What happens when a strongman dictator creates his own political party?

Around 40% of dictatorships are headed by a strongman ruler: Gaddafi in Libya and Idi Amin in Uganda were obvious examples. Erica Frantz (Michigan State University) finds that these regimes are more likely to democratise if their leaders create their own political parties. Most do this in order to reduce the risk of a military coup, but the effect is to shake up the elite and open up possibilities for democratic transition.

saparmurat niyazov statue

A golden statue of Saparmurat Niyazov in Turkmenistan, 2011. Photo: David Stanley via a CC BY 2.0 licence

Dictatorships are commonly viewed as brutal and ruthless regimes, where power is highly concentrated in the hands of a single individual.  Examples include Libya under Muammar Gaddafi and Turkmenistan under Saparmurat Niyazov.  Regimes such as these – often referred to as personalist dictatorships – feature strongman rulers, who typically govern with few constraints on their power.  The leader may wear a military uniform (such as Idi Amin of Uganda) and/or govern with a political party (such as Saddam Hussein’s alliance with the Baathists in Iraq), but neither the party nor the military have any real say on political choices.

Of course, not all dictatorships fit this mould.  Singapore under the People’s Action Party (a party-based dictatorship) and Myanmar under the State Peace and Development Council (a military dictatorship) are nice examples.  In dictatorships such as these, power is far more dispersed between the leader and other political actors, and leaders are, consequently, far less likely to unilaterally determine key policies.

Scholars have gone to great lengths to show that many dictatorships do not match common perceptions, but recent decades have seen a rise in the stereotypical model of authoritarian rule.  At the end of the Cold War, 23 percent of all dictatorships were personalist regimes, a number that increased to 40 percent in 2010.  This is a dramatic increase and one that is troubling for the international community.  Among dictatorships, personalist regimes are the most belligerent, have the highest poverty rates, and are the most likely to evolve into failed states.  Importantly, personalist dictatorships are also the least likely of all dictatorships to democratise.  Only 36 percent of personalist dictatorships that fall from power transition to democracy (with the rest transitioning to a new authoritarian regime), compared to 50 percent of all other dictatorships.

Though democratisation following personalist dictatorship is unlikely, it does occur in about one in three cases.  Yet until now there has been little understanding about why.  In a recent article, Pathways to Democratization in Personalist Dictatorships, Andrea Kendall-Taylor and I identify a key factor that increases the odds of democratisation in personalist dictatorships: the creation of a political party.

We find that personalist dictatorships that create their own political parties – either to compete in an election prior to the seizure of power (e.g. Cambio 90 in Peru under Alberto Fujimori) or once already in office (e.g.  United Russia under Vladimir Putin) – are more likely to democratise than those that join forces with a pre-existing party (e.g. Congolese Party of Labour in the Republic of Congo under Denis Sassou Nguesso) or govern without one (e.g. Kyrgyzstan under Askar Akayev).

Party creation in personalist contexts sets in motion two key dynamics that generate opportunities for democracy.   First, it fosters peaceful (as opposed to violent) mass mobilisation, which substantially increases the chances of democratisation.  All political parties make it easier for citizens to hit the streets and protest, but party creation boosts the chances that those protests that do occur will remain peaceful.

To understand why, we need to consider the purpose of party creation.  Research shows that leaders in personalist dictatorships typically create political parties to lower the ever-present threat the military poses to their rule.  Party creation enables them to be less dependent on other armed groups (e.g. paramilitary forces) to protect them from the risk of a military coup.  Leaders in personalist dictatorships that ally with a traditional party or rule without one do not have this luxury.  As an example, Uganda’s Amin seized power in 1971 and governed without a support party.  Due to the ever-present threat of a coup, Amin purged elements of the military suspected to be loyal to his predecessor, replaced them with allies, and established new paramilitary groups to offset the military.  The proliferation of security services to counterbalance the military, however, increases the chances that violence will be used in the wake of protests. Paramilitary units are typically the first groups that dictatorships turn to when confronting domestic unrest, and they are usually less reluctant than the traditional military to use force against fellow citizens.

Second, the creation of a political party often leads to a break in traditional elite networks and a substantial change in the composition of the elite who prosper from holding power.  When leaders create a new political party, they tend to staff and recruit party members from a new segment of the population. This shake-up in the old ways of doing business opens the door for shifts away from the status quo, and consequently creates possibilities for pro-democracy political reforms.  An example from Georgia illustrates this well.  In the mid-1990s, Eduard Sheverdnadze created the Union of Citizens of Georgia and actively recruited a number of young, reform-minded individuals to fill it, one of whom was Mikheil Saakashvili.  Though some of his colleagues were willing to accept the slow pace of reform in Georgia, Saakashvili grew impatient and a rift soon developed between young reformers and the old guard wary of big changes.  This divide set the stage for Gerogia’s eventual democratisation in 2003.  Granted that new elites recruited for the party will not always be more reform-oriented than the individuals they replaced, the disruption of traditional elite networks at least generates this opportunity.

Taken together, the two mechanisms that we identify suggest that party creation in personalist dictatorships opens up chances for democratisation that do not exist in other personalist contexts.  The evidence supports this: among personalist dictatorships, those that establish political parties have higher odds of transitioning to democracy than those that do not.  Democratisation does not come about overnight, of course, but is significantly more likely in the long run.

The rise of personalist dictatorship worldwide since the end of the Cold War coupled with the aggressive and harmful policies typical of this particular brand of dictatorship mean that finding ways to encourage democratisation in personalist regimes is of particularly importance.  The findings from our study suggest that, though personalist dictatorships are relatively unlikely to become democracies, democracy promotion efforts are more likely to be effective where such regimes have created a political party.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit.

erica frantzErica Frantz is an Assistant Professor in Political Science at Michigan State University. She studies authoritarian politics, with a focus on democratisation, conflict and development. She is also interested in the security and policy implications of autocratic rule. Twitter @EricaFrantz.

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