It is widely agreed that significant emissions cuts need to be undertaken in the electricity sector to meet the targets adopted in the Paris Agreement (IPCC 2018). Yet despite its urgency, many countries have been slow to transition to low-carbon technologies, leading to widespread concern that the international community will fail to meet its shared mitigation target. Countries’ divergent energy preferences have been attributed to several factors such as, for example, the political influence of interest groups (Marques et al. 2010; Cadoret and Padovano 2016) and their repurcussions on the national economy (IEA 2017; Teske et al. 2018; Brown et al. 2018). Yet all of these explanations originate from the assumption that political actors design energy policy with one fundamental goal in mind – to remain in power by deploying the most politically expedient energy sources. We contribute to this literature by investigating the effects of two observable sources of political returns attached to electricity deployment decisions – the level of democracy in countries’ formal political institutions and the strength of industrial interest groups.