Articulating 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.