Mimicking democracy to prolong autocracies?

twq-squareArticulating the shifting political dynamics of neo-authoritarian regimes is vital to understanding how and why post-Cold War autocracies have been so resilient, and for fashioning effective democracy assistance, argue analysts Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz.

Dictators who use pseudo-democratic institutions are not necessarily less repressive than their institution-free counterparts. Indeed, research has shown that these institutions do not lower overall repression levels, but instead enable autocrats to use repression in more targeted and less costly ways, they write for The Washington Quarterly:

Dictatorships with multiple parties and a legislature, for example, are more likely to use repression to target and punish specific opponents, but less likely to use it to indiscriminately restrict civil liberties. By increasing incentives to participate in the regime, these institutions provide dictators with an additional form of surgically targeted political control, enabling them to survive in office longer than their predecessors.

Given that elections, multiple political parties, and legislatures can be risky for autocrats, why do so many dictators allow them to function? they ask:

The most apparent reason is that these institutions bestow onto their leaders a facade of democracy that enables them to maintain international and domestic legitimacy needed in today’s day and age. Authoritarian incumbents have likely viewed the adoption of elections and the legalization of multiple parties as a means of acquiring international legitimacy and, in turn, attracting international aid and investment to keep their regimes afloat….

Savvy dictators are aware that institutional manipulation offers greater advantages and fewer liabilities than overreliance on traditional tactics like overt repression, which push compliance with the regime through brute force but risk creating popular discontent and/or focal points for mobilization that can easily be broadcasted to catalyze destabilizing civil unrest. The exclusive use of repression also requires dictatorships to allocate sufficient power to the security services, which may actually pose the greatest threat to their rule.

Best Offense Is a Good Defense

These dynamics have several implications for democracy assistance efforts, Kendall-Taylor and Frantz contend:

The proportion of dictatorships coming to power through institutionalized means has increased in recent years, raising the possibility that such newly formed autocracies may be particularly resilient. This suggests that strategies aimed at enhancing democratic consolidation in new or fragile democracies to avert the creation of already institutionalized—and therefore durable—authoritarian systems may be a particularly important approach. Employing tactics in new or fragile democracies that promote democratic consolidation—such as developing political parties that represent meaningful segments of society, strengthening civil society and other alternative centers of power outside of the executive—and reinforcing inclusive and participatory institutions could help prevent democratic backsliding and the formation of this resilient brand of autocracy.

Strategically Allocate Resources

Young autocracies are more likely than long-lived regimes to democratize. Institutionalized dictatorships that fall from power during their first decade democratize at a rate of 77 percent, they note:

After two decades in office, the chances of democratization fall to 60 percent. The data we presented above suggests this trend could be the result of a regime’s more effective use of institutions. As regimes mature, they become more adept at utilizing institutions to undermine alternative centers of power and entrench the elite. This implies that an autocracy like Venezuela, in power since 2005, is likely to be a better bet for democratization than one like Zimbabwe, in power since 1980.

Counteract Incumbent Tactics

Finally, identifying tactics to mitigate the specific ways in which incumbents are using pseudo-democratic institutions can mitigate their power-prolonging effect and reduce the prospects that autocracies will accumulate and trigger a global wave of de-democratization, the authors assert:

For example, as highlighted above, authoritarian incumbents are using elections to signal their dominance by spending and mobilizing state resources in the run-up to elections. Encouraging the opposition to participate in sub-national levels of government can enable these individuals to establish bases of support, access to resources, and relationships with current elite or other members of the opposition, which can help overcome an incumbent’s resource advantage. 


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Why democratic India will outpace autocratic China

China’s churlish reaction to Barack Obama’s visit to New Delhi this week suggests that the US president and Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister, are on to something important in their attempt to remake the geostrategic map of the world, writes FT analyst Victor Mallet:

Mr Obama and Mr Modi…tacitly contrasted Chinese authoritarianism with their own declared respect for freedom, democracy and the rule of law.               

Mr Modi is not saddled with the historical baggage of anti-capitalism and suspicion of the west that made the Congress party lean towards the Soviet Union while publicly adopting “non-alignment” during the cold war. Instead, he finds himself propelled into a friendship with Mr Obama by 3m Indian-Americans, many of them prosperous entrepreneurs hailing from his native Gujarat.

india china“Modi comes in and finds that there is much greater strategic convergence with the US vis-à-vis China,” says Mr Vaishnav. “He doesn’t have this historical ideological baggage” and is not embarrassed about openly befriending the US. “That,” Mr Vaishnav says, “has to be counted as a significant break from the past.” 

Autocratic China has plenty of capitalist superfans in the West, but the latest forecast suggests that the tide may be turning in India’s favor, possibly for good. The World Bank anticipates (PDF) that, by 2017, India will be growing faster than China, writes analyst Allison Schrager:

Once that happens, growth will depend on demographics and each country’s ability to innovate. India has a better outlook on both fronts. Its population is growing; China’s is shrinking. It’s harder to predict which country will be better at innovation. Signs point to India because democracies, with their secure property rights and general stability, tend to be better at fostering successful entrepreneurship. China’s authoritarian capitalism is a new model, and it’s not clear whether it can produce the sort of environment in which people take chances, form businesses, and invent things. 

India also has some long-term advantages over China, the FT adds:

First, its demographics are considerably better, with a relatively much larger cohort of young people entering the workforce. Second, while China requires great political upheaval to become a prosperous liberal democracy, India has only to improve the imperfect democracy it already has. Third, China is beginning to exhaust the rapid manufacturing phase of expansion, and may find growth harder to come by in the future.

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Discarding democracy: Freedom House finds ‘disturbing’ global decline


Global freedom suffered a “disturbing” decline over the past year, according to a leading democracy watchdog. An upsurge in terrorist violence and increasingly aggressive tactics by authoritarian regimes had led to “a growing disdain for democratic standards” across nearly all regions, says the annual report of U.S.-based Freedom House.

“In a year marked by an explosion of terrorist violence, autocrats’ use of more brutal tactics, and Russia’s invasion and annexation of a neighboring country’s territory, the state of freedom in 2014 worsened significantly in nearly every part of the world,” writes Arch Puddington, the group’s Vice President for Research.  

For the ninth consecutive year, Freedom in the World, Freedom House’s annual report on the condition of global political rights and civil liberties, showed an overall decline. Indeed, acceptance of democracy as the world’s dominant form of government—and of an international system built on democratic ideals—is under greater threat than at any point in the last 25 years, he notes:

FREEDOM HOUSE 2015Even after such a long period of mounting pressure on democracy, developments in 2014 were exceptionally grim. The report’s findings show that nearly twice as many countries suffered declines as registered gains, 61 to 33, with the number of gains hitting its lowest point since the nine-year erosion began.

This pattern held true across geographical regions, with more declines than gains in the Middle East and North Africa, Eurasia, sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, and the Americas, and an even split in Asia-Pacific. Syria, a dictatorship mired in civil war and ethnic division and facing uncontrolled terrorism, received the lowest Freedom in the World country score in over a decade.

The one notable exception to the lack of democratic gains was Tunisia, which became the first Arab country to achieve the status of Free since Lebanon 40 years ago, Puddington adds:

By contrast, a troubling number of large, economically powerful, or regionally influential countries moved backward: Russia, Venezuela, Egypt, Turkey, Thailand, Nigeria, Kenya, and Azerbaijan. Hungary, a European Union member state, also saw a sharp slide in its democratic standards as part of a process that began in 2010. 

Overlooked autocrats

While some of the world’s worst dictatorships regularly made headlines, others continued to fly below the radar, the report continues:

Despite year after year of declines in political rights and civil liberties, Azerbaijan has avoided the democratic world’s opprobrium due to its energy wealth and cooperation on security matters. Vietnam is also an attractive destination for foreign investment, and the United States and its allies gave the country special attention in 2014 as the underdog facing Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. But like China, Vietnam remains an entrenched one-party state, and the regime imposed harsher penalties for free speech online, arrested protesters, and continued to ban work by human rights organizations. Ethiopia is held up as a model for development in Africa, and is one of the world’s largest recipients of foreign assistance. But in 2014 its security forces opened fire on protesters, carried out large-scale arrests of bloggers and other journalists as well as members of the political opposition, and evicted communities from their land to make way for opaque development projects.

Finally, while several countries in the Middle East—most notably oil-rich Saudi Arabia—receive special treatment from the United States and others, the United Arab Emirates stands out for how little international attention is paid to its systematic denial of rights for foreign workers, who make up the vast majority of the population; its enforcement of one of the most restrictive press laws in the Arab world; and its dynastic political system, which leaves no space for opposition.


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North Korean defector’s testimony

NKShin-Dong-hyuk_2824961bA recent New York Times report – Prominent North Korean Defector Recants Parts of His Story of Captivity – overstates the importance of the prison-camp survivor Shin Dong-hyuk’s testimony before the United Nations Commission of Inquiry, say Roberta Cohen and Carl Gershman, co-chairwoman of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea and president of the National Endowment for Democracy.

“Rather than allow North Korea to use the inaccuracies recently discovered in Mr. Shin’s testimony to undermine the commission’s conclusions and recommendations,” they write to the Times, “let us instead call upon Pyongyang to open the prison camps so that the international community can see for itself what countless victims have reported about them.”


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Postpone poll: Nigeria needs national unity government

lymanAfrica’s biggest democracy is scheduled to hold elections next month. They should be postponed, argues Princeton N. Lyman, a Senior Adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Nigeria is heading into these elections with insufficient preparation, extreme tensions, and wracked by Boko Haram, the brutal Islamist insurgency whose murders and kidnappings have shocked the world. Yet there is no national consensus in Nigeria on how to deal with this insurgency, and no one seems prepared to confront it as the national crisis it is, he writes for Foreign Policy:

What outsiders often fail to grasp is that this grim situation is merely the symptom of a deeper malaise: a breakdown of the informal consensus on power sharing between the Muslim north and the Christian south that had guided Nigerian politics for decades. This makes the upcoming contest for the presidency especially fraught, as the incumbent president, Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the southeast, seeks reelection after six years in power.

Elections would normally be the way for a nation to chart a path forward to solutions for these problems, notes Lyman, the U.S. ambassador to Nigeria 1986-89, to South Africa 1992-1995, and U.S. Special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan 2001-2013:

But a recent delegation of experts sponsored by the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute found serious gaps in election preparations. One of the biggest problems: How to ensure voting for the nearly one million people displaced or controlled by Boko Haram in the northeast, an area of likely support for the opposition. The NDI/IRI delegation also reports an influx of arms to areas into volatile areas like the Niger delta, a stronghold of the PDP. ….Rather than proceeding straight into this train wreck, Nigeria should stop and create a temporary government of national unity (GNU).

But the head of Nigeria’s electoral commission said the country will hold a presidential election as scheduled on Feb. 14, rejecting a call from one of the president’s advisors to delay them, Reuters reports.

“We remain committed to implementing the timetable,” commission head Attahiru Jega told a news conference.

It is hard for me to recommend this course of action, Lyman adds. I am on the board of the National Endowment for Democracy, which supports the growth of democracy worldwide and consistently champions free and fair elections, he adds:

But the political system in Nigeria today is dysfunctional, and this reality, combined with the breakdown of law and order in the northeast, is taking the country down. It is time for leaders from all walks of life to step forward and change this direction. A government of national unity is not a perfect solution, and creating and implementing it is likely to prove challenging. But right now it offers the best way of avoiding an impending implosion.


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