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Democratic Pieces: Autocratic Elections and Democratic Development since 1815


This article overviews the history of autocratic elections since 1815 and then tests how a country's experience with autocratic elections influences both democratization and democratic survival. To comprehensively capture this history, the study employs original measures of Robert Dahl's electoral dimensions of contestation and participation. First, it shows that autocratic elections have been common for centuries, but that their character has changed dramatically over time. Whereas high contestation almost always preceded high participation prior to 1940, the opposite occurs in modern regimes. Secondly, it demonstrates that a country's history of contestation predicts both democratization and democratic survival, whereas participation is positive for survival but generally negative for democratization. Thus, democracies are more likely to survive if they experience autocratic elections prior to democratizing, which has implications for democracy promotion and future political development.

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Department of Political Science, George Washington University (email: The author thanks Carles Boix, Grigore Pop-Eleches, Chris Achen, Christine Percheski, Sarah Bush, Michael K. McKoy, Beatriz Magaloni, participants at ISA 2010 and Princeton's Comparative Politics Graduate Research Seminar, Editor Hugh Ward and three anonymous referees for their helpful comments. The associated dataset and an appendix with additional statistical results are available online at

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British Journal of Political Science
  • ISSN: 0007-1234
  • EISSN: 1469-2112
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