New research investigating the fall of dictators has uncovered some interesting data: in the past decade, autocratic leaders have become more vulnerable to popular revolt and less so to insider-led coups, the most common way dictators have exited power in recent history, says the International Republican Institute’s Brian Braun.
A number of academic studies have identified the downward trend in coups since their height in the 1960s and 70s, but academics have only recently begun to investigate the modes of exit that have replaced them, he writes for Muftah.org.
The research, authored by Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz, not only presents insightful data on the prospects for democracy in post-autocratic societies, but also offers democracy assistance implementers new ways of thinking about how to best support reform-minded activists living in authoritarian societies.
Adapted from a study conducted by Milan Svolik, the authors’ research examines whether revolts that overthrow dictators are short-term exceptions to conventional wisdom that autocrats are most susceptible to coups. The data reveals that, while regime insiders forced out the majority of autocrats from the 1950s to the present, uprisings against autocratic regimes now remove a greater proportion of dictators than coups. Astonishingly, the percentage of autocrats ousted by revolts has tripled from four to twelve percent since the end of the Cold War and accounts for a quarter of all overthrows between 2010 and 2012.
Kendall-Taylor and Frantz’s research not only found that protest-led exits are more likely to result in democratization than exits resulting from civil wars, coups, resignations, term limitations, or deaths in office, but also that popular uprisings are more likely to sweep away the institutional structures of autocratic regimes, which, if left intact, are likely to lead to new dictatorships. Other research (Debs and H.E. Goemans) offers similarly insightful data: the less violent the fall of a regime, the more likely democracy will follow. Where dictators believe they are likely to be killed or imprisoned, they are more likely to respond to popular protests with violence (think Ceaușescu in Romania, Qaddafi in Libya, and Assad in Syria), thereby decreasing the chances of democracy taking root.
Together this research offers democracy assistance practitioners sage advice at a time when the number of reform-minded activists standing up against corrupt and abusive governments seems too many to count. As autocrats find clever new ways to suppress dissent and prolong their regimes, the democracy assistance community can employ this knowledge as it helps local activists promote transparency and accountability in their own governments.
Investing in open-source and data collection platforms is one of the most promising avenues to equip activists living under authoritarian systems with the tools to engage their governments in open and public dialogue on matters of civic and private life. Twitter and Facebook, both social media sites, were key forums for public discourse and important tools that helped to mobilize the masses that brought down long-time autocrats Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, and helped coordinate the mass demonstrations against the victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during Iran’s disputed June 2009 presidential elections.
Other online platforms are equally important. By developing and promoting free crowd and open-source software like Ushahidi, which promotes transparency and raises public accountability by performing functions like mapping polling places and documenting institutional corruption, democracy assistance implementers can provide activists with accessible, low-cost tools designed to hold governments accountable. The FixMyStreet website, which uses similar interactive mapping software to report potholes and broken street lights to make municipal governments responsible for repairs, is one of many innovative and popular ways for cell phone users across the globe to monitor the activities of city administrators.
Since violence is likely to hamper the transition to democracy, international implementers should also prioritize conflict mediation programs that help mitigate the likelihood acts of violence will thwart the path toward a peaceful and democratic transition. Search for Common Ground, one organization that focuses on conflict resolution programming, works with political and religious leaders, civil society organizations, militaries, media, and minorities on conflict sensitivity, reconciliation, and mediation issues to cooperatively resolve sometimes deadly disputes in conflict-prone countries. This approach has been successfully applied to volatile regions such as Sudan, Yemen, and Timor-Leste. In countries where different camps within a protest movement seek divergent outcomes (think Egypt), it can help ensure that competing parties work together instead of against one another after an autocrat is overthrown.
Finally, democracy assistance practitioners should be committed and prepared to work with democrats abroad long after autocratic regimes have been overthrown. Although Kendal-Taylor and Frantz suggest a brighter prospect for democratic movements in the future, implementers must also be aware that protest movements that succeed in replacing autocratic regimes with democratic systems are still highly susceptible to undemocratic relapses. Even after a revolt has led to democratization, the country is still vulnerable to autocratic backsliding. Democracy assistance implementers must, therefore, maintain a strong and supportive relationship with activists well past the transition to help realize the dream of establishing a stable and democratic society.
Brian Braun is a program assistant with the International Republican Institute’s Middle East and North Africa division.