Thought experiment: put yourself in the shoes of a dictator or thug, list the options in a cost-benefit analysis.
Option 1: Turn over a leaf and be a good government. Pro: it's what people want; and some evidence it works. Where elections are properly conducted, people are more likely to vote for the incumbent if the economy is recently been growing. Cons: If the incumbent has been running the economy badly for a long time, his skill set and the organizations are not designed to run the economy well. Would involve suppressing the patronage of elite groups, so incumbent would weaken his power base. Another con is that even with good economic performance, chances of winning are far from certain. Might be more effective ways of ensuring duration in office. In America, dramatic lesson in how difficult it is to measure how someone is doing with economic performance. Economy is doing badly now, unemployment is growing, which could either be because the stimulus package isn't being quickly enough or isn't large enough and the President needs to do more or because the President inherited a really bad situation that turns out to be worse than we thought. Impossible to distinguish. Good parallel with bottom billion in the 1990s, long period of stagnation or decline, causes of which were contested. If economists can't agree, what are the odds others can agree. Weak reed to lean on.
Option 2: Lie. Pro: Lying is easier in these societies than in our own because the media is more restricted, more controlled by the authorities. Con: You've been doing it for such a long time that people don't believe you and will discount what you say. Unreliable way of winning. But you are really good at it! Some tension there. Unknowable how much in an autocratic society how much the average person believes. Pravda probably not a reliable source of information in the Soviet Union, but claim that people are more gullible.
Option 3: Scapegoat a minority. Whip up a populist support for yourself by identifying the problems as due to some internal minority or some foreign country or institution like the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Disturbingly successful, long history, shouldn't underestimate the success of this strategy. Con: Very often, the incumbent rulers have depended on these minorities, especially ethnic business minorities, for their financial support. Autocrats have favored ethnic minority business people because they can't build up a political power base, can't threaten. Businessmen from the majority ethnic group who are the menace, parasites, rent-seekers. Ethnic minority businessmen are often payrolling of the patronage system of the incumbent president; don't want to weaken the ethnic minority too much, turn populist forces against it; would cut off the spigot.
Option 4: Bribery. Key advantage of the incumbent over the opposition is that you've got more money, so long as you can embezzle the public purse, so you can bribe people with their own money. Like when guy promises to watch your car on a city street to prevent it from being vandalized if you give him money; what will happen if you don't? Moral hazard. Con: Might come expensive. Other con: can you trust people if you give them money and they say they will vote for you, how can you tell they actually will? Studied efficacy of bribery; find it is effective. Sometimes new technologies even favor bribery. In some parts of the world, mobile phones are used to photograph the ballot paper inside the voting booth. People in these societies regard a deal as giving some sort of moral responsibility. Honor among thieves; somebody suborns you and you feel ethically bound. Tradition of big man providing patronage to the clients, so voter bribery fits. City of Chicago: there is literal bribery, and people follow through even in a secret ballot system. Illicit strategies are not confined to the societies of the bottom billion, but are more pronounced there. Struggle for institutions which restrain the strong incentives.
Option 5: Intimidation. Opposite of bribery. Can use both: bribe marginal group and intimidate clear supporters of the opposition. Can observe whether people vote even if you can't tell how people vote. Can pretty easily identify who you don't want to vote; hire thugs. Can be a winner as a strategy. Pedro Vicente, experiment during Nigerian presidential elections, expected to violent; teamed up with local non-governmental organization (NGO), randomized controlled experiment. Reduced level and fear of violence in this group of constituencies. Was a systematic effect: vote for peaceful politicians went up. Con: Two can play at that game, not clear that the incumbent has an advantage. Ultimately incumbent has advantage because he can resort to the police and army. In second round of Zimbabwean elections, that's what Mugabe did, turned to violence. In less extreme conditions, opposition might have an advantage--presumption is that opposition has widespread support or you wouldn't be worried about it.
Option 6: Restrict the field to exclude the strongest candidates. Long pedigree of success. Can kill them. Book has chapter on meltdown in Cote d'Ivoire. Incumbent wanted to have a contested election but didn't want to face the two candidates who were really likely to win. Banned both of them, looked around for somebody to run against, against whom he would be likely to win. Actually lost--neglected to take into account how people would perceive his banning of the other two. Nigerian president banned everybody, but was going to have a multiparty election, so he set up five parties, each of which just happened to choose him as their candidate. Happens in real democracy, sometimes get several endorsements. Dropped dead of a heart attack before he was able to go through with this.
Option 7: Miscounting the votes. LBJ solution--Robert A. Caro's biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, power and political machinations and culture. Ballot fraud is tempting because typically the incumbent controls the local authorities, who may even have been trying to please him for years. May even be competition to deliver as many votes as possible. Entrepreneurship, competitive sycophancy.