russia party took 64.3 percent of the vote nationwide, the kind of number you see in an authoritarian country that feels the need to demonstrate that it has at least a token opposition. (Iran, for instance.) But in Chechnya, United Russia took a Turkmenistan-like 99.48 percent of the vote with 99.5 percent turnout -- quite a show of support in a republic that recently saw a bloody nationalist uprising against Moscow.

Another related question: what’s the most lopsided victory in a national election generally considered democratic? Jacques Chirac beat Jean-Marie Le Pen with 82.21 percent of the vote in 2002 French presidential election, but that was a run-off after he had failed to break 20 percent in the first round. Same with Lech Walesa’s 74.3 percent in Poland’s first democratic election.

The winner among current democratic leaders – readers please correct me if I’m wrong – might be South Africa’s Jacob Zuma, who took 65.9 percent of the popular vote in 2009. This is slightly less than Nelson Mandela won in 1994, the first year black South Africans were allowed to vote.

The numbers can often be a bit lopsided in new democracies. India’s Congress Party, led by Jawaharlal Nehru, won 44.99 percent of the vote in India’s 1951 election,  compared to only 3.29 percent for the second-place party.

In the first two U.S. presidential elections, George Washington ran unopposed and took 100 percent of the vote. James Monroe also ran unopposed in 1820. The most lopsided contested presidential election in U.S. history was Thomas Jefferson’s  victory over Charles Cotesworth Pinckney in 1804. With a bit over 72 percent of the popular vote, (electors were chosen by state legislatures in 6 of the 17 states at that time), the author of the Declaration of Independence won with a higher percentage than Vladimir Putin or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have ever managed to muster.

Question for readers: Has any national candidate ever won over 90 percent in a first-round election against real opposition without cheating? 80 percent?

Update: Several readers suggest the 2004 post-Rose Revolution Georgian presidential election in which Mikheil Saakashvili won 96 percent of the vote. The vote got a mostly clean bill of health from the OSCE.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

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Did the United States use the Kashmir earthquake to send intelligence operatives into Pakistan?

That's the charge the National Journal's Marc Ambinder makes in his very interesting new book on Joint Special Operations Command, coauthored with D.B. Grady.

They write:

The U.S. intelligence community took advantage of the chaos to spread resources of its own into the country. Using valid U.S. passports and posing as construction and aid workers, dozens of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operatives and contractors flooded in without the requisite background checks from the country's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. Al-Qaeda had reconstituted itself in the country's tribal areas, largely because of the ISI's benign neglect. In Afghanistan, the ISI was actively undermining the U.S.-backed government of Hamid Karzai, training and recuiting for the Taliban, which it viewed as the more reliable partner. The political system was in chaos. The Pakistani army was focused on the threat from India and had redeployed away from the Afghanistan border region, the Durand line, making it porous once again. To some extent, the Bush administration had been focused on Iraq for the previous two years, content with the ISI's cooperation in capturing senior al-Qaeda leaders, while ignoring its support of other groups tha would later become recruiting grounds for al-Qaeda.

A JSOC intelligence team slipped in alongside the CIA. The team had several goals. One was prosaic: team members were to develop rings of informants to gather targeting information about al-Qaeda terrorists. Other goals were extremely sensitive: JSOC needed better intelligence about how Pakistan tranported its nuclear weapons and wanted to pentrate the ISI. Under a secret program code-named SCREEN HUNTER, JSOC, augmented by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and contract personnel, was authorized to shadow and identify members of the ISI suspected of being sympathetic to al-Qaeda. It is not clear whether JSOC units used lethal force against these ISI officers; one official said that the goal of the program was to track terrorists through the ISI by using disinformation and psychological warfare. (The program, by then known under a different name, was curtailed by the Obama administration when Pakistan's anxiety about a covert U.S. presence inside the country was most intense.)

Meanwhile, rotating teams of SEALs from DEVGRU Black squadron, aided by Rangers and other special operations forces, established a parallel terroris-hunting capability called VIGILANT HARVEST. They operated in the border areas of Pakistan deemed off limits to Americans, and they targeted courier networks, trainers, and facilitators. (Legally, these units would operate under the authority of the CIA any time they crossed the border.) Some of their missions were coordinated with Pakistan; others were not. As of 2006, teams of Green Berets were regularly crossing the border. Missions involved as few as three or four operators quietly trekking across the line, their movements monitored by U.S. satellites and drones locked onto the cell phones of these soldiers. (The cell phones were encrypted in such a  way that made them undetectable to Pakistani intelligence.) Twice in 2008, Pakistani officials caught wind of these missions, and in one instance, Pakistani soldiers operating in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas fired guns into the air to prevent the approach of drones.

Forward intelligence cells in Pakistan are staffed by JSOC-contracted security personnel from obscure firms with insider names such as Triple Canopy and various offshoots of Blackwater, but it is not clear whether, as Jeremy Scahill of the Nation has argued, the scale of these operations was operationally significant or that the contractors acted as hired guns for the U.S. government. Sources say that only U.S. soldiers performed "kinetic" operations; Scahill's sources suggest otherwise. The security compartments were so small for these operations (one was known as QUIET STORM, a particularly specialized mission targeting the Pakistani Taliban in 2008) that the Command will probably be insulated from retrospective oversight about its activities. A senior Obama administration official said that by the middle of 2011, after tensions between the United States and the Pakistani government had reached an unhealthy degree of danger, all JSOC personnel except for its declared military trainers were ferreted out of the country. (They were easy to find using that same secret cell phone pinging technology.) Those who remained were called Omegas, a term denoting their temporary designation as members of the reserve force. They then joined any one of a dozen small contracting companies set up by the CIA, which turned these JSOC soldiers into civilians, for the purposes of deniability.