(A review of Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way’s Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes after the Cold War, Cambridge University Press, 2010).
Most political regimes in the world today allow for some form of electoral competition. As we saw in this post, towards the end of the cold war most stereotypical “dictatorships” (where competition by non-official parties was de jure forbidden and political control over the public sphere was nearly complete) began to give way to regimes in which control over the state depended in some way on winning real electoral contests. International pressure from Western powers, the breakdown of the Soviet Union, and popular protest all contributed to this outcome.
Yet elections, as anyone will tell you, do not equal democracy. Most of these “electoral” regimes – places like Zimbabwe, Russia, Romania, Armenia, Georgia, Ghana, Guyana, Kenya, Macedonia, Madagascar, Nicaragua, and many other countries - featured genuine political competition, with fiercely contested elections (unlike the meaningless “elections” held in many communist countries before the end of the cold war), organized oppositions which often held substantive legislative or subnational offices and could occasionally even win presidential or parliamentary elections (unlike in de jure one party states), and at least some islands of media independence (unlike the situation in many genuine dictatorships); but such competition was neither free nor fair by any reasonable standard. Incumbents persecuted or harassed their political opponents by legal or illegal means, intimidated or bought the media, packed supposedly “independent” judicial institutions with their supporters, used state resources without restraint for campaign purposes, and even occasionally fraudulently stole elections through good old-fashioned ballot stuffing and vote falsification in efforts to secure their position.
Consider a few examples. In Ukraine in the 1990s, “businesses that financed the opposition were routinely targeted by tax authorities” and in Ghana similarly “entrepreneurs who financed opposition parties “were blacklisted, denied government contracts, and [had] their businesses openly sabotaged”.” In Taiwan, the KMT used to outspend its opponents 50-1 in elections, and in Russia the Yeltsin campaign spent “between 30 and 150 times the amount permitted the opposition in 1996.” In the Peru of Fujimori, private television stations “signed “contracts” with the state intelligence service in which they received up to $1.5 million a month in exchange for limiting coverage of opposition parties.” (All quotes from Levitsky and Way, pp. 10-11). Everybody knows about the selective prosecution of potentially threatening “oligarchs” in Russia (like Mikhail Khodorkovsky) for tax reasons, not always without some justification (after all, they probably did not get rich by following the rules), but the tactic is common, though with local variations according to context (see, e.g., the Anwar Ibrahim case in Malaysia). Libel and defamation suits, especially, are the tool of choice for shutting down critical forms of media: according to Levitsky and Way, in the nineties newspapers in Croatia were sued for libel more than 230 times; in Cameroon at around the same time the use of defamation suits forced the closure of several newspapers. (We pass over in silence the use of libel or defamation suits in Cambodia, Belarus, Russia, and many other places as a way to intimidate opponents and silence critical voices). Sometimes media restrictions even get a decent veneer of justification, as when the Chavez government in Venezuela refused to renew the “over the air” license of RCTV, an opposition-leaning TV station, in 2007 for having supported the coup against his government in 2002. All of these actions are of course made easier if the government takes care to pack supposedly “impartial” or “independent” institutions (constitutional courts, electoral commissions, and so on) with government supporters (see, e.g., Venezuela and Malaysia). Finally, there are the more obvious tactics to suppress political competition, to be used when all else fails: beatings and imprisonment of opposition members by security forces (ask Morgan Tsvangirai and many other Zanu-PF opponents in Zimbabwe), old-fashioned ballot box stuffing, and vote falsification (in Serbia under Milosevic, Ukraine under Kuchma, and many other places).
Rather than thinking of these regimes as somehow imperfect or transitional democracies, Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way argue that we should see them as authoritarian regimes in their own right. Levitsky and Way call them “competitive authoritarian” regimes (a term they coined in a widely cited 2002 article), and tell the story of their emergence and the reasons why some of them managed to more fully democratize but others did not in a recent book (Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes after the Cold War, 2010). The book is a pretty impressive research achievement; the bibliography alone is 110 pages long, and it can serve as a good introduction to the post cold war politics of the 35 different countries they study.
Now, I’d prefer to speak not so much of authoritarianism, democracy, and democratization (at this point at least) but of transformations in the prevalent varieties of political competition in the world. Modern “democracy,” on this view, is merely a system of normatively regulated oligopolistic political competition for state power, which does not sound particularly inspiring, except when we consider how hard it seems to be to achieve even that. In the post cold-war era full political monopolies have tended to decay into systems of unregulated political competition (“competitive authoritarian” or “party hegemonic” regimes) where rulers can often get away with the murder of their political opponents (literally and figuratively); only some of these systems of unregulated political competition turn into modern “democracies,” where rulers cannot so easily get away with murder of their political opponents. So the key question is: how do normatively unregulated systems of political competition turn into normatively regulated ones? How do we move from political systems where rulers “play dirty” by exploiting their control of the state (and oppositions do the same, if they win) to systems where they can’t get away with that, or at least not that easily? (The converse question is also important, though not the focus of Levitsky and Way’s book: why do systems of normatively regulated political competition sometimes break down, leading to regimes where rulers can get away with murder?). The problem is not so much about political turnover (ruling parties do occasionally yield power in competitive authoritarian regimes, even though this typically requires mass protest and other forms of extralegal action as well as winning elections) but about what can shift the kind of political competition that is enabled by a regime.
Levitsky and Way’s answer to that question is relentlessly structural – protest and opposition action plays little role. It is also reminiscent of an old argument in Kant’s “Perpetual Peace” (hence the title of this post; more on that later). In brief, they argue that neither Western pressure nor domestic opposition action by itself is capable of inducing democratization (at best, such international and domestic pressure can produce “electoralization,” not democratization: electoral turnover within normatively unregulated forms of political competition); it is only when domestic and international pressures for democracy are consistently amplified by social and economic links with Western democracies that elites in these regimes will consistently invest in credible ways of enforcing the norms of political competition (e.g., genuinely independent electoral commissions and judicial systems, a press that is not constantly pressured by the government du jour, etc.).
Let’s start with the obvious international pressures for democracy (or political competition, really). Since the end of the cold war most Western powers (at least the powers Levitsky and Way are interested in, the USA and the EU) have adopted an explicit “democratization” agenda, in which they have used various incentives to promote electoral regimes of varying credibility. The effectiveness of these pressures, however, varies with what Levitsky and Way call “leverage,” i.e., the influence Western governments are able to bring to bear on other regimes to make their politics more competitive. Western leverage is greatest for small, aid-dependent countries (like many African countries), and smaller for larger economies (like Mexico or Malaysia). It is larger when democratization is the primary issue on the foreign policy agenda of Western powers (as in many Latin American and Eastern European countries in the 1990s and early 2000s), and smaller when competing issues (like terrorism or other security concerns, especially since 2001) trump democratization (e.g., in the middle East, but also in places like Serbia and Croatia during the Balkan wars), or when other powers are able to provide support to authoritarian rulers (e.g., Russian support for Belarus in the early 1990s, and Chinese support for Burma or North Korea today). It is larger when governments can offer carrots as well as sticks, and smaller when only sticks are available (so the European Union had high democratizing leverage over those countries that were thought to be credible candidates for membership in the EU, but had less leverage over those countries which were unlikely to become members).
Levitsky and Way emphasize that Western pressure for democratization is very often quite superficial; Western powers are easily satisfied if the target government conducts more or less “clean” elections, and sometimes not even that. And they are not always especially consistent; only salient events, like elections, tend to engage them, whereas more ambiguous actions like politically motivated prosecutions or the abuse of state resources for election purposes can pass off uncriticized. (Incidentally, as this neat new paper by Simpser and Donno argues [gated], high quality election monitoring can have unintended bad consequences, pushing competitive authoritarian rulers to use practices that are generally bad for normatively regulating competition, like muzzling the media or packing the courts as a way of getting approval for “clean” elections on election day; too much focus on the quality of elections can thus worsen the quality of the surrounding institutions via strategic adaptation on the part of incumbent rulers).
Leverage is really helpful for democratization only when it is reinforced by what Levitsky and Way call linkage. By this Levitsky and Way mean the whole range of social and economic ties between Western democracies and competitive authoritarian regimes. These may include trade and migration links, the circulation of elites through American and European universities, various forms of communication across borders, and so on. A high density of these ties helps produce consistent pressure for democratization (or rather, for enforcing norms of fair political competition) by amplifying the effect that even minor violations of the norms of political competition have on foreign and domestic publics, creating transnational constituencies for democracy, and providing incentives for elites in competitive authoritarian states to invest in the credibility of the institutions for monitoring violations of these norms. It is only when linkage is high that foreign pressure really becomes expensive for domestic elites in competitive authoritarian regimes, and not only in purely financial terms; when every suit your government brings against its political opponents produces an endless stream of NY Times articles, cancellations of visits from dignitaries, visa troubles, and in general international opprobrium from their peers and colleagues in Europe or the USA, adherence to the norms of political competition starts looking like a good deal.
Linkage gets you not only an official EU protest over the treatment of Yulia Tymoshenko, it gets you a headline like “Europe Protests Ukraine’s Treatment of Yulia Tymoshenko” in the NY Times, the promise of an investigation by the Ukrainian government, and Joachim Gauck cancelling his travel plans to Kiev. I’m sure similar treatment of a Malawian opposition politician would not have rated anything close to the same reaction. (And Ukraine, in Levitsky and Way’s scheme, only rates medium, not high, levels of linkage). Linkage creates lobbies that constantly bring violations of the norms of political competition to the attention of Western foreign ministries and legislatures, and it creates elite constituencies interested in preventing such violations in the first place; it makes Western pressure consistent and predictable. This is why it was so hard, for example, for Vladimir Meçiar to get away with relatively small violations of the norms of political competition when he briefly ruled Slovakia in the 1990s, and why it seems unlikely that Viktor Orban will be able to consolidate a truly competitive authoritarian regime in Hungary today. By contrast, when there are few regular ties between a competitive authoritarian regime and Western democracies, foreign pressure is erratic and constituencies for enforcing norms of political competition are weak, regardless of the level of leverage. High leverage and low linkage produces at best electoral turnover (i.e., it pushes incumbents out when they lose an election) without genuine transformations in the norms and institutions of political institutions (the opposition is likely to be just as bad as the government in its treatment of the press or its abuse of state resources), which is precisely what Levitsky and Way think happened in many African countries in the 1990s and early 2000s.
A parallel argument works for domestic sources of pressure, though I think here Levitsky and Way muddle the presentation of the issues a bit. They want to argue that domestic pressure is usually not that significant for either democratization or even electoral turnover (in contrast to some recent scholarship, which emphasizes the importance of protest and opposition strength). So they emphasize that what really matters is the strength of states and incumbent party organizations: when these are “strong,” protest doesn’t get you very far. Milosevic survived enormous levels of mobilization as long as his security forces held together, whereas in Madagascar or Haiti the state could barely control the territory, let alone prevent relatively small opposition forces from overthrowing the government (in Haiti, an “army” of about 200 rebels). But, as Levitsky and Way sometimes seem to acknowledge, the interesting question is not so much about turnover but about the fairness of the norms of competition; and here all the work is done by linkage, not state or party strength or opposition pressure. Only high levels of linkage, in their view, induce either victorious oppositions or incumbent governments to invest in credibly enforcing norms of political competition; in its absence victorious oppositions do not behave much better when in power than the governments they displace.
I also think that to speak of “state” vs. “opposition” strength is to reify the fluid character of these things. One can agree that oppositions win power in competitive authoritarian regimes where states and incumbent party organizations splinter (as in the so-called “color revolutions” in the early 2000s), i.e., transfer their loyalty to the opposition or remain neutral, but this hardly means that opposition efforts don’t matter much: successful opposition efforts are typically geared towards inducing such transfers of loyalty. The more interesting point Levitsky and Way make has to do with why some states and parties are so resilient in the face of opposition challenges – think of ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe, holding together in the face of generalized economic collapse and a well-organized opposition movement. Why? Levitsky and Way point to the role of non-material incentives: whereas parties and states that are held together only through patronage (the ability to distribute jobs and benefits) tend to break down in the face of opposition pressure or economic crisis, security forces and parties that were forged in war or insurgency (in Armenia or Zimbabwe, for example), or are otherwise held together by some salient identity in addition to patronage (communism, ethnicity, etc.), tend to require far more pressure, indeed generational change, to break down. (This also works for regimes that are not competitive authoritarian but simply monopolize political competition: Cuba, China, Vietnam, etc.).
There is something “Kantian” about the story Levitsky and Way tell in this book. In Perpetual Peace Kant argues that a “federation” of Republican peoples can spread “if a powerful and enlightened people” that makes itself into a Republic serves as “a fulcrum to the federation with other states so that they may adhere to it and thus secure freedom under the idea of the law of nations. By more and more such associations, the federation may be gradually extended.” This process does not involve a change in human nature; as Kant says elsewhere, “from the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” All it requires is the growing interdependence of peoples, which eventually come to acquire interests in the preservation of republican norms and the maintenance of peace, and which thus make these republican “cores” grow outwards, slowly. Similarly here: norms of fair political competition only spread and become powerful through a process that involves a growing level of interconnectedness across borders. The idea is simultaneously optimistic – electoralization plus growing connections to the core (“globalization”?) make the zone of normatively regulated political competition grow ever outwards – and pessimistic – regimes that are “far” from this core will have fragile and generally unregulated forms of political competition regardless (this suggests pessimism about, for example, Mali). (Though they do not make much of this, their story also suggests that policies that prevent the growth of linkage – like the “embargo” on Cuba – are about the worst possible policy to encourage democratization). Of course, this story also assumes that political competition in the core does not decay, perhaps through processes that rob it of its importance – think of the growth of the national security state in the USA, or the ways in which the great recession has affected most European democracies. But Levitsky and Way tell it pretty convincingly, with masses of qualitative evidence; I learned a lot from this book.
 Albania, Armenia, Belarus, Benin, Botswana, Cambodia, Cameroon, Croatia, Dominican Republic, Gabon, Georgia, Ghana, Guyana, Haiti, Kenya, Macedonia, Madagascar, Malawi, Malaysia, Mexico, Moldova, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Peru, Romania, Russia, Senegal, Serbia, Slovakia, Taiwan, Tanzania, Ukraine, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. All of these countries are classified as “Competitive Authoritarian” in 1990-1995; by 2008, two of them had become “fully authoritarian” (Belarus and Russia), and 14 had become “full democracies” by Levitsky and Way’s accounting. (One additional country, Nicaragua, first democratized and then became a competitive authoritarian regime again by 2008). Their cases do not include countries that became competitive authoritarian after 1995, or which were “party hegemonic” regimes in 1995 (too little competition; e.g., Singapore, in their view, though I suspect this case would be problematic for their theory) but might have become more open since then. They also do not include countries in which unelected offices are the most important ones, even if there is a significant electoral component (e.g., Morocco, Iran) or under foreign occupation.