Institutional Characteristics and Regime Survival: Why Are Semi-Democracies Less Durable than Autocracies and Democracies?

In Zaïre (currently DR Congo) in 1991, the country’s personalist ruler Mobutu Sese Seko faced popular unrest, army mutinies, and shrinking resources for patronage. Mobutu was seemingly starting to lose his grip on power, which he had held since the mid-1960s. In response, Mobutu ended the decades-long ban on political parties other than his own Popular Movement of the Revolution, promised free and fair elections, and entered into a coalition government. Yet, a couple of years later ‒ after the situation had “calmed down”, and after having shored up army support ‒ Mobutu reversed the liberalization measures.

Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia and Mobutu Sese Seko both experimented with semi-democratic regimes.

Almost 150 years earlier, in 1848, several European monarchs from established dynasties also experienced popular pressure for liberalization, following the “February Revolution” in France. The different monarchs and their conservative supporters actually employed quite similar tactics to Mobutu ‒ liberalize when faced with overwhelming opposition and popular unrest, and then retract the concessions when control is regained! As a result, the “semi-democratic” arrangements resulting from Europe’s 1848 springtime uprisings were often reverted by the year’s end, and old authoritarian arrangements reinstated. In Prussia, for example, Friedrich Wilhelm IV faced massive protests and riots in Berlin in March 1848, and caved under pressure to allow the popular election of the first all-Prussian legislative assembly. Within eight months the King regained control with army support, dissolving the national assembly.

A large literature has shown that political regimes combining democratic and autocratic institutional characteristics – we here call them “semi-democracies” – are relatively short-lived. This raises the intriguing question: Did autocrats such as Mobutu in 1990s-Zaire or Friedrich Wilhelm IV in 1848-Prussia miscalculate when they ‒ arguably in order to stay in power ‒ liberalized their regimes? Or, are the previous statistical studies on institutional characteristics and regime duration wrong; are these results on the relative instability of semi-democracies strongly biased because they do not account for the possibility that semi-democratic arrangements more often are instituted in socially and politically volatile contexts such as 1990s-Zaire and 1848-Prussia.

We suspected that Mobutu and Friedrich Wilhelm were right, and that the political scientists that had previously studied the relationship were wrong. We were thus honestly surprised by the results that we report in our forthcoming AJPS article; it turns out that semi-democracies are, indeed, inherently unstable regimes, and that, in extension, Mobutu and Friedrich Wilhelm might actually have miscalculated!

The starting point for our analysis was thus that several previous studies report that semi-democratic regimes are less durable than both democracies and autocracies. Still, we contended that mixing democratic and autocratic characteristics may not destabilize regimes after all, as three highly plausible alternative explanations of this correlation remain unaccounted for:

  1. semi-democracies more often emerge under conditions of political instability and social turmoil that would reduce the survival of any type of regime;
  2. other regime characteristics that are, for some reason, correlated with being semi-democratic explain duration;
  3. extant democracy measures do not register all regime changes for the most democratic and autocratic regimes, and thus over-estimate their stability.

In the article we elaborate on and test for these explanations on a global data set with time series extending back to the early 20th century. We find strikingly robust evidence that semi-democracies are inherently less durable than both democracies and autocracies. Consequently, we suggest that: “Semi-democracies are particularly unstable political regimes” should be considered a rare stylized fact of political science.

Our first alternative explanation relates to semi-democratic institutional features being consequences of political instability, rather than causes. The codification of certain civil liberties or introduction of multi-party legislatures in otherwise authoritarian regimes may actually be pursued exactly because they are expected to stabilize regimes in already precarious situations (such as in Zaïre and Prussia). Institutional changes may also result from calculated efforts to avoid popular revolutions when these are perceived as imminent. An environment of social turmoil and political instability may therefore move autocracies towards semi-democracies and simultaneously reduce survival prospects for any regime controlling power. We test this hypothesis, but find that past popular mobilization and political instability (using different measures and models) do not explain the regime type‒regime durability relationship.

Our second alternative explanation relates to the multiple, potentially relevant characteristics of political regimes. More specifically, the short durability of semi-democracies relative to autocracies might stem from semi-democracies, for some reason, being empirically associated with other institutional structures that reduce durability. A large literature conceptualizes different types of non-democracies according to principles and characteristics other than those related to distribution of authority between elites and populations (i.e. the democracy‒dictatorship distinction). However, this second proposed alternative explanation does not find empirical support either; semi-democracies are not less durable than autocracies because they, for example, tend to lack dynastic succession or dominant regime parties. Moreover, we find that more fine-grained regime categories, such as those developed by Geddes and colleagues or Hadenius and Teorell, are often difficult to distinguish from each other in terms of regime longevity once degree of democracy is accounted for.

Our third alternative explanation builds on the notion that democracy is an ideal concept that empirical regimes only approach. Likewise, no observed regime has been an ideal autocracy with one person controlling every political decision-making process. Still, extant democracy indices such as Polity, Freedom House, and the Scalar Index of Polities (SIP) that we mainly use, are restricted; several regimes have (close to) minimum and maximum scores. Out of 7018 regime-year observations in our dataset 621 are autocracies that logically can not further de-liberalize, whereas 456 are democracies that cannot further liberalize (using the regime change definition employed in Gates et al.’s 2006 study from AJPS, which we draw on for constructing our baseline models). The latter includes several regimes where most country-experts arguably would agree there de facto were substantial room for further improvements in democratic quality, and the former includes regimes that arguably had the potential to become more harshly autocratic. The observed correlation in the data between semi-democracy and short durability might therefore be an artifact of “floors” and “ceilings” imposed by extant democracy indices. We test extensively for this but find no evidence that the reported lower durability of semi-democracies is an artifact of such floor or ceiling biases.

Finally, and importantly, although our results show that semi-democracies are inherently more unstable than autocracies, our analysis also shows that they do not clearly differ when it comes to liberalizing regime changes, more in particular. Hence, political liberalization may occur with a non-negligible probability in any non-democratic regime ‒ be it in harshly authoritarian or semi-democratic regimes, or in party-based or military dictatorships ‒ as also recent experiences in regimes as dissimilar as Myanmar and Tunisia indicate. This should be fairly good news to those fighting for political liberalization under non-democratic, but still quite different, political-institutional arrangements in Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Russia, North Korea, Singapore and China.

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