Christoph Stefes, PhD
About half of the world’s population lives in non-democratic countries. Why do some dictatorships prevail, whereas others are overthrown? These questions are central to research at the Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB).
“This probably is the only project that connects various strands of research on the resilience of authoritarian regimes and empirically tests previously formulated theories,” said Christoph Stefes, PhD, CU Denver, associate professor of Political Science and project coordinator of the WZB autocracy research program. “Our main finding is that the current emphasis on institutions that try to shore up elite support for the dictator is exaggerated. We find that subtle forms of repression that limit civil rights and political liberties are effective in cementing the power of authoritarian rulers, as they sap the spirit and the organizational capacity of the opposition.”
The research team identified three pillars of stability in its model of authoritarian rule: legitimation, repression and co-optation. “Soft repression” has—among these three factors—the greatest influence on the survival of a dictatorship, practiced, for example, in Putin’s Russia. In Russia, citizens’ civil rights are undermined through administrative pinpricks such as the closing down of offices and the freezing of bank accounts. Harsh repression measures, on the other hand, have almost no stabilizing effect at all.
Strengthening legitimation through a strong economy or improvement of internal or external security has the second greatest effect on the survival of a dictatorship. Co-optation, the imitation of democratic institutions for power-sharing purposes such as parties or parliaments—like in Myanmar—has the least influence on the survival of dictatorships.
“When countries from the West want to support a country’s democratization process, it is vital to first understand the dynamics of authoritarian rule. Each form of repression must face sanctions accordingly,” said Stefes. Since economic crises particularly weaken authoritarian regimes, economic boycotts should be effective measures to proceed against those regimes.
When do dictatorships lose their stability? The interplay of the three pillars ties various groups to the regime, like the military, opposition, and the masses. Instability sets in when one or more of the pillars are weakened, and the regime enters a critical phase. These phases can mean the end of the regime, but also its subsequent re-stabilization.
The research team, including Stefes, Wolfgang Merkel, Johannes Gerschewski, Alexander Schmotz and Dag Tanneberg of the Democracy and Democratization research unit analyzed data of authoritarian regimes in 137 countries of the last 60 years. Thus, one of the world’s largest data collections was compiled on stability criteria of authoritarian regimes—in Asia, the former Soviet countries and Eastern Europe, Africa, the Arab countries and Latin America. The project is funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG).
First results of the project are published in a special issue of Contemporary Politics: Dag Tanneberg, Christoph Stefes and Wolfgang Merkel: “Hard times and regime failure: autocratic responses to economic downturns,” 2013, Vol. 19, No. 1, pp. 115-129.
For more about the research project see: Critical Junctures and the Survival of Dictatorships. Explaining the Stability of Autocratic Regimes.