The Dilemma of Getting to Civilian Control

A country can’t really qualify as a democracy without civilian control of its own security forces, but the logic that makes that statement true also makes civilian control hard to achieve, as events in Burkina Faso are currently reminding us.

The essential principle of democracy is popular sovereignty. Civilian control is fundamental to democracy because popular sovereignty requires that elected officials rule, but leaders of security forces—military and police—are not elected. Neither are the leaders of many other influential organizations, of course, but security forces occupy a special status in national affairs by virtue of their particular skills. To perform their designated roles, national rulers must determine and try to implement policies involving the collection of revenue and the production of public goods, including security. To do that, rulers need to wield the threat of coercion, and security forces supply that threat.

That necessity creates a dependency, and that dependency conveys power. In principle—and, historically, often in practice—leaders of security forces can use that dependency as leverage to bargain for bigger budgets or other policies they prefer for parochial reasons. Because those leaders are not held accountable to the public through elections, strong versions of that bargaining contravene the principle of popular sovereignty. Of course, security forces’ specific skills also make them uniquely capable of claiming political authority for themselves at any time. Military leaders rarely flex that muscle, but the threat of a coup only enhances their bargaining power with elected rulers, and thus further constrains popular sovereignty.

This logic implies that democracy only really obtains when state security forces reliably subordinate themselves to the authority of those elected civilian rulers. That arrangement seems clear in principle, but it turns out to be hard to achieve in practice. The problem is that the transition to civilian control demands that security forces concede their power. Organizations of all kinds are rarely excited about doing that, but it is especially hard for rulers to compel security forces to do it, because those forces are the stick those rulers would normally wield in that act of compellence. When pushed, military and police leaders can ask “Or what?” and civilian rulers will rarely have a strong answer. Under those circumstances, attempts to force the issue may have the opposite of their intended effect, provoking security forces into seizing power for themselves as a way to dispatch the civilian threat to their established position.

In short, the problem of getting to civilian control confronts civilian rulers with a dilemma: assert their authority and risk provoking a hard coup, or tolerate security forces’ continuing political power and accept what amounts to a perpetual soft coup.

This dilemma is bedeviling politics in Burkina Faso right now. Last fall, mass demonstrations in Burkina Faso triggered a military coup that toppled longtime autocratic ruler Blaise Compaoré. Under domestic and international pressure, the ensuing junta established a transitional process that is supposed to lead to democratic civilian rule after general elections on October 11, 2015.

Gen. Honore Nabere Traore leads a press conference on October 31, 2014, announcing that he would serve as president following Blaise Compaore's resignation (Photo: Theo Renault/AP)

Gen. Honore Nabere Traore leads an October 2014 press conference announcing that he would serve as president following Blaise Compaore’s apparent resignation. Traore was promptly supplanted by Lt. Col. Isaac Zida, who in November 2014 stepped aside for a civilian interim president, who then appointed Zida to the post of interim prime minister. (Photo: Theo Renault/Associated Press)

On paper, a civilian now rules Burkina Faso as interim president, but attempts to clarify the extent of the interim government’s power, and to circumscribe the role of certain security organs in Burkinabe politics, are generating the expected friction and heat. Here is how Alex Thurston described the situation on his Sahel Blog:

In recent weeks, NGOs and media outlets have buzzed with discussions of tension between the Presidential Security Regiment (RSP) and Prime Minister Yacouba Isaac Zida, a conflict that could, at worst, derail the transition. Although both Zida and Compaore belonged to the RSP in the past, the elite unit has reasons to fear that it will be disbanded and punished: in December, Zida called for its dismantling, and in February, a political crisis unfolded when Zida attempted to reshuffle the RSP’s officer corps (French).

The most recent crisis (French) involves suspicions in some quarters of the government that the RSP was planning to arrest Zida upon his return from a trip to Taiwan – suspicions that were serious enough to make Zida land at a military base instead of at the airport as planned (French). On June 29, the day after Zida got home, gendarmes in the capital questioned three RSP officers, including Lieutenant Colonel Céleste Coulibaly, about their involvement in the suspected plot. That evening, shots were heard coming from the RSP’s barracks, which sits behind the presidential palace. Rumors then spread that Zida was resigning under RSP pressure, but he quickly stated that he was not stepping down.

These incidents have passed without bloodshed, but they have raised fears of an RSP-led coup. For its part, the RSP says (French) that there are no plots, but that it wants Zida and other military officers, such as Minister of Territorial Administration and Security Auguste Barry, to leave the government (French). Both sides accuse the other of seeking to undermine the planned transition. Many observers now look to interim President Michel Kafando to mediate (French) between the parties.

In a recent briefing, the International Crisis Group (ICG) surveyed that landscape and argued in favor of deferring any clear decisions on the RSP’s status until after the elections. Thurston sympathizes with ICG’s view but worries that deferral of those decisions will produce “an atmosphere of impunity.” History says that Thurston is right to worry, but so is ICG. In other words, there are no obvious ways to climb down from the horns of this dilemma.

Mining Texts to Generate Fuzzy Measures of Political Regime Type at Low Cost

Political scientists use the term “regime type” to refer to the formal and informal structure of a country’s government. Of course, “government” entails a lot of things, so discussions of regime type focus more specifically on how rulers are selected and how their authority is organized and exercised. The chief distinction in contemporary work on regime type is between democracies and non-democracies, but there’s some really good work on variations of non-democracy as well (see here and here, for example).

Unfortunately, measuring regime type is hard, and conventional measures of regime type suffer from one or two crucial drawbacks.

First, many of the data sets we have now represent regime types or their components with bivalent categorical measures that sweep meaningful uncertainty under the rug. Specific countries at specific times are identified as fitting into one and only one category, even when researchers knowledgeable about those cases might be unsure or disagree about where they belong. For example, all of the data sets that distinguish categorically between democracies and non-democracies—like this one, this one, and this one—agree that Norway is the former and Saudi Arabia the latter, but they sometimes diverge on the classification of countries like Russia, Venezuela, and Pakistan, and rightly so.

Importantly, the degree of our uncertainty about where a case belongs may itself be correlated with many of the things that researchers use data on regime type to study. As a result, findings and forecasts derived from those data are likely to be sensitive to those bivalent calls in ways that are hard to understand when that uncertainty is ignored. In principle, it should be possible to make that uncertainty explicit by reporting the probability that a case belongs in a specific set instead of making a crisp yes/no decision, but that’s not what most of the data sets we have now do.

Second, virtually all of the existing measures are expensive to produce. These data sets are coded either by hand or through expert surveys, and routinely covering the world this way takes a lot of time and resources. (I say this from knowledge of the budgets for the production of some of these data sets, and from personal experience.) Partly because these data are so costly to make, many of these measures aren’t regularly updated. And, if the data aren’t regularly updated, we can’t use them to generate the real-time forecasts that offer the toughest test of our theories and are of practical value to some audiences.

As part of the NSF-funded MADCOW project*, Michael D. (Mike) Ward, Philip Schrodt, and I are exploring ways to use text mining and machine learning to generate measures of regime type that are fuzzier in a good way from a process that is mostly automated. These measures would explicitly represent uncertainty about where specific cases belong by reporting the probability that a certain case fits a certain regime type instead of forcing an either/or decision. Because the process of generating these measures would be mostly automated, they would be much cheaper to produce than the hand-coded or survey-based data sets we use now, and they could be updated in near-real time as relevant texts become available.

At this week’s annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, I’ll be presenting a paper—co-authored with Mike and Shahryar Minhas of Duke University’s WardLab—that describes preliminary results from this endeavor. Shahryar, Mike, and I started by selecting a corpus of familiar and well-structured texts describing politics and human-rights practices each year in all countries worldwide: the U.S. State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, and Freedom House’s Freedom in the World. After pre-processing those texts in a few conventional ways, we dumped the two reports for each country-year into a single bag of words and used text mining to extract features from those bags in the form of vectorized tokens that may be grossly described as word counts. (See this recent post for some things I learned from that process.) Next, we used those vectorized tokens as inputs to a series of binary classification models representing a few different ideal-typical regime types as observed in few widely used, human-coded data sets. Finally, we applied those classification models to a test set of country-years held out at the start to assess the models’ ability to classify regime types in cases they had not previously “seen.” The picture below illustrates the process and shows how we hope eventually to develop models that can be applied to recent documents to generate new regime data in near-real time.

Overview of MADCOW Regime Classification Process

Overview of MADCOW Regime Classification Process

Our initial results demonstrate that this strategy can work. Our classifiers perform well out of sample, achieving high or very high precision and recall scores in cross-validation on all four of the regime types we have tried to measure so far: democracy, monarchy, military rule, and one-party rule. The separation plots below are based on out-of-sample results from support vector machines trained on data from the 1990s and most of the 2000s and then applied to new data from the most recent few years available. When a classifier works perfectly, all of the red bars in the separation plot will appear to the right of all of the pink bars, and the black line denoting the probability of a “yes” case will jump from 0 to 1 at the point of separation. These classifiers aren’t perfect, but they seem to be working very well.






Of course, what most of us want to do when we find a new data set is to see how it characterizes cases we know. We can do that here with heat maps of the confidence scores from the support vector machines. The maps below show the values from the most recent year available for two of the four regime types: 2012 for democracy and 2010 for military rule. These SVM confidence scores indicate the distance and direction of each case from the hyperplane used to classify the set of observations into 0s and 1s. The probabilities used in the separation plots are derived from them, but we choose to map the raw confidence scores because they exhibit more variance than the probabilities and are therefore easier to visualize in this form.




On the whole, cases fall out as we would expect them to. The democracy classifier confidently identifies Western Europe, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand as democracies; shows interesting variations in Eastern Europe and Latin America; and confidently identifies nearly all of the rest of the world as non-democracies (defined for this task as a Polity score of 10). Meanwhile, the military rule classifier sees Myanmar, Pakistan, and (more surprisingly) Algeria as likely examples in 2010, and is less certain about the absence of military rule in several West African and Middle Eastern countries than in the rest of the world.

These preliminary results demonstrate that it is possible to generate probabilistic measures of regime type from publicly available texts at relatively low cost. That does not mean we’re fully satisfied with the output and ready to move to routine data production, however. For now, we’re looking at a couple of ways to improve the process.

First, the texts included in the relatively small corpus we have assembled so far only cover a narrow set of human-rights practices and political procedures. In future iterations, we plan to expand the corpus to include annual or occasional reports that discuss a broader range of features in each country’s national politics. Eventually, we hope to add news stories to the mix. If we can develop models that perform well on an amalgamation of occasional reports and news stories, we will be able to implement this process in near-real time, constantly updating probabilistic measures of regime type for all countries of the world at very low cost.

Second, the stringent criteria we used to observe each regime type in constructing the binary indicators on which the classifiers are trained also appear to be shaping the results in undesirable ways. We started this project with a belief that membership in these regime categories is inherently fuzzy, and we are trying to build a process that uses text mining to estimate degrees of membership in those fuzzy sets. If set membership is inherently ambiguous in a fair number of cases, then our approximation of a membership function should be bimodal, but not too neatly so. Most cases most of the time can be placed confidently at one end of the range of degrees of membership or the other, but there is considerable uncertainty at any moment in time about a non-trivial number of cases, and our estimates should reflect that fact.

If that’s right, then our initial estimates are probably too tidy, and we suspect that the stringent operationalization of each regime type in the training data is partly to blame. In future iterations, we plan to experiment with less stringent criteria—for example, by identifying a case as military rule if any of our sources tags it as such. With help from Sean J. Taylor, we’re also looking at ways we might use Bayesian measurement error models to derive fuzzy measures of regime type from multiple categorical data sets, and then use that fuzzy measure as the target in our machine-learning process.

So, stay tuned for more, and if you’ll be at APSA this week, please come to our Friday-morning panel and let us know what you think.

* NSF Award 1259190, Collaborative Research: Automated Real-time Production of Political Indicators

Can Electoral Systems Cure Democracies and End Civil Wars?

Electoral systems are what we call the rules used to organize voting and then to convert votes into election outcomes. For at least the past few decades, political scientists have been fascinated by the idea that certain electoral systems might help “troubled” societies heal what ails them. One recent contribution to this literature appears in the January 2012 issue of the Journal of Democracy, in the form of an article asserting that majoritarian electoral systems should work better than proportional representation (PR) at keeping new democracies alive and ending violent conflicts. The January article is a response to a piece in the previous issue asserting the opposite, that new democracies in the Middle East and North Africa could improve their chances for survival by adopting PR. ( If you don’t know what these labels mean and are curious to learn, Georgetown University’s Charles King offers a simple primer here.)

The literature on electoral-system design as a policy instrument is produced by very smart people, but it still feels like a big “Coke! Pepsi!” fight to me.

For one thing, empirical evidence of the effects of electoral systems on outcomes like democratic consolidation and conflict resolution is, and will probably remain, too ambiguous to resolve the argument. Articles often toss out a couple of supporting examples, but the fact of the matter is that these systems are really complex, and the conditions under which they operate vary widely. Because the systems are so complex, any particular combination of rules has often only been tried one or a few times in the real world. Because the numbers of similar and contrasting cases are inevitably small, it’s impossible to make the kinds of sharp comparisons we’d need to infer causality with any confidence.

Second and more important, this literature consistently ignores the real-world politics of institutional design that would inevitably be involved in making the choices it recommends. Electoral systems aren’t drawn up and plunked down by technocrats hoping to make democracy stick or to end fighting. Instead, they’re usually the products of tough bargaining among loose coalitions of shrewd actors all looking for a selfish edge. Iraq and Afghanistan under foreign occupation in the 2000s are about as close as the real world will ever come to the conditions in which technical experts were in a position to prescribe and impose systems designed to achieve certain ends. Yet, in both cases, the systems that emerged deviated substantially from expert recommendations after local actors (understandably and appropriately) asserted themselves and injected their own ideas and interests into the process. If paper solutions couldn’t get translated into practice under those conditions, it’s hard to see how this literature is going to become much more than an intellectual exercise unless and until it incorporates the politics of institutional choice into its recommendations.

Last but not least, articles in this vein often gloss over the fact that decisions about electoral-system design inevitably involve trade-offs between different values. As Pippa Norris puts it,

There is no single ‘best’ system: these arguments represent irresolvable value conflicts. For societies, which are raven [sic] by deep-rooted ethnic, religious or ethnic divisions, like Mali, Russia, or Israel, the proportional system may prove more inclusive (Lijphart 1977), but it may also reinforce rather than ameliorate these cleavages (Tsebelis 1990). For states, which are already highly centralized, like Britain or New Zealand, majoritarian systems can insulate the government from the need for broader consultation and democratic checks and balances. In constitutional design it appears that despite the appeal of ‘electoral engineering’ there are no easy choices.

Until the literature starts dealing more effectively with these issues–the ambiguity of the empirical evidence, the hard politics of institutional change, and the inevitability of trade-offs between supposed ends–I’m going to keep hearing “Tastes great! Less filling!” whenever I read pieces like the ones in the recent issues of JoD.

Democracy Is Never a Gift Bestowed

On MLK Day, I’m re-reading this passage from Sean Wilenz’s The Rise of American Democracy (p. xix):

Democracy appears when some large number of previously excluded, ordinary persons–what the eighteenth century called “the many”–secure the power not simply to select their governors but to oversee the institutions of government, as officeholders and citizens free to assemble and criticize those in office. Democracy is never a gift bestowed by benevolent, farseeing rulers who seek to reinforce their own legitimacy. It must always be fought for, by political coalitions that cut across distinctions of wealth, power, and interest. It succeeds and survives only when it is rooted in the lives and expectations of its citizens, and continually reinvigorated in each generation. Democratic successes are never irreversible.


Election-Watching in the Age of Global Connectivity

As someone who has studied the establishment and breakdown of democratic regimes for the past twenty-odd years, I’ve spent a fair amount of time evaluating the conduct of elections from afar. Based on that experience, I can say with some confidence that election-watching has been radically transformed by the global spread of digital connectivity.

Most significant, both the volume and quality of information about the conduct of elections has increased by orders of magnitude. Twenty-five years ago, few elections were monitored by international observers, and local and regional press accounts were sparse and hard to track down. Fifteen years ago, you could find a report from international observers on many elections, but those reports weren’t always reliable, and lots of elections–especially in Africa and Asia–still went without. Even five years ago, the roster of countries covered had grown a bit more, and online news services were providing access to a lot more local reporting, but shoddy infrastructure and censorship meant you still had to hunt and peck for informative nuggets, especially from poorer countries.

All that has changed dramatically in the past few years. Now, we can visit an NGO’s web site and scan thousands of tweeted accounts on today’s elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the poorest countries in the world. We can click over the Guardian‘s Middle East Live blog and catch the latest reports on today’s parliamentary balloting in Egypt. We can pick up the newspaper and read about how Russians are using their smartphones to record and share evidence of abuses in the build-up to that country’s upcoming vote–and then go to YouTube and see what they’re talking about.

All of this information is a tremendous opportunity, but it also poses some new challenges. When you’re on the lookout for electoral malfeasance, there’s almost always some noise to be found. Often, the closer you listen, the more noise you hear. The difficult part is turning all that noise into a signal, and that only gets harder when the information is, essentially, endless. (Do date-constrained Lexis-Nexis and Twitter searches on “Egypt” and “elections” and just try reading everything that comes up. I dare you.)

The only way to try to relate all of that information to some judgment about the nature of the regime the election produces is to start with a conceptual framework that connects election procedures and the context in which they occur to specific criteria about what constitutes democracy. In other words, you have to decide ahead of time a) what your standards are and b) what kind of evidence you’re going to use to decide whether or not those standards have been met. Even that turns out to be harder than it sounds.

As I see it, competitive elections are the procedural core of contemporary democracy. The notion of democracy is rooted in principles of participation, responsiveness, and accountability, and in large, modern states, regular elections have emerged as the most efficient and most effective way to translate these principles into action. Democracy is rooted in the idea of the rule of the people—the notion that a government is established by, of, and for the citizens of a particular state.  On the scale of the modern state, where citizens typically number in the millions, direct democracy is impractical, if not impossible, so citizens instead choose representatives who are empowered and expected to act on their behalf. Elections to select those representatives provide regular avenues for citizens to participate as voters, as partisan activists, and even as candidates. Elections also ensure that citizens have frequent opportunities to hold their representatives accountable for their actions in office. That mechanism of accountability, in turn, encourages representatives to be responsive to their constituents’ concerns, and it ensures that citizens may replace them if they are not.

Some scholars have rightly cautioned against tying the concept of democracy too tightly to elections, a mistake Terry Lynn Karl famously characterized as the “fallacy of electoralism.” Nevertheless, nearly every major definition of democracy put forward in recent decades identifies elections as one of, if not the, critical procedural element of democracy today.  As Samuel Huntington put it in The Third Wave, “Elections, open, free and fair, are the essence of democracy, the inescapable sine qua non.”

Of course, the occurrence of elections alone is hardly enough to make democracy. Some of the world’s most oppressive regimes have held regular elections with high turnouts, yet governments such as the USSR’s or Iraq’s under Saddam Hussein could hardly be characterized as responsive or accountable. To judge the presence of democracy, we have to examine the qualities of the electoral process and, to some extent, the broader context in which those elections occur.

When I’m looking at observer reports, news stories, and now online streams of information about the conduct of elections, I’m thinking of democracy as a form of government in which a free citizenry fairly chooses and routinely holds accountable its rulers. In practice, this occurs when four general conditions hold:

  • 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.

In practical terms, that means looking for evidence that helps answer the following questions:

1. Are the officials who actually rule chosen through elections?

  • The head of government is chosen directly or indirectly by popular election, or he/she is the constitutionally designated successor to an elected head of government who has resigned, died, or become incapacitated while in office.
  • The members of the legislature are chosen by popular election.
  • No unelected individual, body, or organization—domestic or foreign—wields veto power across a range of national policy issue areas.

2. Are those elections competitive?

  • At least two independent political parties field candidates for most or all national offices, including the head of government in cases where that office is filled directly by election.
  • Independent news media exist and are accessible to most citizens.
  • Processes of voter registration and identification and lists of registered voters are not manipulated, restricted, or impeded on a large scale to partisan advantage.
  • State resources are not used directly and extensively in political campaigns to the advantage of incumbent officeholders.
  • The vote-tallying process is not subject to abuse or fraud that is widespread or sufficient to change either the balance of power in the legislature or the outcome of a direct election for head of government.

3. Is the political process broadly inclusive?

  • Citizens may form independent political parties or associations without substantial interference or impediment by the state.
  • Nearly all adult citizens may stand as candidates for office.
  • Elections are based on the principals of universal and equal suffrage.

Those criteria still leave a lot of room for subjective judgment (e.g., when does the use of state resources on behalf of incumbent office-holders become “extensive”?). Even so, I think they’re specific enough to allow us to make sharper judgments about specific cases. For example, applying these criteria to today’s elections in Egypt, we can see that even wonderfully fair and competitive elections would not qualify that country as a democracy (yet) because a self-selected council of military officers continues to serve as Egypt’s executive authority, giving us a “no” to the first question. In DROC, it’s the reverse; rulers will claim an electoral mandate, but those elections won’t have been sufficiently competitive to qualify the resulting regime as a democracy.

Of course, those are not natural facts; they are my personal judgments, based on a specific idea of what democracy is, and what brings it into being. However you define democracy, though, the broader point holds. Information about the conduct of elections may no longer be scarce,  but it’s still impossible to make sense of all that noise without stepping away from the live streams long enough to develop some clear ideas about the concept of democracy it’s all meant to express.

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