Posted: March 24th, 2023
There is an increasing debate amongst scholars as to which between authoritarianism and democracy systems of governance is more stable. In fact, such a debate will not be ending anytime soon, as more scholars enter the field of political science with their theories and hypothesis that they seek to prove and entrench into the minds of their audiences. Looking back to the political trends in North Africa and the Middle East, there is a reason for skepticism and optimism regarding the unfolding of democracy, hence the fragility of the autocratic rule. While there remains hope that democracy will reign in most parts of the world, there is also the fear that the new democracies might not be as stable, with some countries such as Cambodia and others facing the possibility of reverting to authoritarian system of governance. Therefore, while looking at the fragility of the autocratic rule and the supposed stability of the democratic systems, it is imperative to consider that the hybrid system is much more stable and resilient.
Over the history of leadership, autocratic rule has characterized governance in most parts of the globe, and the system still does in the current world. Indeed, this leadership style is characterized by the rule of one person, the autocrat, with all the powers to make decisions and control the masses. Some countries, particularly in the Middle East and Africa do not have the legal framework and the constitutional laws restraining the authority of such leaders. Governance takes place in an environment that lacks processes like elections where the citizens can assert their voices in the way they are governed. The autocrat tends to use fraudulent and repressive practices in maintaining their power. Whether autocratic rules succeed, and under what conditions, and whether they are utter failure is an area that have generated a lot of debate. Pepinsky investigates the possibility using the case of Indonesia. The debate notwithstanding, the reality is that authoritarian regime has both the adequate and the insufficient side.
It creates many questions that, in a world where democracy has been highly promoted, there are still authoritarian regimes that are going strong. Based on the coalition nature of most regimes, authoritarian regimes are argued to be vulnerable to revolutions and social revolts. However, while some regimes have fallen under the pressure, others remain strong given the support of various players, bureaucrats, the military, and businesspersons among others players. Whether the regime collapses or remains strong depends on the side these players take during a protest. Pepinsky investigates the coalitional nature of authoritarian regimes in explaining the reasons some regimes fall under the pressure of revolts while others do not. The reality is that the possibility depends with the vulnerability of the regime and the support of the players. Therefore, the regime would fall if the support required is inadequate. The durability of authoritarian regimes is another area that has been greatly investigated in scholarly discourse. The theory suggested by Geddes and Zaller is that support of the basis for the durability of authoritarian regimes. The strength of a regime, based on the support, explains their ability to survive the unprecedented pressure from the protestors. The state power is among the most important factors in the stability of authoritarian regimes. Historical forces play a role in determining the state power and its use in maintaining authoritarian rules. As such, the autocrats acquire and uphold their regimes through various ways, including coercing rivals, extracting revenues, registering citizens, and cultivating dependence. Having the power to control any opposition has played a critical role in maintaining the authoritarian regimes even amid the pressure from inside and outside to democratize.
Use of force and coercion has explained the potential of autocratic regimes to maintain power. In fact, such an aspect has nothing to do with the longevity of the regimes but on how the systems use their power to remain stable over time. Geddes and Zaller provide an interesting explanation for the use of power by authoritarian governments to remain in power. Essentially, using the state power, the government controls the people by restricting flow of information to the masses. In such an environment, the people do not have a chance to develop new models of thinking and have to adapt to the existing ones. However, it is important to note that the nature of regime, in the use of power, is not uniform for all authoritarian regimes. The patterns of coercion and use of power that exist in one country might differ from such that exists in another. Such power has been used in the regimes of Myanmar and Singapore, which have persevered over time, but not necessarily stable. In essence, the level of political awareness among the members of public determines their potential to resist the authoritarian rule, thus bring it to an end.
Another school of thought has emerged over the years, and with evidence from the recent events, that authoritarian regimes are not as stable and are highly vulnerable to collapse. The authoritarian institutional structures highlight the possibility of collapsing of the regimes and their transitioning to democracy. The challenges to the status quo underline the events that cause some autocratic regimes to collapse, although not all end up collapsing. The reality is that whether a regime collapses or remains stable depends on its internal organizing structures. Hence, such aspect provides the explanation of the collapse of the Suharto regime in Indonesia following the Asian Financial Crisis. At the same time, the Mahatir Mohamed regime in Malaysia survived the crisis. Whether it is a financial crisis, protests, or any other threat to the status quo, the possibility of survival depends on the stability of the authoritarian institutional structures. In essence, the new democratic ideals, being promoted in Malaysia could have been the factors behind its survival.
The challenge to authoritarian regimes comes from within and without. The reality is that vulnerable autocratic regimes have been toppled over by pressure from the inside, mostly social revolts and protests. While there are some countries that have remained strongly authoritarian even in the face of protests, many others have collapsed under pressure. One of the dominant theories in transitioning to democracy is that autocratic regimes as stable as they may be, experience the internal threat emanating from protests. Although the systems might not completely make a transition to democracy, there are many such regimes that have collapsed based on the protests and the change in the guard where the coalition support shifts from the side of the government to the side of the majority. While popular support plays a role in maintaining the regimes, any shift causes the breakdown of the regimes. Such situations are evident in the Middle East in the recent trend of revolts.
Pressure from the outside has played a critical role in transitioning of some countries to democracy, most important models of such collapse of authoritarian rules being in Africa. Such is the theory held by Bratton and Van de Walle in their comparative analysis of transitioning to democracy in Africa. The authors point to the reality that Africa has been affected by the global resistance to authoritarianism. Between 1990 and 1993, according to the analysis by Bratton and Van de Walle, over half of fifty-two regimes in the region have reacted to the internal and external pressure to adapt to electoral processes. Evidently, the international community has put a lot of pressure on authoritarian regimes, leading to their ultimate collapse. Among the ways this initiative has been achieved is through the administration foreign financial aid, which has been suggested as an important factor behind democratization. The reality that authoritarian regimes have collapsed due to the external pressure shows their lack of durability and stability.
The collapse of authoritarian regimes does not necessarily suggest a transition towards democracy. Empirical studies in the recent past have revealed interesting features following the continued collapse of authoritarian regimes. Major hypothesis have emerged in the process testing the political and social realities under which the transitioning occur and what happens following the transition. An interesting argument that has come to the forefront is that just like autocratic regimes are fragile, so are the democratic regimes. The most important reality supporting the argument emerges from the reality of Europe following the communist regime and long after its collapse. The potential of democracy leading to tyranny remains one of the criticisms of democracy. In addition, in most countries where democracy has been achieved, there has been the potential or reverting, a case in point being Cambodia. Such arguments appear to support the longevity and resilience of semi-democracies (hybrid regimes).
Factors relating to the Longevity and Resilience of Semi-Democracies
Hybrid regimes tend to become successful because of taking advantage of the strengths of both systems. However, it would be ungrounded to suggest that either system is strong, since the strength of the government greatly depends on the internal factors. The two systems, democratic and autocratic, serve to provide the necessary checks and balances for the success of the government. According to Slater, the case of Malaysia is a typical example of this reality. The democratic institutions, within the hybrid system, provide the necessary resources for the representation of the majority, while the authoritarian systems provide the obligatory resources for domination. Hence, such initiatives ensure that none of the systems operate in excesses. Another evidence to support the hypothesis is the reality in single party systems. The people engage in electoral processes to select the leader, with critical checks on the government, but in an environment where the leader is authoritarian. The government persists based on the support from the elite and the reality that the regime is able to garner support from the masses.
An important factor relating to the stability of longevity and resilience of the hybrid systems is the fact that real democracy is not possible to achieve. Ottaway suggests that even those countries that have transitioned, they have moved to a state that is not completely democratic or authoritarian, a regime that can be considered as semi-authoritarian. The characteristic of the system is that regular elections are held, there is a functioning parliament, and the rights of the citizens are to some extent respected. However, the situation is such that real competition cannot be achieved since there are ‘games’ used by the government to maintain the power, including media restrictions, tampering with the voting systems and the voters, and monopolizing the sources of information among others. Controlling the flow of information has remained the means through which the governments use authoritarian principles in an environment supposed to be democratic. In essence, since the power of the people is possible through information, the regimes have managed to retain the power.
Success of regimes depends on the ability to garner support for its ideals. Such is the reality of the hybrid regimes where the dominant parties can win elections repeatedly. Following the democratic ideals, including respect for human rights, the government is able to win the support of the majority. Some of the regimes are created in such a way that there is an apparent competition allowed by the authoritarian regime, such in Mexico, Taiwan, Singapore, and Malaysia. The incumbent party keeps winning against the competitors based on their dominance and ideologies that the opposition parties are not able to counter. Such a situation is opposed to the real hegemonic power that emanates from the capacity to garner support from the public. A good example of such use of power is Mexico, where the downfall of PRI emerged from the increasing cost of public support. Within such an environment, the support from the public is not necessarily rational but forced by the government based on the influence it garners over time.
The hybrid regimes have formal democratic systems in place, but based on the fact that the leading party has the power and the resources, it keeps on winning the elections. As opposed to their opponents, the incumbent leaders have the advantage over the opposition because they accrue and at a position to abuse the power such that the competition always favor them. The systems have also put in place the systems that restrict electoral systems where policies are created that tend to favor the leading political parties during the elections. Particularly, Magaloni refers to this reality as clientelism and fraud in restricted electoral systems. The leading parties use repression and fraud to maintain their political power and ensure that they keep winning the elections. Consolidation of power is the theory suggested by Smith as the basis for the single party systems to remain in place without being challenged. From such a perspective, it is only a strong opposition setup, which has the ability to triumph over the leading part. However, such strong parties are hard to come by based on the history of dominance.
There are authoritarian regimes that have managed to remain stable over time, but a majority has collapsed due to internal and external pressure. In the wake of the breakdown of autocratic rules, real democracy has remained almost impossible to achieve. In most countries that are transitioning from autocratic rule, they have remained semi-authoritarian (hybrid) with the characteristics of democracy existing together with the ideals of authoritarianism. Such systems are showing evidence of stability and longevity as opposed to real democratic or authoritarian systems. In essence, the power of the incumbent and the weakness of the opposition are among the factors contributing to such a reality.
 Ivan, Krastev. “Paradoxes of the New Authoritarianism,” Journal of Democracy, vol. 22, no. 2 (April 2011), 6
 Kheang, Un. “Cambodia: Moving away from Democracy?” International Political Science Review vol. 32, no. 5 (November 2011), 546
 Juan, Linz “Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes” in Fred Greenstein and Nelson Polsby, eds. Handbook of Political Science, vol. 3. (Reading MS: Addision-Wesley Pub Co. 1975), 64
 Beatriz, Magaloni, Voting for autocracy: Hegemonic party survival and its demise in Mexico. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 5
 Thomas B. Pepinsky, Economic crises and the breakdown of authoritarian regimes: Indonesia and Malaysia in comparative perspective. (Cambridge University Press, 2009), 7.
 Hannah, Arendt “Authority in the Twentieth Century,” Review of Politics, vol. 18, no. 4 (1956), 406
 Pepinsky, Thomas B. Economic crises and the breakdown of authoritarian regimes: Indonesia and Malaysia in comparative perspective. (Cambridge University Press, 2009), 7.
 Barbara, Geddes and John Zaller. “Sources of popular support for authoritarian regimes.” American Journal of Political Science (1989), 319.
 Dan, Slater and Sofia Fenner. “State Power and Staying Power: Infrastructural Mechanisms and Authoritarian Durability.” Journal of International Affairs Fall/Winter 2011, 65(1), 16.
 Ibid, 16.
 Barbara, Geddes and John Zaller. “Sources of popular support for authoritarian regimes.” American Journal of Political Science (1989), 318
 Andrew, Nathan. “Authoritarian Resilience,” Journal of Democracy 14, no 1 (January 2003), 6
 Purcell S. Kaufman “Authoritarianism: A Review Essay,” Comparative Politics, vol. 5, no. 2 (1973), 302
 Dan, Slater and Sofia Fenner. “State Power and Staying Power: Infrastructural Mechanisms and Authoritarian Durability.” Journal of International Affairs Fall/Winter 2011, 65(1), 16
 Geddes Barbara, Paradigms and Sand Castles (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003), pp, 50-64, 225-232.
 Pepinsky, Thomas B. Economic crises and the breakdown of authoritarian regimes: Indonesia and Malaysia in comparative perspective. (Cambridge University Press, 2009), 18
 Barbara, Geddes and John Zaller. “Sources of popular support for authoritarian regimes.” American Journal of Political Science (1989): 319-347.
 Stephen, Knack. “Does Foreign Aid Promote Democracy?” International Studies Quarterly, 48, no. 1 (2004): 251-266. Suggested Readings
 Michael, Bratton and Nicolas Van de Walle. “Neopatrimonial regimes and political transitions in Africa.” World Politics 46, no. 4 (1994), 454
 Thomas, Carothers. Aiding Democracy Abroad: The Learning Curve (Washington D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1999), 26
 Joseph, Wright “How Foreign Aid Can Foster Democratization in Authoritarian Regimes,” American Journal of Political Science, vol. 53, no. 3 (2009): 552-571.
 Thomas, Carothers. Aiding Democracy Abroad: The Learning Curve (Washington D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1999), 13
 Thomas, Carothers, “The Backlash against Democracy Promotion,” Foreign Affairs vol. 85, no. 2 (March/April 2006): 56
 Kheang, Un. “Patronage Politics and Hybrid Democracy: Political Change in Cambodia, 1993-2003,”Asian Perspective vol. 29, no. 2 (2005), 204
 David Craig and Kimchoeun Pak, “Party Financing of Local Investment Projects: Elite and Mass Patronage,” in Caroline Hughes and Kheang Un eds., Cambodia’s Economic Transformation (Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2011), 219-244.
 Catherin, Dalpino. Deferring Democracy: Promoting Openness in Authoritarian Regimes (Brookings Institution Press, 2000), 29
 Dan, Slater. “Iron Cage in an Iron Fist: Authoritarian Institutions and the Personalization of Power in Malaysia.” Comparative Politics 36(1), 82.
 Benjamin, Smith. “Life of the party: The origins of regime breakdown and persistence under single-party rule.” World Politics 57, no. 03 (2005): 421-451.
 Marina, Ottaway. Democracy Challenged: The Rise of Semi-Authoritarianism (Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2003), 5.
 Ibid, 6.
 Barbara, Geddes and John Zaller. “Sources of popular support for authoritarian regimes.” American Journal of Political Science (1989): 321
 Kenneth F. Greene. Why dominant parties lose: Mexico’s democratization in comparative perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
 Beatriz, Magaloni. Voting for autocracy: Hegemonic party survival and its demise in Mexico. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 18
 Steven, Levitsky and Lucan A. Way. “Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War (Problems of International Politics).” (2010), 26
 Steven, Levitsky and Lucan Way, “Elections without Democracy: The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism,” Journal of Democracy 13, no 2 (2002): 52
 Beatriz, Magaloni. Voting for autocracy: Hegemonic party survival and its demise in Mexico. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 18
 Van de Walle, Nicolas. “Tipping games: When do opposition parties coalesce?” Electoral authoritarianism: The dynamics of unfree competition (2006), 78
 Smith, Benjamin. “Life of the party: The origins of regime breakdown and persistence under single-party rule.” World Politics 57, no. 03 (2005): 421-451.
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