Between Authoritarianism and Democracy

Issue Date January 2012
Volume 23
Issue 1
Page Numbers 169-73
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Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War. By Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 536 pp.

A new type of regime emerged at the end of the Cold War and in the wake of the “third wave” of democratization—one that holds regular multiparty elections while remaining fundamentally authoritarian. Political scientists have for the past decade been exploring this paradoxical combination and attempting to classify such regimes, of which there are many examples around the world. In April 2002, the Journal of Democracy published a cluster of articles titled “Elections Without Democracy” that included contributions by Larry Diamond, Andreas Schedler, and myself, as well as Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way, who wrote about “The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism.” This impressive and much anticipated book expands on the ideas put forward in that essay.

The volume is comprehensive in its coverage both of the recent literature on democratization and of contemporary democratic practices in the non-Western world; and it is also an empirical tour de force featuring authoritative analyses of nearly three-dozen countries. The authors define competitive authoritarian regimes as political systems that remain essentially authoritarian despite allowing meaningful electoral competition. They occupy an ambiguous political space

About the Author

Nicolas van de Walle is Maxwell M. Upson Professor of Government at Cornell University and nonresident fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is Overcoming Stagnation in Aid-Dependent Countries (2005).

View all work by Nicolas van de Walle

between full authoritarianism and democracy, with its respect for political and civil liberties. Levitsky and Way effectively distinguish their category from other similar classifications, such as Diamond’s “hybrid regimes” and Schedler’s “electoral [End Page 169] autocracies.” Competitive authoritarianism, the authors argue, is a more restrictive category. It is limited to authoritarian regimes that, despite their illiberalism, feature political competition meaningful enough for opposition forces to view elections as a possible path to power.

In their introduction, Levitsky and Way identify 35 competitive authoritarian regimes that existed in the early 1990s. The remainder of the volume traces the divergent trajectories of these countries over the last two decades: fifteen democratized, while nineteen remained competitive authoritarian. Only one—Russia—has regressed to full authoritarianism. In order to explain these divergent outcomes, the authors identify three key factors: 1) Where the West has high levels of leverage, democratization is more likely; 2) similarly, where ties or linkages with the West are denser, the probability of democratization rises; and 3) where the state apparatus and ruling party are cohesive and enjoy large amounts of organizational power, a competitive authoritarian regime has a better chance of staying in place. In terms of the respective effects of each factor, the authors’ analysis is precise and rigorous. With regard to explaining precisely how the three relate to one another, however, it is less so.

Having laid out their complex explanatory framework in the first quarter of the book, the authors devote the book’s last three-hundred pages to an impressively comprehensive empirical analysis in which they test their theory against all thirty-five cases. Country specialists will no doubt question the odd judgment call here and there in a book that is chock full of them; but the impressive accumulation of facts, examples, and insights in support of their thesis from such a diverse array of countries and situations is compelling.

Labeling this brand of authoritarianism a type of “regime” implies a degree of permanence in its political institutions, and Levitsky and Way argue accordingly that competitive authoritarian regimes can last a long time. They are skeptical that the regular convening of elections must inevitably bring democratic change. Despite the suggestion of permanence, however, the book’s main purpose is to study change in these systems. Moreover, the authors’ finding that more than a third of their cases democratized between 1990 and 2008 while only one regressed does not undermine the democratization-by-elections thesis that has been advanced by Staffan Lindberg and others.

Levitsky and Way are correct to suggest that a new type of political system—one that is neither entirely authoritarian nor fully democratic—emerged toward the end of the twentieth century. But have they defined that system correctly? Their categorization seems simultaneously too broad and quite narrow. For instance, it includes both Botswana, a country regularly rated Free by Freedom House over the last twenty years, and Belarus, a country consistently rated Not Free during the same period. Clearly, neither is perfectly democratic nor authoritarian in the old-fashioned sense, though surely Belarus comes pretty close to being [End Page 170] authoritarian. The vast differences in the level of respect for political and civil rights found in these two countries (not to mention their distinct political histories and cultures) do give one pause, however. Moreover even as the authors include such a broad spectrum of countries, they exclude many others, suggesting a fairly restrictive definition of their object and an attempt to distinguish it clearly from other regime types, particularly authoritarian systems that hold noncompetitive elections.

One of the book’s curious features is that it hardly mentions any countries other than the 35 identified fairly summarily at the outset as fitting the authors’ criteria as of “the early 1990s,” which are carefully laid out in an appendix. This date range is relatively arbitrary, and it is applied rather inconsistently to mean, in effect, “between the late 1980s and the mid-1990s.” And what about countries other than those discussed? According to the authors’ own criteria, more than the 35 countries chosen could (taking in view the last two decades) be considered examples of competitive authoritarianism. For example, no mention is made of Guatemala or Panama in Central America or Mauritania, Niger, or Nigeria in West Africa; yet during the period in question they all closely resembled the countries from their regions that are included in the study. Of course, 35 countries already constitute a substantial set for analysis, and it would be uncharitable to ask for even more case-study material. Nonetheless, a fuller discussion of the selection mechanisms would have usefully shed more light on the logic and method of the authors’ distinctive approach to these regimes.

Second, do countries in the category of competitive authoritarianism have sufficiently stable political norms and institutions to qualify as regimes? As the authors themselves argue, the distinctive feature of such countries is precisely the ambiguity and instability of their political rules, which are perpetually being negotiated and disputed. Dictators such as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe or Cameroon’s Paul Biya (whose countries both figure among Levitsky and Way’s 35 cases) are known to harden or soften their regimes depending on how threatened they feel at this or that moment. Likewise, new leaders often find it to their advantage to open things up, both to help legitimate their rule and to weaken the hold of the previous incumbent and his cronies on political power. More generally, many authoritarian regimes exhibit cyclical behavior, alternating the carrot of liberalization with the stick of repression. The ambiguity and inconsistency of the political rules in these countries are precisely why different scholars disagree on how to code them, and why, in the end, a more expansive categorization is probably preferable to the narrow one used by Levitsky and Way.

The explanatory framework that the authors adopt in order to explain the varying trajectories of their cases also raises some issues. The book makes many valuable points about the importance of organizational power for regime durability, but the distinctive aspect of its thesis is the powerful influence of international factors on regime trajectories. It [End Page 171] seems intuitively right, for example, that the combination of high levels of Western leverage and weak domestic political institutions has led to many democratic transitions in Africa. The light that the authors shine on international relationships reveals how so many countries can hold regular competitive elections while making no other concessions to democratic rule: Levitsky and Way contend that the West has an “electoralist” bias and will often indulge undemocratic regimes as long as they hold elections.

Levitsky and Way give each of the 35 countries a score of “high,” “medium,” or “low” for each of the three causal factors: For instance, they rate Malaysia as having medium leverage, low linkage, and high organizational power, while they give Malawi low marks on all three counts. The interaction of the three variables with three possible values each thus results in 27 different possible combinations. Yet these lead to only three possible outcomes: democratization, authoritarian stability, and authoritarian instability. In practice, however, the three causal mechanisms are not so straightforward—for instance, some regimes have strong parties but weak state structures, while others have a distinctive kind of linkage—and the authors use these subdivisions to explain regimes’ political trajectories. The book’s conclusion tries to tie up loose ends and assess the explanatory framework, but the number of actual permutations described is by then bewildering.

Finally, the book glides over the relationship between the causal factors. In particular, leverage and linkage do not seem entirely independent. For example, the main form of Western leverage is foreign aid, which is negatively correlated to low national income (the lower the income, the higher the aid). Linkages, meanwhile, are positively correlated with income levels (the higher the national income, the more numerous the links with the West). Levitsky and Way generally dismiss more structural explanations, such as national income, for the political outcomes of their case studies, hewing instead to political dynamics. While I am sympathetic to such an approach, the absence of a serious discussion about the origins of their causal factors is disappointing. Why do some countries benefit from greater linkages? Where do strong government parties come from? Beyond dropping a few hints about their own intuitions, Levitsky and Way treat their causal factors as exogenously determined. For example, they argue that state cohesion is linked to low ethnic heterogeneity (mostly in the context of African cases), but they never really entertain the possibility that state cohesion is systematically endogenous to factors such as ethnicity (or religion, or social stratification). Likewise, although they briefly criticize modernization theory and its focus on structural factors (such as the size of the middle class or per capita national income) to explain political outcomes, their definition of linkage, one of their critical factors, seems to be highly correlated with economic structure.

Despite these criticisms, I wish to end by reaffirming the excellence of this volume. It is a bold and meaty book that overflows with arresting [End Page 172] arguments and insightful asides. Levitsky and Way’s Competitive Authoritarianism is a must-read for anyone with an interest in comparative politics and democratization.

Copyright © 2012 National Endowment for Democracy and The Johns Hopkins University Press