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Authoritarian Institutions and Regime Survival: Transitions to Democracy and Subsequent Autocracy

  • Joseph Wright and Abel Escribà-Folch

This article examines how authoritarian parties and legislatures affect regime survival. While authoritarian legislatures increase the stability of dictators, political parties – even when devised to quell internal threats – can destabilize dictators. The main argument is that authoritarian parties influence the distribution of power in a subsequent new democracy by helping to protect the interests of authoritarian elites. These institutions thus increase the likelihood of democratization. Using a dataset of authoritarian regimes in 108 countries from 1946 to 2002 and accounting for simultaneity, the analysis models transitions to democracy and to a subsequent authoritarian regime. Results indicate that authoritarian legislatures are associated with a lower probability of transition to a subsequent dictatorship. Authoritarian parties, however, are associated with a higher likelihood of democratization.

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1 Geddes, Barbara, ‘Authoritarian Breakdown: Empirical Test of a Game Theoretic Argument’ (paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Atlanta, Ga., 1999); Boix, Carles, Democracy and Redistribution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Smith, Benjamin. ‘Life of the Party: The Origins of Regime Breakdown and Persistence under Single-Party Rule’, World Politics, 57 (2005), 421451; Gandhi, Jennifer and Przeworski, Adam, ‘Authoritarian Institutions and the Survival of Autocrats’, Comparative Political Studies, 40 (2007), 12791301; Brownlee, Jason, Authoritarianism in the Age of Democratization (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Gandhi, Jennifer, Political Institutions under Dictatorship (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008); Geddes, Barbara, ‘Party Creation as an Autocratic Survival Strategy’, presented at ‘Dictatorships: Their Governance and Social Consequences’ Conference at Princeton University (2008); Magaloni, Beatrice, ‘Credible Power-Sharing and the Longevity of Authoritarian Rule’, Comparative Political Studies, 41 (2008), 715741.

2 Boix, Democracy and Redistribution; Acemoglu, Daron and Robinson, James, Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

3 Meltzer, Allan and Richard, Scott, ‘A Rational Theory of the Size of Government’, Journal of Political Economy, 89 (1981), 914927.

4 Nordlinger, Eric, Soldiers in Politics: Military Coups and Governments. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1997).

5 Acemoglu and Robinson, Economic Origins of Democracy and Dictatorship; Boix, Democracy and Redistribution.

6 Acemoglu and Robinson, Economic Origins of Democracy and Dictatorship; Boix, Democracy and Redistribution; Elisabeth Jean Wood, Forging Democracy from Below (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

7 Gandhi and Przeworski, ‘Authoritarian Institutions and the Survival of Autocrats’.

8 Acemoglu and Robinson, Economic Origins of Democracy and Dictatorship.

9 Carles Boix and Milan Svolik, ‘The Foundations of Limited Authoritarian Government: Institutions and Power-sharing in Dictatorships’, presented at ‘Dictatorships: Their Governance and Social Consequences’ Conference at Princeton University (2008).

10 Gandhi and Przeworski, ‘Authoritarian Institutions and the Survival of Autocrats’; Magaloni, ‘Credible Power-Sharing and the Longevity of Authoritarian Rule’.

11 Ellen Lust-Okar, Structuring Conflict in the Arab World: Incumbents, Opponents and Institutions (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Geddes, ‘Party Creation as an Autocratic Survival Strategy’.

12 Gary Cox and McCubbins, Mathew D., Legislative Leviathan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); Aldrich, John, Why Parties? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).

13 Abel Escribà-Folch, ‘The Political Economy of Growth and Accountability under Dictatorship’ (CEACS, Instituto Juan, 2007).

14 Ora John Reuter and Jennifer Gandhi, ‘Economic Performance and Elite Defection from Hegemonic Parties’, British Journal of Political Science, 41 (2011), 83110.

15 There is considerable variation in the electoral success of former authoritarian parties in democratic elections; a full analysis of this question is beyond the scope of the present paper. However, see Anna Grzymala-Busse, Redeeming the Communist Past (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

16 Huntington, Samuel P., ‘How Countries Democratize’, Political Research Quarterly, 106 (1991–1992), 579616, p. 587.

17 Terry Lynn Karl, ‘Dilemmas of Democratization in Latin America’, Comparative Politics, 23 (1990), 121; Colomer, Josep, ‘Transitions by Agreement: Modeling the Spanish Way’, American Political Science Review, 85 (1991), 12831302.

18 Robert H Dix, ‘The Breakdown of Authoritarian Regimes’, Western Political Quarterly, 35 (1982), 554573.

19 Huntington, ‘How Countries Democratize’; Juan Linz and Chehabi, H. E., Sultanistic Regimes (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998); Wintrobe, Ronald, The Political Economy of Dictatorship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Geddes, ‘Authoritarian Breakdown’.

20 These typological distinctions are not simply another way of coding institutional variables such as the number of parties or legislatures. As Table 2 (see below) demonstrates, all institutional configurations are found in all types of regimes.

21 Jackson, Robert and Rosberg, Carl, Personal Rule in Black Africa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982); Michael Bratton and Nicolas van de Walle, ‘Patrimonial Regimes and Political Transitions in Africa’, World Politics, 46 (1994), 453489; Linz and Chehabi, Sultanistic Regimes; Wintrobe, The Political Economy of Dictatorship; Geddes, ‘Authoritarian Breakdown’.

22 Geddes, ‘Authoritarian Breakdown’; Bratton and Nicolas van de Walle, ‘Patrimonial Regimes and Political Transitions in Africa’; Mark Peceny, Caroline Beer and Shannon Sanchez-Terry, ‘Dictatorial Peace?’ American Political Science Review, 96 (2002), 1526; Reiter, Dan and Stam, Allan, ‘Identifying the Culprit: Democracy, Dictatorship, and Dispute Initiation’, American Political Science Review, 97 (2003), 333337.

23 Reiter and Stam, ‘Identifying the Culprit’.

24 Geddes, Barbara, Paradigms and Sand Castles (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003).

25 Bratton and Nicolas van de Walle, ‘Patrimonial Regimes and Political Transitions in Africa’.

26 Wright, Joseph, ‘Do Authoritarian Institutions Constrain? How Legislatures Impact Economic Growth and Investment’, American Journal of Political Science, 52 (2008), 322343.

27 Lust-Okar, Structuring Conflict in the Arab World; Wright, ‘Do Authoritarian Institutions Constrain?’

28 Wiarda, Howard, Dictatorship and Development: The Methods of Control in Trujillo's Government (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1968).

29 Wiarda, Dictatorship and Development.

30 Decalo, Samuel, The Stable Minority: Civilian Rule in Africa, 1960–1990 (Gainesville: Florida Academic Press, 1998), p. 68.

31 We are grateful to an anonymous reviewer for pointing this out to us.

32 Party-based regimes without legislatures include: Algeria 1965–76, Bolivia 1953–54, Burundi 1968–87, Iraq 1969–79, Laos 1985–90, Lesotho 1970–86, Panama 1968–77, Rwanda 1974–88. A quick comparison of these regimes with the mass party organization of the PRI in Mexico or the CCM in Tanzania suggests that the latter parties (with legislatures) had more extensive distribution networks and voter mobilization reach.

33 As an example of the ‘winner’ category, recall that in Mexico while the PRI candidate lost to the PAN candidate in the presidential election in 2000 and placed third in 2006, the PRI won the largest share of votes in the lower house in 2003. See the Appendix for details on the post-transition electoral results used to code these parties (A12).

34 Hunter, Wendy, Eroding Military Influence in Brazil (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), p. 103.

35 Many ARENA legislators left the party after 1985, leading to the demise of ARENA, but these legislators often found homes in other parties. See Hagopian, Frances, ‘Democracy by Undemocratic Means? Elites, Political Pacts, and Regime Transition in Contemporary Brazil’, Comparative Political Studies, 23 (1990), 147170.

36 Nordlinger, Soldiers in Politics; Geddes, ‘Authoritarian Breakdown’.

37 Karl, ‘Dilemmas of Democratization’; Colomer, ‘Transitions by Agreement’.

38 Karl codes Colombia (1958), Chile (1998), Uruguay (1984) and Venezuela (1958) as pacted transitions to democracy. However, the military also bargained with political party elites over military prerogatives in El Salvador (1982), Guatemala (1985) and Honduras (1982). See Williams, Phillip and Walter, Knut, Militarization and Demilitarization in El Salvador's Transition to Democracy (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997); and Schirmer, Jennifer, The Guatemalan Military Project: A Violence Called Democracy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998).

39 The New York Times reported that a pre-election survey predicted Larrazábal to defeat both the Acción Democrática (Rómulo Betancourt) and Partido Social Cristiano de Venezuela (Rafael Caldera) candidates. The poll and the military were wrong; Betancourt won with 47 per cent of the vote, ending military rule. See Kantor, Harry, ‘The Development of Accion Democratica de Venezuela’, Journal of Inter-American Studies, 1 (1959), 237255, p. 238.

40 Croissant argues that Roh Tae-woo ‘personally guaranteed the protection of the military's interests, values, and political status’. See Croissant, Aurel, ‘Riding the Tiger: Civilian Control and the Military in Democratizing Korea’, Armed Forces & Society, 30 (2004), 357381, p. 371.

41 King, Daniel, ‘The Thai Parliamentary Elections of 1992’, Asian Survey, 32 (1992), 11091123; King, Daniel and LoGerfo, Jim, ‘Thailand: Toward Democratic Stability’, Journal of Democracy, 7 (1996), 102117.

42 Mezey, Michael, ‘The 1971 Coup in Thailand: Understanding Why the Legislature Fails’, Asian Survey 13 (1973), 306317.

43 Zimmerman, Robert, ‘Student Revolution in Thailand: The End of the Thai Bureaucratic Polity?’ Asian Survey, 14 (1974), 509529.

44 Geddes, ‘Authoritarian Breakdown’; Geddes, Paradigms and Sand Castles; Wright, ‘Do Authoritarian Institutions Constrain?’

45 Hein Goemans, Kristian Skrede Gleditsch and Giacomo Chiozza, ‘Introducing Archigos: A Data Set of Political Leaders’, Journal of Peace Research, 46 (2009), 269283.

46 Gandhi, Political Institutions under Dictatorship. Because these data are coded as of 31 December each year, we recode these variables with the previous year's observation for years in which there is a transition. Without these changes to the institutions variables, the coding would be endogenous by construction.

47 This variable for parties measures de facto parties which are parties that exist outside the ruling front. This variable does not code whether the parties have seats in the legislature.

48 Williams and Walter, Militarization and Demilitarization.

49 Beck, Nathaniel, Katz, Jonathan and Tuck, Richard, ‘Taking Time Seriously: Time-Series-Cross-Section Analysis with a Binary Dependent Variable’, American Journal of Political Science, 42 (1998), 12601288; Carter, David and Signorino, Curt, ‘Back to the Future: Modeling Time Dependence in Binary Data’, Political Analysis, 18 (2010), 271292. F-tests suggest that duration 3 does not belong in the transitions equations.

50 Adam Przeworski, Michael Alvarez, José Antonio Cheibub and Fernando Limongi, Democracy and Development (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Boix, Carles and Stokes, Susan, ‘Endogenous Democratization’, World Politics, 55 (2003), 517549.

51 Geddes, ‘Authoritarian Breakdown’; Brownlee, Authoritarianism in the Age of Democratization.

52 Felipe Agüero, ‘Legacies of Transitions: Institutionalization, the Military, and Democracy in South America’, Mershon International Studies Review, 424 (1991), 383404; David Pion-Berlin, ‘Between Confrontation and Accommodation: Military and Government Policy in Democratic Argentina’, Journal of Latin American Studies, 23 (1991), 543571.

53 Schatzberg, Michael, ‘Beyond Mobutu: Kabila and the Congo’, Journal of Democracy, 8 (1997), 7084.

54 Maddala, G. S., Limited Dependent and Qualitative Variables in Econometrics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

55 Maddala, Limited Dependent and Qualitative Variables, p. 244–5. We estimated the parties equation in (3), using both ordered probit and OLS with the same set of explanatory variables (X 1, X 2). The instruments produced by these two estimation methods are nearly perfectly collinear (though with different scales; the in-sample correlation coefficient is 0.997). This means that the cut points in the ordered model are capturing roughly the same amount of (linear) latent space. This should give us some confidence that using OLS instead of an ordered model in (3) will produce similar results. We then estimated a full maximum likelihood model of equations (1)–(4) in which Parties is estimated with OLS and Democ with a probit. See Keshk, Omar, ‘CDSIMEQ: A program to implement two-stage probit least squares’, Stata Journal, 3 (2003), 157167. This estimation corrects the standard errors according to the method suggested by Maddala (pp. 244–5). Next, we compared the standard errors from the two-step estimator (using ordinary least squares (OLS) in (3)) and the full maximum likelihood estimator. We found that in each of the specifications the corrected standard errors were roughly 2 per cent larger than the (uncorrected) standard errors from the two-step estimator. We then estimated the system using an ordered model for (1) and (3) in two stages and adjusted the errors in (2). In the Democracy models 1–3 in Table 3, we inflated the errors by 2.0 per cent and deflated the errors in the Dictator models by 5.7 per cent (for the institutions variables). In models 4–6, the respective standard error corrections were: +4.5 per cent and −6.2 per cent. In models 7–9, the respective standard error corrections were: +3.3 per cent and −1.2 per cent.

56 Islam is the share of the population that is Muslim, from Bruce Bueno de Mequita, Alastair Smith, Randolph Siverson and James Morrow, Logic of Political Survival (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003),with updates from the CIA, World Factbook. Ethnic fractionalization is from Fearon, James D. and Laitin, David, ‘Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil War’, American Political Science Review, 97 (2003), 7590. Both of these variables are time invariant.

57 Log(GDPpc) and Growth are from Maddison, Angus, The World Economy: Historical Statistics (Paris: OECD, 2003). Growth is the lagged moving average of growth in the previous two years. Cold War is coded as one for all years between 1946 and 1989.

58 Starr, Harvey and Lindborg, Christina, ‘Democratic Dominoes Revisited: The Hazards of Governmental Transitions, 1974–1996’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 47 (2003), 490519; Brinks, Daniel and Coppedge, Michael, ‘Diffusion Is No Illusion: Neighbour Emulation in the Third Wave of Democracy’, Comparative Political Studies, 39 (2660), 463489.

59 Geddes, ‘Authoritarian Breakdown’.

60 If the control for Military regime is excluded from the specification, legislatures decrease the likelihood of democratization, a finding consistent with Hypothesis 2.

61 Predicted probabilities calculated from Models 6 and 9 in Table 3, respectively. We use CLARIFY and set Cold War to zero with all other variables set to their mean or median values. For CLARIFY, see Tomz, Michael, Wittenberg, Jason and King, Gary, ‘Making the Most of Statistical Analyses: Improving Interpretation and Presentation’, American Journal of Political Science, 44 (2000), 347361. For each regime type, we set the duration variables to the in-sample mean value for each regime type. For military regimes, this value is 7, for personalist regimes 12, and for party regimes 20. The instrument for parties () is a continuous variable, so we take the median from the distribution of 's that lies below the first cut-point (zero parties); the median between the cut-point (one party); and the median from the distribution of 's that lies above the second cut-point (two parties). For , we use the median for the subset of 's that lie below the mean predicted value as ‘no legislature’ and the median for the subset of 's that above below the mean predicted value as ‘legislature’. These latter values are close to the 25 percentile and the 75 percentile of the distribution of 's.

62 Lust-Okar, Structuring Conflict in the Arab World; Magaloni, ‘Credible Power-Sharing and the Longevity of Authoritarian Rule’.

63 Geddes, ‘Authoritarian Breakdown’.

64 Londregan, John and Poole, Keith, ‘Poverty, the Coup Trap, and the Seizure of Executive Power’, World Politics, 42 (1990), 151183.

65 Gasiorowski, Mark, ‘Economic Crisis and Political Regime Change: An Event History Analysis’, American Political Science Review, 89 (1995), 882897.

66 Geddes, ‘Authoritarian Breakdown’.

67 We also checked these results with a Heckman selection model where the first stage models selection into one of three categories: no parties; one party; multiple parties. The results from this analysis suggest that multiple parties increase the likelihood of democratization. Among non-personalist regimes, the likelihood of democratization is 0.6 per cent, increasing to 0.8 per cent with one party, and increasing again to 3.1 per cent with multiple parties.

68 In a random effects specification, though, these coefficients are statistically significant at the 0.10 level.

69 We did not estimate separate samples for military and party-based regimes because nearly all party regimes have a legislature.

70 There are many fewer observations for military regimes than for dominant party regimes, reflected in the larger standard error estimate for Parties in military regimes.

71 Gandhi and Przeworski, ‘Authoritarian Institutions and the Survival of Autocrats’; Abel Escribà-Folch, ‘El Destino de los Dictadores tras el Poder ¿Quién y Cómo Puede Castigarlos?’ Revista de Estudios Polìticos, 140 (2008), 105–33. Concretely, these data are coded as the Effective Head of Government: (1) presidents in presidential democracies; (2) prime ministers in parliamentary and mixed democracies, except in the cases of Djohar in Comoros and Preval in Haiti; (3) general-secretaries of the communist party in communist dictatorships, except in the case of Deng Xiaoping in China; (4) kings, presidents and de facto rulers in non-communist dictatorships, except in the cases of Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, where the effective head is sometimes the prime minister; and (5) military or other figure, when sources indicate that the nominal head is a puppet figure.

72 Goemans, Gleditsch and Chiozza, ‘Introducing Archigos’. The Archigos data are episode data, with one observation per leader per country. The Archigos variable Post Tenure Fate indicates the fate of the leader in the period up to one year after the leader lost power: 0 (OK), 1 (Exile), 2 (Imprisonment, including house arrent) or 3 (Death).

73 Stephen Haggard and Kaufman, Robert R., Political Economy of Democratic Transitions (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995).

74 The results in columns 5 and 6 remain if we exclude those regimes that have regularized leadership turnover: Brazil (1964–85), El Salvador (1948–82), Mexico (1929–2000), Uruguay (1973–84) and Tanzania (1986–2002/censored).

75 Geddes, ‘Authoritarian Breakdown’; Boix, Democracy and Redistribution; Smith, ‘Life of the Party’; Magaloni, Beatric, Voting for Autocracy: Hegemonic Party Survival and Its Demise in Mexico (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Gandhi and Przeworski, ‘Authoritarian Institutions and the Survival of Autocrats’; Brownlee, Authoritarianism in the Age of Democratization; Gandhi, Political Institutions Under Dictatorship; Magaloni, ‘Credible Power-Sharing and the Longevity of Authoritarian Rule’; Wright, ‘Do Authoritarian Institutions Constrain?’

76 Gandhi and Przeworski, ‘Authoritarian Institutions and the Survival of Autocrats’; Magaloni, ‘Credible Power-Sharing and the Longevity of Authoritarian Rule’; Geddes, ‘Party Creation as an Autocratic Survival Strategy’. For a view which parallels ours, see Cox, Gary, ‘Authoritarian Elections and Leadership Succession, 1975–2000’ (unpublished paper, Department of Political Science, University of California, San Diego).

77 Dahl, Robert, Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1971).

78 Acemoglu and Robinson, Economic Origins of Democracy and Dictatorship; Boix, Democracy and Redistribution.

79 See, for example, Moustafa, Tamir, The Struggle for Constitutional Power: Law, Politics, and Economic Development in Egypt (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

80 Most of the sub-Saharan Africa dominant party regimes in Table 1 have not fared well in the post-transition period. However, some former authoritarian parties in personalist regimes in this region have met with some electoral success. For example, the NDC in Ghana finished a strong second in 2004 and the MPC in Malawi finished a strong second in 1999 and won in 2004. This underscores the need to measure the relationship between the leader and the party more precisely than a dummy variable for Personalist regimes.

81 Peceny, Beer and Sanchez-Terry, ‘Dictatorial Peace?’; Reiter and Stam, ‘Identifying the Culprit’; Weeks, Jessica, ‘Autocratic Audience Costs: Regime Type and Signaling Resolve’, International Organization, 62 (2008), 3564; Wright, ‘Do Authoritarian Institutions Constrain?’ Fjelde, Hanne, ‘Generals, Dictators, and Kings: Authoritarian Regimes and Civil Conflict, 1973–2004’, Conflict Management and Peace Science, 27 (2010), 195218; Michael Albertrus, ‘Political Regimes and Poverty Reduction, 1950–2002’, presented at the Midwest Political Science Association meeting, Chicago, 2009.

82 Jackson and Rosberg, Personal Rule in Black Africa; Huntington, ‘How Countries Democratize’; Bratton and van de Walle, ‘Patrimonial Regimes and Political Transitions in Africa’; Geddes, ‘Authoritarian Breakdown’.

* Department of Political Science, The Pennsylvania State University (email: ); and Department of Political and Social Sciences, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, respectively. The authors thank Jennifer Gandhi, Barbara Geddes, Robert Fishman, James Honaker, Scott Mainwaring, Andreas Schedler, six anonymous reviewers and participants at the conference, ‘Dictatorships: Their Governance and Social Consequences’, at Princeton University (2008), for helpful comments on previous drafts of this article, and are grateful to Jennifer Gandhi for sharing her data. An Appendix containing additional statistical results is available online at

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