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Autocrats now more vulnerable to being ousted by revolt

- April 9, 2014

(Miguel Gutierrez/EPA) Opposition demonstrators clash with members of Venezuela’s Bolivarian police during a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, March 31, 2014.
Kim Yi Dionne: This is a guest post by political scientists Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz.

The chain of protests during the Arab Awakening led to the ouster of four of the world’s longest-standing autocratic rulers—Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Moammar Qaddafi of Libya and Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen. Just a little over a decade earlier, a wave of colored revolutions unseated autocrats in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. Today, embattled autocrats face anti-government protests in Venezuela, Thailand and Cambodia.  How do these developments compare to longer-term patterns of autocratic ouster? Why does it matter how dictators leave office? And are we witnessing a new era in which the masses are playing a larger role in toppling autocrats?
In a recent article in the Washington Quarterly, we find that since the end of the Cold War, autocrats have become increasingly vulnerable to being ousted via revolt, defined as leader exits due to mass protests, uprisings, strikes or riots. Using data from political scientist Milan Svolik covering 1946 to 2008 and our own updates through 2012, we find the proportion of autocrats exiting through revolt tripled—from 4 percent to 12 percent—in the post-Cold War period.  From 2010 to 2012, the numbers are even more striking: revolts accounted for one in four ousters.
This increase in the prevalence of revolts has occurred in conjunction with a significant decline in the proportion of autocrats ousted via coup, or the illegal seizure of power by the military.  Coups have historically been the most common way autocrats have left office.  During the 1960s and ‘70s, about half of all autocrats lost power through coups.  That number has fallen to less than 10 percent in the last decade.

(Data: Milan Svolik; Figure: Erica Frantz/The Monkey Cage)

(Data: Milan Svolik; Figure: Erica Frantz/The Monkey Cage)

Why does it matter how dictators exit office? First, by paying attention to how autocrats are likely to lose power—something dictators are surely attuned to—political observers can gain insight into the survival tactics these leaders are likely to employ, many of which have consequences for autocratic foreign policy.  Moreover, understanding the political dynamics at play in autocracies, including specific regime vulnerabilities, enables policymakers to better formulate and tailor their engagement with these countries. This is by no means an unimportant task given the pervasiveness of autocratic rule.  Contrary to expectations about the spread of democratization following the end of the Cold War, autocracies still govern about a third of the world’s countries.
Second, how leaders exit office affects the political trajectory of the country once the leader is gone. The underwhelming performance of democracy following the Arab Awakening and pessimism about Ukraine’s future following the revolt that ousted President Victor Yanukovych have led some to claim that people-powered revolutions are overrated.  It is true that autocratic ousters rarely (only 20 percent of the time) lead to democratization, but our research shows that the prospects for democracy are actually highest when those ousters occur via revolt.  Revolts were followed by transitions to democracy 45 percent of the time from 1946 to 2012. In contrast, successful coups only led to democracy 10 percent of the time.
Will revolts increasingly oust autocratic rulers in the years to come? Two trends suggest they could. First, communication technologies such as social media probably will continue to lower the barriers to widespread collective action by widely publicizing regime abuses that can serve as triggering events, reducing the costs of collective action, and raising the cost of repression for leaders considering using force to put down protests. Second, the Arab Awakening and color revolutions provide vivid images that increase the likelihood that citizens will view the street as an increasingly viable option for unseating unwanted leaders. Although some autocrats will learn from past events and adopt more flexible responses to street protests that enable them to stay in power, in the longer-term this “sense of the possible” and the rise of communication technologies may increase the frequency autocrats are ousted through revolts.
The rise in the importance of mass politics in these regimes should lead political observers to devote greater resources to identifying factors that encourage political liberalization of post-revolt societies. Some research has suggested that mitigating violence associated with transition can improve the prospects for democracy. Offering a safe exit to embattled dictators may decrease the chances that such leaders violently cling to power. Promoting the institutionalization of a country’s security services—i.e., the promotion of a rules-based system with established paths of career advancement and recruitment, and where promotion is based on performance, not politics—may also make security actors less willing to crack down on protesters.
Although more research needs to be done, the trends we highlight here suggest that autocrats can no longer ignore the importance of mass audiences. And perhaps, neither can researchers and observers of authoritarian politics.
Andrea Kendall-Taylor is a member of the U.S. intelligence community. She specializes in the political dynamics of autocracies, democratization and political instability.
Erica Frantz is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Bridgewater State University.  She specializes in the politics of dictatorship and is a collaborator on the NSF-funded Autocratic Regimes Data Set.
Some of the data used in this research was funded by the National Science Foundation (BCS-0904478 andBCS-090463).