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A democratic government can ignore the results of an election at any time. Just like a dictatorship can chose to adopt the same policies a democracy would, minus elections. In both cases, the government has effectively the same choices and incentives.

Aren't the two forms of government the same, minus formalities?

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    A democratic government can ignore the results of an election at any time You should read about what a democratic government is. And formalities (like having a judge judge you with a lawyer defending you before sending you to prison, instead of a cop just deciding that you have earned to be shot) are important... – SJuan76 Mar 19 '16 at 23:34
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    A dictatorship can have lawyers. And there is nothing in particular forcing a democratic government to obey elections, other than the same incentives a dictatorship would have. – D J Sims Mar 20 '16 at 0:00
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    The moment a democratic government ignores an election result, it stops being a democratic government and changes into a dictatorship. But this is a question of semantics. So the question you should be asking is "what stops them?". – Philipp Mar 20 '16 at 8:12
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    So is there any difference between democratic and non democratic government besides that formality? – D J Sims Mar 20 '16 at 17:04
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    @Chloe Politicians globally routinely say one thing and do another, and the US is as guilty of that as anyone else. – Phil Lello Apr 1 '16 at 15:53
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The whole premise of this question is wrong. The moment* a democratic government loses an election, it stops being the government and the new one takes over.

*) technically there is usually a transitional period between election and the transfer of power to the new government, but usually no feasible way for the old government to delay the process

Police, military, secret services and all other forms of executive authority enforcement now officially receive their orders from the new government. The same applies to any civil services. So any orders the old government gives would be ignored.

That's how it would work in an ideal democracy. However, there were various cases in recent history where a government was able to stay in power after losing an election. That was usually because the executive branches mentioned above felt, for one reason or another, more loyal to the people of the government than the offices they represented, and kept following their orders while ignoring those of their successors. This situation is effectively a "Putsch". The legitimate new government is violently removed from office and replaced by the now illegitimate previous government. The moment such a putsch happens, a country stops being a democracy and turns into a dictatorship.

In some regions of the world this happens quite frequently. In others, like North-America or Europe, it is practically unthinkable. It's a matter of mentality. Anyone working for the government is usually sworn to uphold the authority of the constitution, not that of any specific people. Their work contracts usually say they are employed by the "Ministry of X", not the "Minister of X", so their loyalty belongs to whoever officially holds that ministry. That means the majority of the government bureaucracy and forces will feel obligated to follow the orders of whoever is democratically elected, not of whoever they like best. When the newly elected minister of interior tells her police force "There is a sore loser squatting in my new office and refuses to leave, please evict her", they will comply.

In Europe there is also the European Union which works as a watchdog instance for democratic ideals, and while it is hard to eject a country from the EU, the EU can strip a country of all its privileges when it doesn't adhere to democratic standards.

So to answer the question "What incentive does a democratic government have to accept an election result which removes them from office?":

In a "True Democracy™", pulling a coup is hard, and when you fail, you will likely end up in prison and won't get another chance to get into power ever again. A far more viable strategy is to just hold out as opposition for a legislative period, use that time to reclaim the public opinion, and then try to win the next election. If you fail, repeat.

  • " but usually no feasible way for the old government to delay the process" No feasible way? The government can do whatever it wants. It's the government. – D J Sims Mar 20 '16 at 17:03
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    This is what you fail to see, IMO. The government has power because others obey their orders. In the moment a government deligitimates itself (for example, by not accepting the results of some elections), other people can stop obeying them (typically, parliament can impeach it, high tribunals can order its detention, civil servants and/or the public can refuse to carry its orders/strike). The governments have no "magic wand" to make others comply with them, by themselves (and if you say "the military", in a democratic country the military would abstain from following those orders). – SJuan76 Mar 20 '16 at 17:09
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    @Mustang A government only has the power it gets from its executive apparatus. Without anyone to enforce their power, they are just a discussion club. That's why the revolution against Assad in Syria is such a failure while the revolution against Mubarak in Egypt was successful. Assad has the loyalty of his army, Mubarak had not. – Philipp Mar 20 '16 at 17:28
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    @Mustang That's... debatable, but actually reinforces my argument: A government is only as powerful as the people who listen to them. – Philipp Mar 20 '16 at 17:33
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    @Mustang Also, in a proper democracy, the government consists of several independent branches (multi-chamber parliaments, government head which can be impeached by them, constitutional courts which can repeal any laws, etc.) where no single branch has absolute power and there are checks and balances in place to prevent individual branches from abusing the powers they have. That means the several branches of the government usually need to cooperate to turn the state into a dictatorship, which is no easy feat (although not impossible, see Germany 1933). – Philipp Mar 20 '16 at 17:52

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