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Mass Purges: Top-Down Accountability in Autocracy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 August 2019

Emory University
London School of Economics
*B. Pablo Montagnes, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Emory University,
Stephane Wolton, Associate Professor, Department of Government, London School of Economics,


This paper proposes a novel theoretical framework to study the features of mass purges in authoritarian regimes. We contend that mass purges are an instrument of top-down accountability meant to motivate and screen a multitude of agents (e.g., single-party members, state bureaucrats). We show that the set of purged agents is well delineated in mild purges, whereas no performance indicator is a guarantee of safety in violent purges. The proportion of purged agents is non-monotonic in the intensity of violence. For the autocrat, increasing the intensity of violence always raises performance, but it improves the selection of subordinates only if violence is low to begin with. Hence, even absent de jure checks, the autocrat is de facto constrained by her subordinates’ strategic behavior. We use historical (including the Soviet purges and the Cultural Revolution) and recent (the Erdogan purge) events to illustrate our key theoretical findings.

Research Article
Copyright © American Political Science Association 2019 

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We thank Scott Ashworth, Brett Benson, Dan Bernhardt, Alessandra Casella, Ali Cirone, Torun Dewan, Tiberiu Dragu, Scott Gehlbach, Thomas Groll, Haifeng Huang, Kenneth Janda, Navin Kartik, Roger Myerson, Salvatore Nunnari, Carlo Prato, Arturas Rozenas, Milan Svolik, Scott Tyson, four anonymous reviewers, the editor, and many conference and seminar participants for their helpful comments and suggestions. All remaining errors are the authors’ responsibility.



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