Hugo Chavez’s Death and Prospects for Political Liberalization in Cuba

You’ve heard of the butterfly effect, right? Well, what about the Chávez effect?

Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez died early this week, and his absence will probably have ripple effects on the stability of political regimes in several other countries with which Chávez’s was closely tied. Chávez’s international influence had waned in recent years with the exit from the global political stage of his foil, George W. Bush; the re-emergence of Brazil as a regional economic heavyweight; profound stresses on Venezuela’s own economy, wrought in part by evident flaws in Chávez’s “Bolivarian revolution”; and, of course, the decline in Chávez’s health as he struggled with the cancer that eventually killed him.

Even in poor health and diminished political stature, though, Chávez loomed large in the politics of several other countries, and none more so than Cuba. At least in part, that interdependence stemmed from the close personal relationship between Chávez and Cuba’s Fidel Castro. As Victoria Burnett wrote about yesterday for the New York Times, however, there was also a very practical aspect to the close relationship between Cuba and Venezuela under Chavez as well.

Cuba receives more than 100,000 barrels of oil a day from Venezuela, purchased on favorable terms as part of an exchange that has tens of thousands of Cubans working in Venezuelan clinics, schools and ministries. The subsidized oil accounts for about two-thirds of Cuba’s consumption and is credited by many Cubans with keeping the lights on and the air-conditioners running during the brutal summer heat.

It’s possible that Chávez’s successors will indefinitely sustain this generosity, but I doubt it. Venezuela was already struggling to get its own economic house in order. Meanwhile, Venezuela’s oil production has declined in recent years and its domestic consumption has steadily risen, leaving less of the surplus that bankrolled Chavez’s largesse. Even if Chávez’s successors come from the Bolivarian movement he built, it’s hard to see how they will be able to keep subsidizing other regimes when their own has fallen on hard times. And, of course, absent Chávez, Venezuela’s opposition parties stand a much better chance of clawing its way back into government—if not in next month’s special election, then certainly in the ones to follow.


As Venezuelan largesse dries up, the pressure on the Communist regime in Cuba to search out new sources of revenue will sharply increase. It’s possible that Castro & co. will find another great foreign patron, just as they did when Venezuela stepped into the shoes the Soviet Union had filled for so long before its collapse left Cuba in the lurch. Possible, but, I think, unlikely. Following a similar “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” logic, the Islamic Republic of Iran also has an affinity with Cuba, but Iran’s got serious financial troubles of its own. China seems a more capable future patron, but it’s hard to imagine the Chinese government doing something as provocative to the U.S. as flat-out bankrolling the Cuban regime with so little to gain from it. What China is already doing is helping to finance the hunt for oil in Cuban waters. A major oil strike would throw the Cuban government a new lifeline, but as John Sullivan noted in a September 2012 piece for the New York Times Magazine, “So far, though, the wells have come up dry or disappointing.”

If the Cuban regime can’t find a new foreign patron or strike oil, it will be increasingly tempted to try political liberalization as an alternative strategy. I laid out the logic behind this choice in a conference paper I wrote in 2007 and summarized it again in a recent article on North Korea for Foreign Policy‘s Democracy Lab. Quoting at length from the latter:

To understand why a seemingly stable dictatorship would ever give its political opponents an opening, it helps to consider the political economy of authoritarianism. Dictators repress their citizens because it helps them stay in power. Political rivals can’t beat you if they can’t get organized, and they’ll find it very hard to organize if they can’t meet, talk, or reach out for support. Following this logic, we usually think of political liberalization as something that dictators resort to only when forced by restive mobs threatening to end their rule, if not their lives.

What that conventional view misses, though, are the financial and economic trade-offs that harsh repression entails. First, the machinery of monitoring and repression can be expensive, and the information it produces isn’t always reliable, so shrewd autocrats will always be looking to cut costs and improve outputs in these areas. Second, and less obviously, repression indirectly imposes drag on an economy by inhibiting productive exchanges among citizens. These market frictions can create a gap between an economy’s actual growth rate and the growth it might achieve with a freer citizenry.

When a dictator’s revenues depend on the performance of his country’s economy, these trade-offs give him some incentive to loosen restrictions on civil liberties. The question is when that incentive becomes strong enough to outweigh the political risks of reform.

The conventional view of political liberalization tells us this shift only occurs when dictators face an imminent threat of revolution. If the end already seems nigh, rulers might try to prolong their tenure by meeting their opponents halfway and hoping that compromise satisfies the mobs at the gates. This process is sometimes described as liberalization “from below,” because it’s driven by popular unrest.

Careful consideration of the political and economic trade-offs involved, however, suggests another possibility: Dictators might also pursue “liberalization from above,” gambling on reform when the economy is stagnating and political opposition is especially weak. Under these circumstances, expanded freedoms of speech and movement can open new avenues for economic growth without immediately producing a serious political challenge. There might be plenty of pent-up demand for political change, but revolutions require organization, and organization takes time, so shrewd rulers might attempt to shoot those rapids in search of calmer waters on the other side.

Viewing Chavez’s departure through the lens of this theory, I think the prospects for significant political liberalization in Cuba in the next few years just improved markedly. In fact, there were many signs that the Cuban regime was already leaning in this direction, including moves since 2010 to allow more private enterprise, loosen restrictions on property rights, and, most recently, the decision to end the exit visa requirement for travel abroad. I think those modest reforms reflect the very pressures noted above, and the departure of the Cuban regime’s greatest patron and ally will only turn the screws tighter. Late last month, Raul Castro announced that he would retire when his second term as president ends in 2018. In light of this week’s news from Venezuela, I would be surprised to see Castro’s tenure last that long, and I suspect that transition will go much deeper than a simple change of leadership.

Baltic Protest in the Gorbachev Era: Causes, Dynamics, and Consequences

I wrote my dissertation in the mid-1990s on ethno-nationalist mobilization in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania during the Gorbachev years. In 2008, I met an editor from an academic press who invited me to dust off that dissertation and publish it as a book. After recovering the file from a floppy disk with a disk drive at my town’s public library (seriously), I reformatted and lightly edited the manuscript to ready it for publication.

In the end, I decided not to publish the book after a couple of colleagues whose work I admire took a look at it and said they didn’t think it was quite ready for academic prime time. Still, in hopes that the work might still be useful to other researchers, I’ve gone ahead and posted the lightly revised manuscript on the Web. You can find it here.

Libya Revisited

Since the collapse of the Gaddafi regime a little more than a year ago, Libya has served as a Rorschach test for American and European observers of international relations—a complex and disorderly swirl of political events onto which we typically project our prior beliefs about the circumstances under which military intervention in other country’s conflicts is smart and just. Where observers whose biases tilt toward the “justice” part of that equation tend to see averted atrocities and nascent democracy, self-described “realists” usually spotlight the persistence of militia-fed violence and the secondary effects of Libya’s collapse on its neighbors in the Sahel as grounds for arguing that NATO should never have stepped in.

A recent article in the Economist offers fresh support for proponents of that intervention. In a dispatch entitled “Rising from the Ruins,” a magazine not known for its bleeding heart informs us that,

Since the colonel’s death in October last year at the hands of rebel fighters, Libya has not only held national elections, followed a fortnight ago by the presentation of a diverse government, albeit that not all of its members have been endorsed. It has also started to build a new system of civil administration that may one day form the backbone of a law-abiding and prosperous society.

The piece nods in the direction of last month’s deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and the fears of terrorism and religious extremism that were amplified by that assault, but it goes on to suggest that those fears may be misplaced.

On the ground, the picture, though far from uniformly rosy, is more hopeful. Many of the new state structures and services…are being created from the bottom up rather than handed down by a central government that is still only embryonic. The new powers in the land are council leaders, a sort of cross between mayors and regional governors. Some are doing well.

By “doing well,” the author seems to mean “doing what governments are supposed to do,” namely, providing order and delivering basic public goods:

Regional structures are taking shape. Rickety they may be, but they increasingly trump those in the capital, where political rivalries and the fear of being accused of corruption have led ministers to duck hard decisions. Some cities are creating their own economic links with the outside world…Dynamic local leaders have improved services. The streets of a range of coastal towns are far cleaner than in Cairo or Tunis. Rubbish-collecting lorries and street sweepers in tidy overalls are out every morning. Hospitals have reopened. Most important for ordinary Libyans, services such as tap water and electricity—disrupted during the rebellion—are working just about everywhere. Children are back at school.

I’m not a Libya pro, and I can’t offer any first-hand accounts of developments there from my desk in suburban Maryland. What I can bring to the table is the perspective of a longtime observer of democratization and state collapse. From that perch, I think the skeptics are mostly wrong. Critics of NATO’s intervention are right to bemoan the violence and injustice and spillover that Libya’s collapse has brought. The mistake they make, I think, lies in their failure to consider a realistic set of alternatives to NATO intervention and where they would have led.

My sense of the plausible alternatives starts from the observation that the Libyan state under Gaddafi was a personalist regime—a system in which political authority is almost wholly concentrated in the hands of single individual—and all personalist regimes collapse eventually. As Barbara Geddes has shown in her excellent work on authoritarian breakdown, personalist regimes rarely survive the death of their “big man,” and the ensuing breakdowns are often bloody.

Given these facts, the idea that would-be interveners were choosing between fomenting instability or returning to authoritarian stability is false. Without any nudge from NATO forces, Libya in 2011 had already slipped into civil war. At that point, its possible futures included a quick and brutal restoration of order under Gaddafi, a quick rebel victory, or a protracted civil war. Absent foreign intervention, either brutal repression or a protracted civil war appeared to be the most likely trajectories, while a quick rebel victory seemed highly unlikely.

It’s easy to see that every one of these scenarios would have been bloody. What’s more often overlooked, I think, is that every one of these scenarios would also have led to state collapse followed by a long and messy period of state-building. The only real difference is in the timing. Even if the Gadaffi regime had managed to restore control in 2011, Geddes’ research suggests that it would merely have postponed its day of reckoning; the factional scrambles we’re seeing today would have occurred eventually, only after another episode of brutal repression and probably after another eruption of civil war. Meanwhile, a prolonged version of the conflict that started in 2011 would have entailed its own form of state collapse, de facto partition, that would have produced many of the same negative repercussions we’re now lamenting (militia justice, spillover effects) while merely delaying the arrival of the positive ones. By helping to hasten the rebels’ victory in a fight that started without them, NATO’s intervention merely accelerated the arrival of a tumultuous but inevitable period of political transformation.

Some critics of the NATO intervention are comfortable with the decision to intrude in Libya’s civil war but critical of the hands-off approach the United States and Europe have taken to state-building. What I think we’re seeing in dispatches like the one in this week’s Economist, however, is that the absence of a heavy foreign footprint in post-Gaddafi Libyan politics is actually serving the country pretty well. Rather than weakly empowering a favored cadre and encouraging massive rent-seeking, the less intrusive posture the United States and Europe have adopted in Libya is allowing state-building to proceed of its own accord.

Now, instead of swinging away at a foreign-funded piñata, Libya’s regional factions have to choose between swinging at each other or working out ways to get along. Because none of those regional factions enjoys a significant coercive advantage over its rivals, there are strong incentives to refrain from the former, and that seems to be helping push the latter along. As James Madison argued in Federalist No. 10, it’s impossible to remove the causes of factionalism, so the best we can do is to try to control its effects. The crazy-quilt character of post-Gaddafi politics may be hindering the emergence of a powerful central government, but it also naturally protects against one alternative that Madison saw as a graver threat than faction, namely, a tyranny of the majority. We’ll never know for sure, of course, but my hunch is that the state produced by this halting process will ultimately prove more durable than any construct we would have gotten from another foreign-funded, “high modernist” state-building binge. If Afghanistan and Iraq are any guide, that’s actually not a very high bar to clear.

Pathways to Political Pluralism in China

As the Communist Party of China (CPC) performs its decennial transfer of power at its 18th Congress this month, hints of a looming economic crisis have many China watchers talking about prospects for political reform. In a nice piece by Edward Wong in Saturday’s New York Times, we hear journalist and historian Yang Jisheng say that, “In the next years, [China] should have a constitutional democracy plus a market economy.” Acknowledging the steep odds against that happening, however, Yang then suggested a kind of mid-range alternative: “To break one-party rule right now is probably not realistic, but we can have factions within the party made public and legalized, so they can campaign against each other.”

I don’t follow Chinese politics closely enough to know how common calls like this are, but I do know the history of Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe well enough to say that I think the path to reform through routinized competition within the ruling party is unsustainable and therefore highly unlikely.

What Yang foresees echoes the idea of “socialist pluralism” that Mikhail Gorbachev first floated in 1987 as part of his strategy for reinvigorating the Soviet system. As Archie Brown describes in The Gorbachev Factor, when Gorbachev initially used the term “pluralism,” he was not talking about opening the door to new political movements or even to competition within the Communist Party; he was just talking about allowing more voices to be heard in Soviet newspapers. Importantly, this crack in the edifice of Soviet censorship was not motivated by a liberal belief in the inherent value of free speech. Instead, the turn toward openness, or glasnost’, followed an instrumental logic that saw a freer flow of information on a narrow range of approved topics as the best way to check the stagnation and corruption that Gorbachev and his sympathizers saw as the sources of the USSR’s economic malaise.

Of course, the reform process quickly began to spin out of Moscow’s control in some corners of the Union, and by 1990 Party leaders were looking for ways to regain a handle on the situation. That quest led to open talk of political pluralism, with three options on the table: 1) a formal end to one-party rule and steps toward real multipartism; 2) a continuation of one-party rule, but with open competition allowed among factions within the party; or 3) a crackdown that would, in effect, attempt to roll politics back to the status quo ante.

Well, the progressives within the Party chose Door #1, and their reactionary rivals then banged on Door #3 in the form of the failed August 1991 coup that finally and ironically finished the USSR off. The fact that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) didn’t mess around with formal intra-party competition before opening Door #1, however, tells us something about those factions’ assessments of the sustainability of open pluralism in a one-party system.

I happen to think they were right. The logic of political competition dictates that today’s losers want to become tomorrow’s winners. To do that, they need to increase the relative strength of their coalition—relative, that is, to the faction that has just defeated them. When you’ve lost the fight within the existing pool of people whose preferences affect that outcome, one of the best ways to strengthen your coalition is to expand that pool.

In closed authoritarian systems like the USSR’s or China’s, there’s plenty of room for expansion, and the faction that loses today can try to mobilize or connect with movements outside the party who can help tip the balance in their favor. A ratchet effect ensues that eventually and inevitably extends the process beyond the wall that separates the ruling party from the rest of society. When that happens, a revolutionary situation develops, and the dominant faction is forced to choose between capitulation or retrenchment by force. Recognizing this logic from the start, party leaders usually choose between suppressing competition or stepping aside with as much of their dignity (and fortunes!) as they can take. Tottering leaders occasionally try for the middle ground, but those attempts tend to collapse quickly, and those collapses aren’t always kind to the departing rulers.

In the Soviet Union, this ratchet effect occurred in some of the 15 republics before it spilled into the open at the center. As early as 1988, pro-reform factions in some of the republican Communist Parties were tolerating and even encouraging emergent environmentalist and nationalist movements whom they saw as potential allies in their struggle for power against their more conservative leadership. Those encouraging signals, in turn, helped those movements stage protest events that swelled from dozens or hundreds of participants in 1987 and 1988 to tens and even hundreds of thousands by 1989.

Well, we—including the Communist Party of China—all know how that worked out. In China today, the pool of potential allies for reformist factions within the Party is large and growing. Citizens increasingly fed up with industrial pollution, land grabs, lax regulation, official corruption, and cultural repression comprise an array of proto-movements to whom losing factions in a more openly competitive system might turn.

Under these circumstances, I would expect the CPC’s leadership to try to retain control as long as it can, and then to craft as lucrative an exit as possible. The halfway house Yang proposes wouldn’t stand for long, and it’s hard to imagine party elites thinking otherwise and burning their resources trying to prop it up.

So how does China get to political pluralism? I can’t say exactly, but my guess is that it will be more disruptive than the incremental change Yang describes. As someone who studied the Soviet Union as it came undone, I think I have some idea of the cognitive process that produces that kind of prediction. We can see where pluralism would inevitably lead, but we can’t fathom the powers that be stepping aside without a fight, so we imagine hybrid forms that would seem to split the difference. Those hybrid forms, however, reflect a linear model of political change that very rarely occurs in nature, and I doubt China will be an exception to that rule.

What a China Corruption Story Says About the Perils of Authoritarian Corruption in the Modern Global Economy

Yesterday, the New York Times dropped a bombshell of investigative journalism on the Chinese Communist Party, reporting that the family of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has amassed something like $2.7 billion in wealth in recent years, mostly through insider dealings. That a top Party official has profited from his position of authority is hardly surprising—“Man who is shocked at Wen Jiabao family fortune discovered in Chinese village,” the Onion-style China Daily Show headline blared—but the scale of the family’s fortune and the speed of its accumulation is breathtaking.

Unsurprisingly, the Chinese government promptly blocked access to English- and Chinese-language versions of the New York Times web site and mention of the newspaper on Sina Weibo, China’s über-popular micro-blogging service. The article happened to drop in the middle of delicate transition period in China’s political leadership, and what it suggests about the state of that country’s political economy isn’t pretty. As the Times piece dryly noted,

Untangling [the Wen family’s] financial holdings provides an unusually detailed look at how politically connected people have profited from being at the intersection of government and business as state influence and private wealth converge in China’s fast-growing economy.

I’m not a China pro, but I am interested in forces that drive the persistence and collapse of authoritarian regimes. For me, one of the most intriguing aspects of this story is what it suggests about change over time in the difficulty of concealing the patronage and rent-seeking that typically underpin the political economy of authoritarian rule. NYT reporter David Barboza was able to piece together this remarkable picture of the Wen family’s wealth by reviewing corporate and regulatory records in the public domain. I’m sure the trail wasn’t easy to follow, but it was at least possible because the entities involved operate in a global marketplace that demands a certain degree of transparency. These wheelings and dealings are the currency that buys loyalty in many autocracies, but they are rarely laid so bare.

What Barboza’s story underscores for me is the Faustian bargain the Chinese Communist Party has made with the global economy. In exchange for foreign capital and hungry markets and safe harbors for Chinese wealth, China would play by rules that could gradually erode the opacity on which the authority of its political class depends. Among other things, it would produce and file the kinds of records that made the story on the Wen family’s wealth possible.

Importantly, Barboza’s story is not unique. We’ve seen similar stories from other authoritarian regimes in recent years. In May, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Khadija Ismayilova described how Azerbaijan’s “first family” had profited handsomely from a $134-million construction project related to the Eurovision contest that country hosted this summer—revelations made possible, in part, because of anti-corruption law Azerbaijan adopted in 2004 to help attract badly needed foreign capital. The 2011 revolution in Tunisia that marked the start of the so-called Arab Spring was apparently sparked, in part, by public furor over U.S. government cables detailing the craven corruption of President Ben Ali’s family—cables that were pushed into the public domain by Wikileaks.

I don’t mean to suggest that globalization and the Internet and all things new and shiny have made it impossible to sustain authoritarian rule. The roster of dictatorships that persist in the face of revelations like these—Azerbaijan, Zimbabwe, and Equatorial Guinea, to name just a few of the most obvious cases—proves otherwise. I do think, however, that these entanglements are marginally increasing pressures on these regimes that can hasten their demise. As Barboza’s story about the Wen family illustrates, this Faustian bargain has worked out quite nicely for many authoritarian elites so far, but Mephistopheles’ powers of concealment do seem to be weakening. And this, among many other things, may help to explain the recent acceleration of the long global trend toward more democratic government.

A Quick Comparative Assessment of Georgia and Venezuela

Two countries with competitive authoritarian regimes held elections this past week, with very different results. In Georgia, President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) lost its parliamentary majority for the first time since it took power in the Rose Revolution nearly a decade ago. In Venezuela, however, President Hugo Chávez won a fourth term by his slimmest margin yet, defeating challenger Henrique Capriles by “only” a 9-percent margin.

As a forecaster, I went 1 for 2 in predicting the outcome of these elections. Because they are—or, in the case of Georgia, were—electoral authoritarian regimes, I expected the ruling parties to win in both cases. There seemed to be a lot of uncertainty about the outcome in both, but as I said on Twitter, the illusion of uncertainty is a design feature of this type of regime. Regarding Venezuela, I gave Chavez 4:1 odds of beating Capriles. I recognized that the election machinery introduced some uncertainty into the process, but I believed Chavez had tilted the playing field steeply enough in his own favor to return himself to office, regardless of Capriles’ appeal. I didn’t make a specific prediction about Georgia, but if I had, it would’ve been about the same, and for the same reasons. The challenging Georgian Dream coalition clearly had some momentum heading into the election, but I thought Georgia’s machine politics and byzantine electoral system would allow Saakashvili’s UNM to retain a parliamentary majority anyway.

So, how did two apparently similar cases produce two different outcomes? On the fly, I can think of three explanations, all of which could be true at the same time.

First, it’s quite possible that I read the two cases wrong in advance of the election. Maybe Georgia really was less authoritarian than I thought. Electoral authoritarian regimes are inherently ambiguous, and this ambiguity makes it especially hard to observe small changes, or to be confident that the small changes we do see will be meaningful ones. For cases in this boundary area, however, small differences can have a big impact on the results.

Second, Georgia had a national scandal erupt over prison abuse in the campaign’s final weeks, and it’s possible that this “October surprise” was severe enough to knock the system off its old equilibrium. Video clips showing male prisoners being tortured and sexually assaulted by guards sparked mass demonstrations in cities across the country, and many Georgians seemed to see the abuse as metaphor for deeper systemic problems that the Rose Revolution had failed to correct.

Third, I think the two countries’ different positions in the international system played a role. Hugo Chavez has explicitly positioned his country as a counterweight to “Western hegemony,” and that adversarial posture has encouraged him to thumb his nose at critics and election observers from countries and organizations he sees as hostile to his “Bolivarian revolution.” Mikheil Saakashvili, by contrast, has hugged the United States and Europe, aggressively—almost desperately—pursuing entree into NATO and the European Union as a way to catalyze Georgia’s “modernization” and to protect it from the angry Russian bear next door.

This Westernization strategy led Saakashvili to subject his electoral process to much closer scrutiny and made him far more sensitive to criticisms from Europe and the U.S. than Chavez could ever be. Criticisms from previous elections about bias in state-owned media and partisan abuse of state resources led to specific reforms that certainly were not revolutionary but probably helped regrade the electoral landscape into more level terrain.

In retrospect, then, I think I can see why Georgia was riper for change than Venezuela was, and how the ambiguity inherent in electoral authoritarian regimes made that contrast hard to spot in advance. Whatever the specific causes, though, I think I need to tweak my mental model of electoral authoritarianism to allow for more uncertainty about the outcome of their elections. My old model emphasized the authoritarian part and saw the elections as pure theater. My new version will be less confident in its judgment of the character of these ambiguous cases, and it will leave more room for those theatrics to have real consequences.

Episodes of Democracy and Autocracy: A New Data Set

To look for patterns in the occurrence of transitions to democracy and democratic breakdowns around the world over time, we need reliable observations of where and when those events have happened. Most statistical analyses of democratic transitions in the past 15 years have used either Polity or the Democracy-Dictatorship (DD) data set to do that. As part of my work for the Political Instability Task Force (PITF), I developed yet another data set on episodes of democratic and authoritarian government in countries worldwide with populations larger than 500,000. The results of that work—I’m calling it the Democracy/Autocracy Data Set (DAD)—are now publicly available on the Dataverse Network, a data-sharing platform operated by Harvard University’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science.*

Like DD, DAD sorts cases annually into two bins: democracies and non-democracies.  Countries are identified as democracies when they satisfy all of several criteria, like items on a checklist. Cases that fail to satisfy one or more of those criteria are identified as non-democracies. Those criteria are meant to be indicative of four broader conditions essential to democracy:

  • Elected officials rule. Representatives chosen by citizens actually make policy, and unelected individuals, bodies, and organizations cannot veto those representatives’ decisions.
  • Elections are fair and competitive. The process by which citizens elect their rulers provides voters with meaningful choice and is free from deliberate fraud or abuse.
  • Politics is inclusive. Adult citizens have equal rights to vote and participate in government and fair opportunity to exercise those rights.
  • Civil liberties are protected. Freedoms of speech, association, and assembly give citizens the chance to deliberate on their interests, to organize in pursuit of those interests, and to monitor the performance of their elected representatives and the bureaucracies on which those officials depend.

Conceptually, these conditions are very similar to the ones used in constructing the DD data set. So why bother doing it all over again? The impetus to re-invent this particular wheel came from concerns I had about the effects of a couple of ancillary rules the makers of the original DD data set used to make decisions about ambiguous cases. As I saw it, those rules systematically skewed the resulting data in ways that are especially problematic for the kind of survival analysis those authors and many others have done with them. I won’t belabor the issue here, but interested readers can find more on the subject in this paper of mine on SSRN.

DAD was designed with survival analysis in mind, so it includes duration of current status, indicators of change from current status, and running counts of past events of both types (transitions to and from democracy). Importantly, those running counts include episodes before 1955, so at least that portion of the data set is not left-censored. Unlike DD, DAD does not differentiate within the two bins among types of democracy and dictatorship. Also unlike DD, however, DAD does track times to first alternations in power within democratic episodes—by individual chief executive and by ruling party/coalition—and it differentiates among democratic breakdowns by their form: executive coup (a.k.a. consolidation of incumbent advantage), military coup, rebellion, or other.

As a kind of bonus, DAD also includes annual data on each countries’ participation in a host of regional and global intergovernmental organizations and treaty regimes—data I used for this paper, which looks at the effects of international integration on prospects for transitions to and from democracy. Those data are also available as a standalone data set through ICPSR (link).

For other published or publicly available research I’ve done with DAD, see here, here, here, here, and here.

Based on my experience working with Polity, DD, and Freedom House’s Freedom in the World data, I can say a little bit about how the various sources compare to one another. In its calls on which regimes are democratic, DAD is closest to Freedom House’s annual list of electoral democracies. DD is generally more cautious than DAD, identifying as dictatorships some cases where DAD sees (usually short-lived) spells of democratic government that ended with a consolidation of incumbent advantage. Polity runs the opposite way, identifying as more democratic than autocratic many cases where DAD sees an autocracy (e.g. Russia and Armenia today).

At present, I am not planning to update DAD. Still, I hope it’s a useful resource and welcome comments and criticisms. Again, you can find the data set and supporting documentation on the Dataverse Network.

* This research was conducted for the Political Instability Task Force (PITF). The PITF is funded by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The views expressed herein are the author’s alone and do not necessarily represent the views of the Task Force or the U.S. Government.

ISO Revolution, Organized Opposition Not Req’d

In a recent piece for Think Africa Press, freelancer Peter Dörrie surveys politics in Burkina Faso and concludes that the authoritarian elites who’ve held power there for the past 25 years are unlikely to let their grip slip before or by way of elections due in 2015.

The reason for this pessimistic view is simple. There is no opposition movement in Burkina Faso capable of harnessing the disillusionment and frustration of the general population. Most opposition leaders have either been co-opted by Compaoré at some point in their career or have proven themselves unable to rally significant support. Moreover, large parts of Burkinabé society still follow the judgements of their ‘traditional’ rulers who have essentially been bought by Compaoré with political and economic incentives. What remains of the political opposition is fractured and unwilling to cooperate.

I don’t want to pick on Dörrie, whose analysis is always thoughtful and well researched, and whose conjectures about Burkinabé politics sound reasonable to me. I do, however, want to use his piece as the jumping-off point for some ideas that have been rattling around in my head for a while about the relationship between organized oppositions and prospects for political revolutions.

Dörrie’s essay is hardly the first piece of political analysis in which I’ve seen the idea that an opposition needs to get organized before a revolution can occur.  Recently, it’s also popped up a lot in analysis of post-election protests in Russia and of the potential for radical change in China.

This idea makes sense in a Newtonian model of politics, in which causes must clearly precede effects and change is thought to unfold in distinct sequences that repeat themselves across many cases. As someone who’s probably made this argument myself at one time or another, I’d say the mental narrative goes something like this: By definition, revolutions occur when challengers topple rulers by extra-legal means. For that to happen, a challenger has to exist and be strong enough either to defeat the ruler’s defenders or to dissuade them from fighting back. In all but the weakest states, that kind of strength requires sustained, large-scale organization. Ergo, the odds of a revolution occurring are substantially lower in societies with disorganized oppositions than they are in ones with well-organized challengers, and the organization of a formidable opposition movement is an early milestone past which all revolutions must travel.

But what if the world doesn’t really work like that? Having watched a bunch of these things unfold in real time, I am now convinced that it’s more useful to understand revolutionary situations as an emergent property of complex systems. One of the features of complex systems is the possibility of threshold effects, in which seemingly small perturbations in some of the system’s elements suddenly produce large changes in others. The fragility of the system as a whole may be evident (and therefore partially predictable) from some aspects of its structure, but the timing of the revolutionary moment’s emergence and the specific form it will take will be impossible to anticipate with any precision.

In this version of politics, the emergence of rival organizations is as likely to be a consequence of the system’s failure as a cause of it. In fact, that particular cause/effect distinction might not make sense at all. When surveying authoritarian regimes to contemplate which ones are most susceptible to revolutions, we may be better off thinking of the development of new political organizations and the breakdown of old authority patterns as two aspects of a single, many-faceted process in which the former doesn’t have to precede the latter and sometimes even may not occur at all.

Looking at some of the cases from the so-called Arab Spring, I think it’s clear that authoritarian regimes rarely collapse in the tidy sequence our Newtonian models lead us to expect. In Tunisia, where Ben Ali’s regime had successfully suppressed the organization of any independent opposition for many years, politics swung from the routine to the revolutionary in a matter of days, and upstarts had to scramble to organize for elections after Ben Ali was already gone. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood had built itself into a large and capable organization in spite of a steady diet of state repression, but the Brotherhood played only a modest role in the unrest that led directly to Mubarak’s ouster, which probably could have happened without it. In Libya, a loose assemblage of local militias managed to topple and kill longtime ruler Moammar Ghaddafi with a helpful shove from foreign countries, but many of those militias only sprung up and got organized as the conflict intensified, and to this day they remain disorganized and even combative at the national level.

From this quick survey, we can tell that a linear and sequential mental model of authoritarian breakdown isn’t very useful for predicting or explaining what actually happens in many real-world cases. The presence of an uncooperative opposition that can get and stay organized in spite of state repression probably is a useful marker of some near-term potential for regime breakdown, but that doesn’t mean that the inverse is also true. In the non-Newtonian politics of the real world, we should not mistake the absence of a formidable opposition for a sign of the regime’s resilience, and we should sometimes expect to see new political machines scrambling to organize as or only after regimes fall apart, too.

A Short Post on the Long Game in Russia

While the recent trial, conviction, and incarceration of Pussy Riot have refocused Western attention on the sham that is “managed democracy” in Russia, the long game rumbles on. Two recent developments warrant some attention as portents of political change on a time scale the 24/7 press rarely discusses.

First, the opposition continues to get organized. On the eve of the Pussy Riot frenzy, an assemblage of opposition groups announced plans for an online election this October. If all goes according to plan, voters will choose a Coordination Council that will try to hash out some of the differences among Russia’s fractious opposition groups and lead a more effective campaign against the “power vertical.” To enhance its validity and heighten the contrast with politics as usual, the intra-opposition election will be publicly audited by experienced observer groups.

Second, Putin’s popularity continues to decline. According to a recent survey by the highly respected Levada Center, the president’s approval rating has slipped to 63 percent, about where it stood in the wake of December 2011’s scandalous elections. More telling, though, were the answers to a question about who respondents would like to see in the president’s post six years from now. On that score, only 22 percent named Putin, while 49 percent said they would like to see a new face as head of state.

In contrast to Joshua Foust, I’m not convinced that the elevation of Pussy Riot to Western cause célèbre is a bad thing. The group’s plight certainly isn’t novel, and some of the reactions of their case have been misguided or downright laughable, but the spectacle of the trial and the absurdity of the trio’s sentences may have helped sharpen many outsiders’ understanding of just how authoritarian the Russian regime really is.

At the same time, I can’t help but think that the Pussy Riot frenzy has basically been a distraction from the long game on which democratization in Russia really depends. This episode is to Russian politics what the scandal of the week is to the American presidential race: a momentary digression from a process that actually turns on deeper, slower-moving processes which are harder to see and less exciting to talk about.

The fact is, international outcry and diplomatic squeezes will not end Putinism. This regime will not come undone without serious pressure from its own citizenry. Of course, it’s hard to generate this kind of pressure—and, more important, even harder to sustain it—against a president who’s widely liked with an opposition that’s disorganized. Those two variables still tilt in Putin’s favor for now, but the developments highlighted above suggest they are trending against him.

New Leaders and Political Change in Authoritarian Regimes (with an Eye on Ethiopia)

Does leadership change in authoritarian regimes open the door to democratic reform?

A post yesterday by Alula Alex Iyasu at the Royal African Society’s African Arguments blog implies that it does, or at least that it might in the case of present-day Ethiopia, where longtime leader Meles Zenawi is rumored to be gravely ill, dead already, or “recuperating,” depending on whom you ask. 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. An opportunity 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. An opportunity to create democratic institutions with truly independent bodies that facilitate, arbitrate and encourage entrepreneurship.

Iyasu’s post is more prescriptive than diagnostic, but I think 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. And, of course, all of those statements could be true. Whatever the pathway(s), the 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.

So, is it? Talking on Twitter yesterday about Iyasu’s post, I suggested that leadership change wouldn’t make much difference in Ethiopia, but this morning I figured I ought to check that claim.

Details of the statistical analysis I used to do that are at the bottom of this post, but the bottom line is that I was probably wrong: in fact, authoritarian regimes are much more likely to transition to democracy during the several years following a leadership change, other things being equal. According to my estimates, 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.

For Ethiopia in particular, those results imply that Iyasu has reason to be optimistic about widening opportunities of political reform in that country, whenever and for whatever reason Zenawi leaves office. My statistical forecast of Ethiopia’s prospects for democratic transition put it close to the bottom of the pile of authoritarian regimes this year, but a change in leadership would bump it up toward the middle of the pack, other things being equal. If the new leadership loosened restrictions on civil liberties as Iyasu recommends, those odds would get even better. Even with those changes, history tells us that the authoritarian regime would be more likely to survive than not, but I’ll take a forecast that calls for a few breaks in the clouds over portents of unending rain any day.


My indicators of authoritarian rule and transitions to democracy come from a Political Instability Task Force data set, while my indicator of civil-resistance campaign onset comes from Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s NAVCO data set. I used R’s generalized linear model (glm) command to estimate logistic regression models with the following covariates.

  • p(democratic transition | authoritarian rule) = any prior democracy (yes/no) + log(duration of authoritarian rule) + [any prior democracy * log(duration of authoritarian rule)] + post-Cold War period (yes/no) + civil liberties index (1-year lag) + any ongoing civil-resistance campaign (yes/no, 1-year lag) + negative annual GDP growth (yes/no, 1-year lag) + natural-resource wealth (categorical by tercile) + new leader (yes/no, 1-year lag)
  • p(onset of civil-resistance campaign | authoritarian rule) = log(infant mortality rate relative to annual global median,1-year lag) + log(total population relative to annual global median, 1-year lag) + post-Cold War period (yes/no) + any national elections (yes/no) + (post-Cold War period * any national elections) + civil liberties index (1-year lag) + negative annual GDP growth (yes/no, 1-year lag)  + new leader (yes/no, 1-year lag)

The estimated odd ratios for periods of new leadership (with lower and upper bounds of a 95% confidence interval) were as follows:

  • Democratic transition: 3.5 (2.2, 5.8)
  • Onset of civil-resistance campaign: 0.5 (0.2, 0.9)

To check the robustness of these results, I re-estimated the models with random intercepts for countries using the ‘glmmML’ package, and the parameters were basically unchanged. I also reran the models with an indicator that extended the “new leader” period to five years from three and got very similar results. For democratic transitions, they were essentially unchanged; for popular uprisings, the association was a bit weaker, suggesting that the period of depressed odds is short. Finally, I reran the models with continuous measures of leader’s time in office (logged) and got the expected patterns: other things being equal, as leaders’ time in office passes, the odds of democratic transition decline while the odds of a civil-resistance campaign forming go up.

If you’re interested in seeing the data and code I used, hit me up at ulfelder <at> gmail.

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