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The Strategic Origins of Electoral Authoritarianism


Why do autocrats hold multiparty elections? This article argues that transitions to electoral authoritarianism (EA) follow a strategic calculus in which autocrats balance international incentives to adopt elections against the costs and risks of controlling them. It tests this hypothesis with a multinomial logit model that simultaneously predicts transitions to EA and democracy, using a sample of non-electoral autocracies from 1946–2010. It finds that pro-democratic international leverage – captured by dependence on democracies through trade ties, military alliances, international governmental organizations and aid – predicts EA adoption. Socio-economic factors that make voters easier to control, such as low average income and high inequality, also predict EA transition. In contrast, since democratization entails a loss of power for autocrats, it is mainly predicted by regime weakness rather than international engagement or socio-economic factors. The results demonstrate that different forms of liberalization follow distinct logics, providing insight into autocratic regime dynamics and democracy promotion’s unintended effects.

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Department of Political Science, George Washington University (email: Thanks to Keith Dowding, Margaret Levi, Joseph Wright, Valerie Bunce, Milan Svolik, John Ishiyama, participants at the University of Sydney, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the 2013 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, and Midwest 2014, Editor René Lindstädt and three anonymous referees for their helpful comments. Data replication sets are available in Harvard Dataverse at:, and an online appendix at:

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