Are authoritarian regimes more likely to transition to democracy following a leadership change?
A post yesterday by Alula Alex Iyasu at the Royal African Society’s African Arguments blog implies that is the case, or at least that it might in the case of present-day Ethiopia, where longtime leader Meles Zenawi (left) is rumored to be gravely ill, dead already, or “recuperating”. Whatever the precise condition of Zenawi’s health, Iyasu sees the leadership crisis spawned by this uncertainty as an opportunity for political and economic reform:
The next Prime Minister of Ethiopia should take this potential and impending leadership crisis and turn it into an opportunity – to reform and improve areas hampered by overreaching government policy and an absence of democratic institutions. There is a golden opportunity to view the private sector as a true partner in national economic growth and not an entity to be feared and stymied….to encourage public-private partnership as a means to raise capital for the kinds of ambitious development goals Ethiopia has outlined but lacks the funds [and]….to create democratic institutions with truly independent bodies that facilitate, arbitrate and encourage entrepreneurship.
Iyasu’s post is more prescriptive than diagnostic, but it also reflects a widespread view that leadership change in authoritarian regimes opens doors to more fundamental institutional changes. There are at least a few reasons this might be true.
It may be that leadership transitions helps cause democratization by stimulating struggles among elites, thereby presenting would-be reformers with new room to maneuver. It may be that leadership change often coincides with democratization because both occur in response to increases in deeper pressures for political reform. A correlation between leadership change and democratization could also arise for sociological reasons; perhaps it’s the leader’s values that matter, and leaders who are personally committed to reform usually launch those changes soon after arriving in office, but you can’t get that effect without changing leaders first. …………… [T]he point is that we might expect the likelihood of a democratic transition to be higher during the several years after a new leader takes the helm of an authoritarian regime than it is during the rest of their tenures.
The bottom line: authoritarian regimes are much more likely to transition to democracy during the several years following a leadership change, other things being equal.
A democratic transition is more than three times as likely to occur during the first three years of a new leader’s tenure as it is after a ruler becomes more established. That estimate comes from a statistical model that also accounts for the age of the authoritarian regime, the civil liberties it allows, and the occurrence of economic recession and nonviolent popular uprisings in the previous year, among other things. In the context of this kind of modeling, it’s a pretty big “effect.”
After seeing that relationship, I wondered if leadership change might also indirectly improve prospects for democratic transition by increasing the likelihood that a nonviolent popular uprising would take shape. To test that conjecture, I added the same indicator of new leadership to a model that tries to predict the starts of civil-resistance campaigns in authoritarian regimes. To my surprise, the association actually seems to run in the opposite direction; other things being equal, popular uprisings are only about half as likely to flare up during the first few years of an authoritarian ruler’s tenure as they are during later years.
For autocracies in general, this pair of results suggests that leadership changes do open the door to democratization, at least temporarily, and that the linkage between those two events does not run through popular uprisings. The association we see probably has more to do with elite infighting, the new leader’s values, or deeper forces that impel change in both leaders and institutions.
This is a slightly edited extract from a longer post at Dart-throwing Chimp.