A Mexican Standoff in Georgia

Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition has only held power for a few weeks since its surprise win in last month’s parliamentary elections, but some of its first steps already have me worried about the risk of a reversion to authoritarian rule there. A week ago, Georgian authorities brought criminal charges against Bacho Akhalaia, a former defense minister and close ally of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s, along with two sitting officials in the Defense Ministry. This week, we hear that authorities have arrested five senior officials in the Interior Ministry on charges linked to the October election.

I’m worried about these arrests because I’m watching them through the lens of a theory that sees strategic uncertainty as one the leading killers of new democracies. In my mental model, democracies can revert to authoritarian rule three ways: 1) an executive coup, whereby the ruling party quashes its rivals or otherwise rigs the political system in its own favor; 2) a military coup, whereby state security forces install themselves in government; or 3) a rebellion, whereby one or more opposition parties successfully seizes power by means other than a fair election. Rebellions occur rarely and almost never succeed, but executive and military coups are historically common, and most attempts at democracy worldwide have failed within a decade or two of their start by one or the other of these means (see here, here, and here for some previous posts on these broader points).

The spoils of state power often play a strong role in enticing incumbent officials and military officers to attempt coups, but they aren’t the only force at work. Political factions may also be lured into undemocratic behavior by uncertainty about their rivals’ intentions and fear of the steep costs of guessing wrong.

A game-theoretic model demonstrates this point in a formal way, but you can get the same idea by thinking about a Mexican standoff (and if you don’t know what that is, watch the embedded clip below from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly for the classic cinematic example). In democracies, the three gunfighters are the ruling party, the opposition, and the military. In some cases, each of these factions may be itching to knock off its rivals as a way to win sole control of some treasure at hand. In other cases, though, some or all of the dueling pistoleros might genuinely prefer to cooperate with the others. Maybe there’s an even bigger treasure up the road that they can only capture if they work together, or maybe they’re just tired of shooting. Whatever the reason, the problem is that this desire for cooperation can’t always overcome the fundamental problem of mutual distrust. Because the stakes are so high, every little turn of the eyes or twitch of the finger is liable to get misinterpreted as a sign of bad intentions, and no one wants to be the sucker who waits a little too long to shoot in hopes that things will work out okay on their own.

Turning back to Tbilisi, the early arrests of Saakashvili loyalists in the state security apparatus are raising concerns that Georgian Dream means to punish its former overlords in ways that push the boundaries of democratic practice. An executive coup is the typical trajectory for new democracies in the post-Cold War period, especially in countries, like Georgia, where politics is sharply polarized. Even if they aren’t aware of those general facts, many observers seem quite sensitive to this risk. “The gloves are off in Tbilisi as the new ruling power takes aim at President Mikheil Saakashvili’s allies,” Molly Corso wrote of the arrests in Business News Europe. According to the New York Times, “some lawmakers feared [the arrests] presaged a wave of reprisals against members of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s defeated government.” And on today’s TBLPOD podcast from Tbilisi, Camrin Christensen noted that, “People here are now probably thinking, ‘Oh, no, am I also on this list?’ and thinking about taking family vacations.”

It’s not the handful of arrests themselves that are so worrisome, of course. It’s what they imply about Georgian Dream’s underlying intentions. In the Mexican standoff metaphor, these arrests are a menacing turn of the eyes and hips in the direction of Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) and its sympathizers in the police and defense establishment.

Maybe those fears are overblown. Maybe Georgian Dream is being straight with us when it says it’s just pursuing legitimate investigations into abuses of power during President Saakashvili’s tenure. Even if that’s the case, though, the resulting uncertainty about its true intentions and growing fear of a self-coup will increase the risk of a military coup or a rebellion by the UNM as these factions grow more concerned about their fading prospects under Georgian Dream. The stronger their belief that Ivanishvili has it in for them, the stronger their incentive to respond fast, before the bullets arrive and score some serious damage.

My judgment might be clouded my affection for the place—I was a Soviet area-studies major as an undergrad; one of my oldest and closest friends is an American expat now living in Tbilisi, and I loved what I saw when I traveled there for his wedding a few years ago—but I’m optimistic that this budding standoff will wind down without any grave injuries or fatal mistakes. Georgia’s rival factions might not like each other, but they hate and fear Russia even more. (The cartoon to the right sums up many Georgians’ views of their 2008 war pretty nicely.) Because of the omnipresent threat from its neighbor to the north, Georgia badly wants into Europe, and entry into NATO is seen as the first door through which it must pass. NATO has sound geostrategic reasons not to admit Georgia while the threat of renewed war with Russia lingers, but Saakashvili’s authoritarian tendencies didn’t help its case, either. The risk of further alienating Europe with a blatant demolition of democracy will probably be powerful deterrent to would-be rebels or coup plotters.

European officials are keenly aware of this desire and already making good use of their leverage. A few days after the former defense minister’s arrest, RFERL reported that NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he was “extremely concerned” about Georgia’s post-election politics. “It’s for the legal system, the judicial system in Georgia, to sort out these cases,” he told a meeting of NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly in Prague, “but of course it’s important that such trials are not undermined by political interference and we will of course follow that development very, very closely.” As will we.

Democracy Is Not Fading Away

On September 15, the U.N. observed the International Day of Democracy, an occasion meant to encourage reflections on the state of democracy around the world and ways to promote and consolidate it. Many of the reflections I saw stuck with a theme that’s been sounded a lot in the past few years: democracy is on the defensive. In its annual Countries at the Crossroads report, for example, Freedom House asked if recent uprisings in the Arab world were producing a global swing toward democracy and good governance and concluded that they were not. “Declines far exceeded improvements” in the 35 countries the report covers, “in both number and scale.” That pessimistic conclusion echoed the tone of Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2012 report, which warned of a “continued pattern of global backsliding.” According to their data, 2011 was “the sixth consecutive year in which countries with declines [in their political rights and civil liberties scores] outnumbered those with improvements.”

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: best I can tell, these pessimistic assessments are mistaking predictable dips in the road for the slope of the longer route, which continues to point uphill. Advocacy groups like Freedom House are rightly concerned with making and then protecting gains in as many cases as possible, but I think that mission makes their analysis of recent churn more alarmist than the evidence warrants.

To see why recent reversals don’t necessarily mean that democracy is on the decline, we have to widen our lens. Looking back over the past few centuries, as Xavier Marquez and I both did in recent blog posts, the spread of democracy is breathtaking. Even when we narrow our lens to the past century, the gains are remarkable; a system of government that only appeared in some of the world’s richest countries before World War II is now the dominant form worldwide.

Of course, those long-term trends don’t necessarily mean that recent reversals aren’t the start of a long decline—past performance does not guarantee future returns and all that—but I’m pretty confident they aren’t. To see why, we need to narrow our vision even further, to the last 25 or so years. Take a look at the chart below, which plots annual counts of transitions to democracy (blue) and autocracy (red) in countries worldwide.* At this time scale, the most notable pattern is the cluster of transitions to democracy in the early 1990s, what many have called the “fourth wave” of democratization in the world.

Because the risk of democratic breakdown is not zero, any cluster of transitions to democracy is likely to produce a cluster of reversals. Other things being equal, a jump in the number at-risk individuals should eventually result in a jump in the number of “deaths.” From analysis of the survival of democratic regimes over the past half-century, we know that the risk of breakdown increases over the first decade or so of a new democracy’s lifespan, and most attempts at democracy end within about 15 years of their start. Knowing this about their life expectancy, we can predict that the cluster of democratic reversals should start arriving several years after the wave of transitions to democracy begins, and it should then recede once the more vulnerable of those new democracies have succumbed.

Looking back at the chart above with that information in hand, what surprises me is that the number of transitions to autocracy in the past 10-15 years hasn’t been higher. If anything, the incidence of democratic breakdown has been lower than we would have expected in the wake of that blue wave in the early 1990s, which significantly increased the stock of democracies at risk of failure.

We can see this more clearly by looking at annual event rates instead of raw counts, using the number of each event type in the numerator and the number of countries at risk of that event type in the denominator. The chart below does just that, with dots marking the annual observations and a line that smooths out some of the year-to-year variation. Here, it’s clearer that the rate of democratic breakdown has been lower in the post-Cold War period than it was during the Cold War, while the rate of transitions to democracy has held fairly steady. As Freedom House observes, the rate of breakdowns has risen a bit in the past several years, but it’s still remained much lower than it was in the 1960s and early 1970s. More important, some countries continue to transition to democracy each year, and the democracy bin continues to fill up just about as fast as it empties.

I understand where the advocates are coming from, and I realize that their regular ringing of the alarm may even be contributing to the positive trends these charts show. I also know that trends don’t last forever, and the patterns we see when we take this long view aren’t necessarily irreversible. I just think those patterns are more encouraging than we realize when we focus our attention on the worst and most recent stuff, as advocates are professionally inclined to do.

* The data set used in this post is on the Dataverse (here). The R script used to make the charts is on GitHub (here).

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.

The Looming Threat to Democracy in South Africa

From my observation of democracies around the world, I’m worried that the risk of a slide into authoritarian rule in South Africa over the next several years is rising and substantial.

That’s the lede from an essay of mine that went up today on the Transitions blog at Foreign Policy‘s Democracy Lab channel. You can find the whole thing here.

Forget the Coup in Mali for a Moment–Why Wasn’t There a Revolution?

At the Monkey Cage, Stanford Ph.D. student Jessica Gottleib posted yesterday on why “we” (by which I think she means Americans) should care about the recent coup in Mali. Most of the analysis of Mali I’ve read since March has focused on explaining the coup itself, which was widely (though not universally) considered a surprise. The country had chosen its national government through competitive, multiparty elections since 1992, and during that time, it saw a peaceful transfer of power between rival parties. Those patterns had convinced many observers that democracy in Mali was more or less permanent, and by that reckoning, the March 2012 coup shouldn’t have happened.

Surprises are crucial opportunities for theory-building, because they tell us that something in our prior models or measures was wrong. I think there’s another aspect of the situation in Mali that’s equally relevant for theories of democratic consolidation, though, and that’s the apparent popularity of the coup after its occurrence. Support for the coup certainly isn’t universal, but it’s higher than we might expect in a country where democratic norms and values were supposed to have taken root. As Gottleib writes,

A budding Malian opinion pollster finds that 64% of his countrymen are satisfied with the coup and 51% blame the current crisis on the deposed regime…Clearly, the majority of Malians were not as satisfied with democracy as the international community once believed.

This support is manifest in street politics. Not long after the coup, a plane carrying a delegation of West African leaders to negotiate with the new junta turned back before it reached Bamako because pro-junta demonstrators were staging a sit-in on the airport tarmac. In May, when those leaders reached a deal with coup leader Capt. Sanogo to keep interim president Dioncounda Traoré in office for a year, thousands of Malians turned out in Bamako to protest the foreign pressure on Sanogo, shouting “Down with Ecowas!” and “Down with Dioncounda!” and eventually attacking Traoré in his office.

Bridges from Bamako blogger Bruce Whitehouse sees the popularity of the coup as “an extreme version of the anti-incumbent fever that periodically sweeps the United States.”

Recently I interviewed a Bamako talk show host who frequently debates politics with listeners phoning in to his program. His callers tend to define politicians as people in power who pursue personal ambitions. “They phone in all the time saying ‘Those people think only of themselves and their interests,’” he told me, “and that’s why some even say ‘We don’t want politicians anymore.’” This sentiment explains strong local support for the junta and its bid to exclude politicians en masse from Mali’s transitional government.

If so many Malians were so fed up with their ruling elites, why wasn’t there a revolution long before the March 2012 coup? I’d be very interested to hear what Malians and area experts have to say about this, but in the meantime, I think social-science theory suggests some promising leads.

One possible answer is what economist Timur Kuran calls “preference falsification.” Writing about the surprising revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989, Kuran observes that

People who come to dislike their government are apt to hide their desire for change as long as the opposition seems weak. Because of this preference falsification, a government that appears unshakable might see its support crumble following a slight surge in the opposition’s apparent size, caused by events insignificant in and of themselves. Unlikely though the revolution may have appeared in foresight, it will in hindsight appear inevitable because its occurrence exposes a panoply of previously hidden conflicts.

In the case of Mali, it was the coup itself that seems to have uncovered a stronger desire for change than many outside observers had seen. A coup is hardly an “insignificant event,” but the basic mechanism is the same.

Kuran’s theory emphasizes the role of uncertainty in the production of a revolution, or the lack thereof. Uncertainty induces caution, but that caution may evaporate when some event signals that it’s finally safe for citizens to reveal their true preferences. I’m sure that’s relevant, but I wonder if more conventional collective-action problems aren’t at least as influential. One of the things I’ve learned from my work on democratic breakdowns and mass mobilization is it’s very hard to organize a popular uprising, even in cases where popular frustration is clear. Where Kuran sees incomplete information as the driving force, I’m more inclined to see a couple of more conventional hurdles to collective action.

The first of these hurdles is the well-known free-rider problem. When the benefits of some course of action will be widely shared, it’s hard to convince people to contribute to its production, because unless lots of people pitch in, each person’s narrow slice of those benefits will often be smaller than the expected costs of producing them. I might rather live in a democracy than this dictatorship, but why should I risk my life and career so a bunch of people who can’t be bothered to do the same can enjoy the fruits of my labor? This problem plagues attempts to organize for all kinds of objectives, from collective bargaining with employers to pot-luck dinners, and organizing for national policy change surely lies near the harder end of this spectrum.

The second hurdle I have in mind has to do with expected gains. When popular uprisings do happen in democracies, they rarely succeed, in part because political outsiders lack the means to directly effect major change without breaking the system–and they usually can’t do that, either. If would-be participants are aware that the odds are against them, then it’s going to be even harder to convince them to rebel, because the expected payoff from their actions is going to be much smaller.

We can see this problem clearly in Ecuador in 1997, when a deepening economic crisis helped to drive millions of Ecuadorians to participate in a general strike aimed at forcing President Abdalá Bucaram to resign. The National Assembly responded to this massive show of force by voting to remove the already-controversial Bucaram on grounds of “mental incapacity”–and then installed Assembly leader Fabián Alarcón as his replacement. The end result of this tsunami of popular action was a change in the face of power with no attendant change in the system.

A similar dynamic occurred early this year in the Maldives. After ordering the arrest of the country’s criminal court chief justice, democratically elected President Mohamed Nasheed survived several weeks of street protests, only to “resign” when police and military officials allegedly showed up in his office and gave him an ultimatum. According to a Reuters investigation, the immediate beneficiaries of this “coup of opportunity” were not the protesters but the police and soldiers who were allegedly paid off by associates of the ancien regime and the self-same businessmen whose graft cases were thrown out by the criminal court after Nasheed’s departure. Here, protesters played an instrumental role in the termination of democracy, but they seem to have gained little for their efforts.

Citizens were more successful in Bolivia in 2003, when farmers, students, and indigenous groups responded to an unpopular plan to export more natural gas with a wave of strikes, demonstrations, and roadblocks. That uprising drove President Sánchez de Lozada to suspend his plan and then resign, but that resignation had much less impact on national policy than the election several years later of Evo Morales. In other words, it wasn’t until an opposition took power by more conventional channels that it succeeded in changing the system, and even that change has been less radical than many of its agents would like.

The combination of free-rider problems and the inherent difficulties of effecting political change from the outside help to explain why we so rarely see popular uprisings against nominally democratic regimes, even when many citizens are openly dissatisfied or disgusted with the status quo. This pattern matters for theory-building because it suggests that popular attitudes about democracy are less influential than we often presume. Even in democracies, the struggle for national power is primarily an elite affair contested by a small number of fairly insular organizations. Democracies are distinguished by the presence of rules and practices that allow citizens to determine (nominally, at least) the outcome of those contests, to join those organizations, and sometimes even to form new ones, but those rules and practices don’t negate the basic tendency toward oligarchy in all political systems. That’s ironic and sad, but we get better theories when we acknowledge instead of ignoring it.

In Which I Acknowledge Adam Przeworski’s Brilliance and Then Argue with Him in Absentia

A few weeks ago, the blog ABC Democracy posted a video of Adam Przeworski speaking at a Kenyon College conference entitled “Should America Promote Democracy Abroad?” Przeworski is widely and justifiably considered one of the preeminent scholars on comparative democratization, so I was very curious to hear what he had to say on a topic that greatly interests me.

It turned out that I agreed wholeheartedly with Przeworski on the conference’s titular topic, but I disagreed with a few assertions he made along the way about the state of our knowledge on transitions to and from democracy. I thought I would take advantage of my blogger’s platform to engage in a virtual dialogue with Przeworski on those issues and then close on some points of agreement.

Point of Disagreement #1: We Can’t Predict Transitions to Democracy

Here’s what Przeworski said, starting at about the 46-minute mark, with the part to which I’m responding in bold:

In spite of an enormous amount of research over the past 30 years, we don’t have a general understanding of why dictatorships fall. There are [sic] statistical work that introduces every possible factor you can imagine–not just the kitchen sink, the grandmother’s attic. And the results are, one, not robust, and, two, in statistical terms, have very weak predictive power. Which leads me, after many years of this kind of work, to believe that, in fact, dictatorships run many different, idiosyncratic risks and fall for idiosyncratic reasons.

Przeworski is surely correct that there are many pathways to democracy, but that doesn’t mean we can’t use statistical models to forecast where and when democratic transitions will occur. In fact, we’ve got solid evidence that we can.

In a report I wrote for my old job as research director for the Political Instability Task Force, I summarized the results of modeling exercise aimed explicitly at assessing the likelihood of transitions to and from democracy in countries worldwide since the early 1970s. As the report describes (pp. 22-24), a relatively simple statistical model discriminates fairly well between impending transitions and durable autocracies. In an out-of-sample forecasting exercise using a simple decision rule (Top 20), that model correctly flagged 26 of the 29 impending transitions (sensitivity of 90 percent) as “high-risk” cases while producing roughly nine false positives for each of those true positives (specificity of 73 percent).

Those accuracy rates are far from perfect, but they’re also a lot better than chance, which is what I hear in Przeworski’s phrase “very weak predictive power.” The specific causes and catalysts of democratic transitions may vary widely over space and time, but there seem to be enough commonalities across recent cases that we can get a decent read on which ones are “ripest” for this kind of change.

Point of Disagreement #2: Well-to-do Countries Never Backslide

According to Przeworski,

We do understand quite well conditions under which democracies survive…There is a fact, which you probably know because I know that some of you have read it, but which continues to be astonishing, which is that no democracy ever fell in a country with per capita income higher than that of Argentina in 1976.

This fact may not be as, well, factual as Przeworski believes. As I noted in a recent post, using economist Angus Maddison’s estimates of GDP per capita, I can think of at least two breakdowns of democracy in countries richer than Argentina in 1976: Thailand in 2006, and now Hungary in 2011.

To be fair to Przeworski, Thailand in 2006 was not much richer than Argentina in 1976–their per capita incomes were $8,238 and $7,965, respectively–and not everyone would agree that Hungary’s crossed the line into authoritarian rule in 2011.

Still, that there’s some doubt about this “iron rule” of politics has deeper implications for our understanding of democratization, and “development” more generally. In American political science, at least, the prevailing view is that democracy is the best and final form of government attained by countries as they modernize and “mature,” politically and economically. This view seems to find confirmation in a world where democracies that have crossed some developmental threshold never fail. If democracy sometimes does fail even in richer countries, however, then the whole premise of modernity as the end stage of a process of growth and maturation becomes a bit muddled. The strong correlation between wealth and the survival of democracy is still there, but the inference from that correlation that modernity is a package deal looks a bit shakier.

Point of Disagreement #3: The Risk of Democratic Breakdown Falls with Each Passing Election

Around minute 49, Przeworski says:

One thing that’s striking is that elections seem to be a self-institutionalizing mechanism. By this, I mean the following: that once a country holds one decent election, the probability that the democratic regime will be overthrown in the future declines rapidly. I can tell you, without an election is 1 in 8; after one election, 1 in 25; after two elections, 1 in 55; after three elections, 1 in 90. So that first decent election–and not even with alternation that was Sam Huntington’s criterion–just having an honest election in which there’s some competition and somebody wins, the winner occupies the office of government and runs an honest election again, that’s enough.

Once again, that’s not the pattern I see. In the report I mentioned earlier–and blogged here in September–I find that the risk of backsliding actually increases over time until democracies are in their teens or even early 20s. In Przeworski’s terms, the pattern I see implies that democracies have to survive at least a few election cycles before their risk of breakdown starts to decline, other things being equal. At the same time, I also find that alternation in power does make a big difference; other things being equal, democracies that have seen at least one alternation of the party in power are less than half as likely to fail as ones that have not.

Maybe this disagreement is, at least in part, an artifact of differences in the measures of democracy employed by our respective studies. Unsurprisingly, I happen to think my measure is more useful, but plenty of people use the version on which Przeworski’s assertion is based.

Still, that we can’t be sure Przeworski’s pattern is real is a big deal, not the least because it suggests very different strategies for interested parties seeking to support the survival of democracy in cases that have recently established it. In Przeworski’s world, a strategically minded supporter might focus her efforts on the first one or two elections. In my world, that supporter pretty much needs to keep worrying until a democratic alternation in power occurs. If we’re not sure which of those worlds we inhabit but we care deeply about the survival of democracy, then we’ll probably want to err on the safe side and assume the risk persists much longer than Przeworski’s inference about elections as a “self-institutionalizing mechanism” would lead us to do.

Points of Agreement

Alongside those points of disagreement, there were many things Przeworski said with which I agree wholeheartedly. I’ll close with a couple of those bon mots:

Identifying the causal effects of any kind of policy intervention is extremely tricky.

Yes, in a world with no “control” group, a relatively small number of events, and a dense web of causes and interventions, it’s virtually impossible to say anything with confidence about the marginal effects of specific policies and programs on the prospects for democratic transitions and consolidation.

Last, and without comment:

Look at the United States from the point of view of Russians or the Chinese…It’s a country where half of the population doesn’t vote, even in presidential elections; where barriers of entry to politics are enormous; in which practices which in other countries would be considered political corruption are ubiquitous; a country with the highest degree of inequality among the developed countries; a country in which, at least for black American males, being free means only being out of jail; the oldest democracy in the world which has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. I think that, if democracy promotion is to be at all credible and at all effective, it should begin at home.

The WTO as Catalyst of Democratization

In a statistical analysis written up a few years ago in the journal Democratization, I found that countries belonging to the World Trade Organization (WTO) or its predecessor, the GATT, were more likely to attempt and sustain democratic government than ones that did not. By contrast, I found no such “boost” from participation in global or regional human-rights treaty regimes. This WTO effect showed up in models that also included a measure of trade openness, suggesting that the increased trade flows that membership is supposed to produce were not the source of the association. The statistical analysis wasn’t properly designed to identify a causal relationship, but I speculated that the WTO effect had to do with institutional and organizational changes it spurred within countries seeking to join:

Of all the organizations included in this analysis, the GATT/WTO is the one most explicitly and exlusively linked over the past half-century to deliberate Western efforts to globalize liberalism as such. Working in tandem with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the GATT/WTO has encouraged developing countries to create and sustain certain laws and practices in order to realize benefits from increased economic exchange with the world’s wealthiest states. Although democracy is not an explicit criterion for membership, it is certainly part of a larger suite of of liberal institutions and norms that are preferred by these organizations and their most powerful members. The decision to participate in this regime sets in motion a range of elite and technical exchanges aimed at producing certain kinds of institutional outcomes. In this manner, formal participation in this liberal project may facilitate or accelerate the development of local and international expectations, and even specific new actors, conducive to the establishment and persistence of democracy.

I was reminded of my conjecture by a story I read this morning on Laos’ ongoing effort to win WTO membership. At this point, 159 countries are already members, so we don’t get that many more chances to observe the effects of joining on domestic political economies. Still, this one seems to fit the story line so far:

After almost a decade of major economic transformation, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic is on the brink of World Trade Organisation (WTO) membership.

But the small country’s Herculean effort to join the exclusive trade club is a reminder to the ten other least developed countries (LDCs) now seeking membership of the cumbersome process involved.

“LDCs think it is easy to accede to the WTO, like becoming a United Nations member, but it is not,” Nicolas Imboden, director of the Geneva-based Ideas Centre, told IPS. The non-governmental organisation has been counselling Lao PDR, whose accession will be completed in October, for fourteen years. It is now starting to assist Liberia and Comoros, two other least developed countries on a waiting list that also includes Afghanistan, Bhutan, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Sao Tome, Sudan, Vanuatu and Yemen.

“They have to adopt the rules of the WTO and this is a huge task for most of them,” said Imboden. “They must undertake reforms, completely revise their legal systems and establish rules that apply to all foreign investors and importers, without discrimination.”

Imboden noted that many LDCs justify clamouring for membership on the grounds that it will open up new markets, a motive he argued is “flawed”, since LDCs already have good trade relations with most countries.

Rather, the “benefits” of membership are mainly domestic: aligning national economic policies with the WTO regime sets up the basis for improved economic efficiency and attracts companies eager to invest in these countries, not because of their market size, but to export to the neighbouring region.

“Reforms related to WTO accession require a change of attitude, not only a change of law,” Khemmani Pholsena, vice-minister of industry and commerce for Lao PDR, told IPS. “Lao PDR has reviewed and enacted some 25 trade-related laws and 50 other legislations since 2000. And I believe that these reforms will strengthen the rule of law, thereby cutting down on undue privileges and possibilities of corruption.”

If the statistical model is capturing something real, then these transformations should marginally improve the odds that Laos will transition to democracy. Of course, the observed “effect” is probabilistic, not deterministic, so I’m not suggesting that Laos will start holding free elections as soon as it joins.

I do, however, expect that Laos will eventually democratize, and that when it does, that data point will further reinforce the clear liberal trend in human political organization. As far as I’m concerned, what I said at the end of that 2008 paper still holds:

Taking a longer view, the evidence that international integration and the global trend toward democratic rule are interrelated is compelling. In his landmark work on the dynamics of political institutions over time, Paul Pierson reminds us that change processes involving complex causes and slow-moving outcomes are not readily explained by the kinds of models social scientists usually employ, especially in statistical analyses. When we focus narrowly on the kinds of discrete transitional moments studied here, these limitations do not loom so large. If we switch our vision to the long haul, however, they could be critical.

From a historical perspective, we might think of these transition events as the visible signals emanating from a slower-moving but also much-harder-to-quantify process of political and economic development that includes institutions at the levels of state and society as well as regime. Watching for patterns at this temporal and geographic scale is a bit like watching for climate change. The mechanisms generating the larger pattern are extremely complex and undoubtedly include elements of endogeneity, contagion, threshold effects, and feedback loops, to name just some of the possibilities. This kind of causal complexity makes it very hard to isolate the effects of specific variables, especially when the data we might use to test those relationships are often scarce or unreliable. And yet a pattern emerges. The production of greenhouse gases accelerates, temperatures rise, glaciers retreat, and species disappear.

Meanwhile, trade flows swell, international organizations, proliferate, more countries attempt democracy, and fewer of those democracies fail. The nexus of these trends almost certainly lies in the functional links between democracy and economic development–links that promote exactly the kind of positive feedback loops Pierson identifies as a key mechanism for path-dependent change in political institutions. When governments discover they cannot survive by force alone, they must find ways to secure the habitual, quasi-voluntary compliance of the populations they seek to rule. To secure that compliance, they need to promote prosperity and remove incentives to rely on force as a means to effect political change.

The second half of the 20th century demonstrated convincingly that the combination of democratic governance with market-based economies offers the most effective means to achieve those ends in a durable way. That combination does not always produce immediate gains, but at present there appears to be no sustainable alternative, so polities that try democracy and fail almost invariably try again. As Robert Bates argues, ‘The creation of limited government may not be sufficient to secure high levels of investment, much less the growth of national economies. But assurances to investors surely are necessary to secure the formation of capital,’ and thus to allow economic growth to occur. As technological and political developments have expanded the possibilities for global exchange, governments have increasingly reached out to one another in an effort to create new opportunities for growth and then to help their citizens realize the resulting gains. Thus, even as the instantaneous and visible status of many countries’ domestic political institutions remains highly volatile, the historical trajectories point decidedly toward a world increasingly composed of states with elected governments linked by dense networks of economic exchange and political and legal entanglements.

Democratization by Heart Attack? The Peculiar Case of Malawi

Malawi has a new president. Last week, President Bingu wa Mutharika of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) died unexpectedly of a heart attack. After two days of obfuscation and delay, the government finally lined up behind the constitution and accepted that Vice President Joyce Banda would succeed him. On Saturday, Banda was sworn in to office.

What makes Banda’s ascent to the presidency unusual is that it marked a transfer of power from ruling party to opposition in an authoritarian regime without an election or a rebellion. Banda had become vice president as Mutharika’s running mate in 2009, but she was expelled from the DPP in 2010 after a dispute with the president and recently said she had not spoken with Mutharika for more than a year.

Under these circumstances, Banda’s inauguration as president is remarkable. While the constitution is clear on the matter, the initial signals from the government were not promising. A strong press from Malawian activists probably discouraged the DPP from pursuing an extra-constitutional solution to its dilemma, and signals from foreign governments may have helped as well. Whatever the precise causes, though, I can’t think of another case like it. As Malawi researcher Kim Yi Dionne put it on Twitter, the DPP came into power without winning an election, and now it’s gone out of power without losing an election.

Until this strange succession, Malawi had followed a path of political development that’s typical for a relatively poor, post-colonial country. Malawi first transitioned to democracy in 1994, a year after crippling drought, a wave of anti-government protests, and the suspension of foreign aid spurred “president-for-life” Hastings Banda to convoke a national council that midwifed the birth of multiparty politics some thirty years after independence.

The survival of that democracy was in doubt as early as 2004, when Mutharika first won the presidency in elections tilted, according to E.U. observers, by the incumbent party’s flagrant abuse of state resources and intimidation of its rivals. Those flaws were repeated in the general elections of 2009, when Mutharika won a second term and his DPP solidified its hold on the legislature with a 113/193 majority.

Whatever doubts remained about the diminution of democracy in Malawi were erased in the past two years as President Mutharika openly threatened his partisan rivals and trampled civil liberties, one of the bright spots in election observers’ recent assessments. In July 2011, the government responded to anti-government protests over inflation and unemployment with a harsh crackdown that killed 19 and arrested nearly 300. Meanwhile, the government was engaging in a campaign of intimidation against journalists, activists, and its partisan rivals. When a leaked memo revealed that the British high commissioner had criticized Mutharika as “arrogant and intolerant of criticism,” Mutharika had the high commissioner deported.

By my standards, democracy won’t really be restored in Malawi unless and until the country holds new, free, and fair elections. As it stands, both the new chief executive and the DPP’s parliamentary majority won office on a tilted playing field.

Still, the initial signals are promising. So far, President Banda has sacked the police chief linked to the lethal repression of July 2011; opened an investigation into the death of a prominent anti-government activist; and fired top government officials suspected of trying to block her ascension to the presidency over the weekend. Meanwhile, a coalition of leading civil-society groups is keeping the pressure on with a statement on the political transition that cautions President Banda against seeking revenge on her DPP rivals, calls for reforms in election administration and the police, and casts a jaundiced eye on a rush of defections by legislators from the DPP to Banda’s People’s Party.

As promising as those developments are, Malawi’s next elections aren’t due until 2014, and two years is a long time. I wonder: Is Banda really trying to dismantle autocracy, or is she just trying to tilt the power balance in favor of her own faction? Whichever is true, how will entrenched interests respond? If the history of democratization teaches us anything, it’s that these victories are often fleeting, and the work of defending them never ends.

Why Democracies Fail…or How?

Over at the Center for Global Development‘s Views from the Center blog, visiting fellow Ethan Kapstein looks to the recent coups in Mali and the Maldives for lessons about why democracies fail. Drawing on his book with Nathan Converse, Kapstein starts by refuting a few widely-held notions about the causes of democratic breakdown:

Democracies do not fail for the reasons commonly supposed. They do not generally fail, for example, because of poor economic performance…Nor do democracies reverse while undergoing the process of economic reform…Finally, democracies are no more likely to be sustained by adopting parliamentary instead of presidential institutions.

So far, so good for me. Those claims generally align with findings from my statistical research (see here and here, for example), even though our studies used different data sets to measure democratic transitions and breakdown.

Where Kapstein slips, I think, is when he tries to offers a better explanation.

Why, then, do democracies fail? Our study identified several common factors. First, young democracies are often weakened by extreme levels of income inequality. Rising income inequality indicates a dysfunctional democratic state in which economic power is concentrated in the hands of the few, rather than one in which economic opportunities are widely shared and diffused….Second, young democracies that are unable to constrain the executive branch of power—whether presidential or parliamentary—will find it difficult to sustain participatory forms of government. The usual red flags here are changes—or attempts to change—the constitution, particularly with respect to term limits and electoral cycles…Third, democratic states that are ethnically fragmented face severe challenges of institution building they may be unable to overcome…Fourth, newly democratic states that do not provide adequate supplies of “public goods” like health care and education are unlikely to succeed.

Three items on that list–income inequality, ethnic fragmentation, and inadequate supplies of public goods–apply to most poor countries of any political stripe, and some of them even apply to most rich democracies. Because they are so generic, they don’t really help us distinguish between the democracies that fail and the ones that survive. (I have another problem with claims about the effects of income inequality in poor countries, but I’ll set that aside for now.)

The other item on that list–failure to constrain executive power–describes the very outcome Kapstein is trying to explain. When chief executives rewrite electoral laws or constitutions to ensure that they stay in power, we are witnessing the course of democratic breakdown, not its cause.

I think we can see the causes of democratic breakdown more clearly by focusing not on structural conditions, but on strategic dilemmas. In a book I wrote on the subject, I used a game-theoretic model to explore how leading political parties and the military might be expected to react to the temptations and fears they face in the highly uncertain environment of newly democratic politics. Consistent with conventional wisdom, I found that the spoils of state power will often tempt those organizations to try to seize or cement control of government in undemocratic ways.

More novel, I also found that groups will sometimes try to seize power as a defensive act, a preemptive strike against rivals whom they fear are plotting to do the same. We see this dynamic at work in Thailand in 2006 and Bangladesh in 2007, where military leaders seized power in coups when they feared that incumbent governments were institutionalizing their partisan advantage. We see it in Turkey today, where the ruling Justice and Development Party is arresting journalists and military officers in an overzealous effort to preempt an unlikely coup plot by its ardently secularist rivals.

These defensive pressures appear to have played a role in the recent coups in Mali and the Maldives as well. In Mali, mid-ranking officers seized power just one month before the next presidential election was scheduled to happen, and doubts about the fairness of that impending contest seem to have contributed to the officers’ decision, and to how the public has received it. Referring to the ousted president by his initials, one merchant told the New York Times, “A.T.T. can go to hell! He’s lied too much. Anyway, was he really going to organize elections?” In the Maldives, President Mohammed Hasheed was toppled after he tried to force a prominent judge from the bench, a move his rivals saw as a part of an unconstitutional expansion of his authority.

Combine these fears with the usual temptations of political power, and it’s easy to see why democratic consolidation is so hard. Structural conditions certainly shape the expected payoffs from different courses of action, but strategic uncertainty is the real engine of democratic breakdown.

This distinction matters for our thinking about how to respond to the problem and try to promote the survival of democratic regimes. In his blog post, Kapstein enumerates a few ideas:

What can the international community do to support newly elected regimes? A number of policies should be advanced, but all must have a common purpose: to dilute the existing concentrations of power. This means that foreign assistance should support the development of robust political parties; of inclusive systems of health care and education; and of a vibrant private sector.  Free trade agreements should be extended to new democracies, as well as schemes to promote international collaborative research and cultural engagement.

It’s hard to argue with efforts to expand health care, education, collaborative research, and cultural engagement. What I don’t like on this list is the proposal to “support the development of robust political parties” as a means to “dilute existing concentrations of power.” In practice, this usually means funding opposition parties.

The idea of constraining the government may be normatively appealing, but it’s strategically myopic. In effect, it privileges the opposition’s view. If we try to put ourselves in the shoes of incumbent officials–and, in some situations, military officers–we can see how foreign efforts to boost the strength of a political rival might appear menacing, and how that sense of menace could prompt those officials and officers to take countermeasures that directly erode or demolish democratic procedures. There may be some situations where this kind of assistance is warranted, but foreign governments and aid groups should meddle with caution in political rivalries on which the fate of other democracies may depend.

Today’s Democrat, Tomorrow’s Tyrant?

Nobel Peace Prize winner and president of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has popped onto my radar screen three times in 2012, and none of the stories involved has done much to bolster the prevailing image of her in the West as a heroic liberal democrat.

First, in January, a New York Times op-ed called attention to a series of land grants Sirleaf has made over the past several years that have effectively put more than one-third of her country’s land under the control of foreign corporations while dispossessing the rural Liberians who live there. According to op-ed’s author, conservation prize-winner Silas Siakor,

More than a million people live in the regions where the palm-oil concessions were granted. And roughly 150,000 will be directly affected in the first five years of plantation development. Many could lose access to their homes, farms, cemeteries and sacred sites as well as the forest and water resources they depend on for survival. Yet the government negotiated these deals without consulting those who would bear the greatest burden.

Then came a mid-March interview with the UK’s Guardian newspaper in which President Sirleaf defended laws in her country that effectively criminalize homosexuality. “We like ourselves just the way we are,” she said. “We’ve got certain traditional values in our society that we would like to preserve.”

Meanwhile, President Sirleaf continues to resist calls to remove her son, Robert, who also serves as her senior adviser, from his post as chairman of the country’s national oil company, NOCAL. According to Africa Review, President Sirleaf has repeatedly dismissed complaints of nepotism from watchdog groups who have questioned his motives and qualifications. “What’s wrong with me appointing my son on NOCAL Board as chairman?” she reportedly asked on a recent radio call-in show. “He is qualified. Why should I deny him the opportunity to work for his country?”

These stories have got to be causing some headaches among Western diplomats, who have frequently touted Sirleaf as the kind of little-d “democrat” of which Africa needs more. Indeed, when asked about President Sirleaf’s comments on her country’s anti-gay laws, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland reiterated Secretary Clinton’s position that gay rights are human rights and expressed concern about the president’s remarks.

Viewing these stories through a wider lens, I think Sirleaf’s slippage illustrates the risks we take when we personalize democracy promotion. For as long as I’ve been watching, Western governments have tended to view democratization as a Manichean struggle  between camps committed to “democratic” and “autocratic” values. These groups are usually identified in sociological terms, if not by proper name, and their identities are thought to remain fixed over time. Where the democrats gain the upper hand, democracy consolidates. Where the autocrats prevail, transitions stall or fail, and authoritarian rule continues.

What gets missed in this personification of democratization is how the interests of political elites often evolve with changes in their status. Checks on government power that sound like common sense to outsiders sometimes don’t always seem so appealing when you finally make it to the inside and are trying to get things done. Actions that seemed dubious when taken by someone else can make perfect sense when you know and trust your own motives.

As I discussed in a previous post, human psychology probably also plays a role. According to prospect theory, when considering possible courses of action, humans weigh potential losses more heavily than comparable gains, and we evaluate both against a subjective reference point–usually the status quo. Psychologists call this pattern loss aversion, and it’s easy to see how it might strengthen the temptation for one-time “democrats” to cling to the spoils of power once in office.

I don’t know Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and I don’t know enough about Liberian politics to predict with confidence where all this is heading. What I can say is that promoting democracy by picking heroes is a risky game. If our governments want to support democratic consolidation in places like Liberia, they would do better to eschew the search for “soulmates.” Far more important than these shiny personalities are the humdrum agencies tasked with protecting civil rights, channeling citizen participation, and constraining authority no matter who’s in power. If you’re going to champion someone, don’t make it the charming leader who spouts the buzzwords diplomats and bankers want to hear. Instead, make it the honest cop, judge, or civil servant who sounds like her neighbors.

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