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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