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Conceding and Thriving: Strong-State Democratization in Asia

- June 26, 2012

Continuing our on going partnership with the Comparative Democratization Section of the American Political Science Association newsletter, we will present two articles from the current issue in the Monkey Cage today and tomorrow. The first is by political scientists Dan Slater of the University of Chicago and Joseph Wong of the University of Toronto: 

It is widely argued that ruling parties help sustain authoritarian regimes. One of the most influential arguments for why this is the case centers on party cadres’ will to power. “The preferences of party cadres are much simpler than those of [military] officers,” Geddes persuasively argues. “Like democratic politicians, they simply want to hold office.”[1] Beyond having institutional capabilities that militaries lack, authoritarian ruling parties typically have stronger inherent incentives than their military counterparts to cling to power.

Yet there is an additional fundamental difference between ruling parties and militaries that has not been adequately explored, and which holds important implications for the likelihood of democratization in party-led regimes. For ruling militaries, democratization and withdrawal from office are one and the same. Yet unlike ruling militaries, ruling parties can democratize without losing power. For authoritarian parties, democratization entails the substantial concession and risk to hold free and fair elections, but not necessarily to lose those elections and withdraw from office. What Przeworski memorably called the “institutionalized uncertainty”[2] of democracy may mean eschewing certain victory, but it does not mean accepting certain defeat. Ruling parties can maintain power – and have maintained power – without maintaining authoritarian rule. Democratization may thus be more incentive-compatible for authoritarian parties than the conventional wisdom suggests.

This essay builds upon this theoretical corrective with a preliminary exploration of the following empirical paradox: some of the strongest authoritarian parties in the world have not resisted democratization, but have embraced it. Even more strikingly, such concessions of democracy have occurred in regimes that commanded exceptionally strong state apparatuses that were tightly fused with powerful ruling parties, providing these regimes with ample “incumbent capacity”[3] to resist democratization if they had so chosen. Yet they did not so choose, and history has shown that they chose wisely. In Taiwan, South Korea (hereafter Korea), and Indonesia, for example, dominant ruling parties conceded democracy without conceding power, and indeed with the confident expectation that they would not lose power. Rather than conceding and withdrawing, ruling parties in these Asian developmental states conceded and thrived.

But why, when, and how does such a “conceding-to-thrive” scenario come to pass? We contend that dominant parties can be incentivized to concede democratization from a position of exceptional strength and not only from a position of exceptional weakness. Paradoxically, the very strength that helps dominant parties sustain authoritarianism can also help motivate them to end it. Untangling this paradox of “strong-state democratization”[4] requires that attention be paid, first and foremost, to the historical sources of strength that make this strategy viable for some party leaders and not for others. It also demands sensitivity to the proximate conditions that make a conceding-to-thrive logic more likely in some settings than in others.

Our working causal argument is conjunctural and historical, and unfolds in three steps. First, ruling parties are only likely to embark on such a risky democratization path when they possess substantial antecedent resources and marked relative strength vis-à-vis the opposition, such that they confidently expect to win fully democratic elections. Second, and in some tension to the first point, ruling parties must nonetheless receive a strong and clear signal that they are passing their apex of power and legitimacy. This signal can take the form of an economic, electoral, contentious, or geopolitical shock, or some combination thereof. Third, ruling parties must be commanded by leaders who strategically calculate that pursuing democratic reform promises to give themselves and/or their parties a more enduring means of maintaining power. In short, conceding-to-thrive scenarios require a confluence of particular strengths, signals, and strategies.


Party leaders are only likely to adopt the risky strategy of conceding-to-thrive when their antecedent resources continue to provide them with a marked power advantage over any and all of their political opponents. This provides confidence that the ruling party enjoys excellent prospects to maintain its dominance, at least for the founding democratic elections, even without deploying authoritarian coercion and manipulation. A conceding-to-thrive strategy therefore does not require the kind of imminent threat of a violent overthrow that many leading scholars stress as being conducive to democratic concessions;[5] on the contrary, it requires sufficient party strength to engender the confidence that democratization will not mean a withdrawal from office at all.

Where do such antecedent resources come from? We argue that the most important antecedent resource a dominant party can possess is a long-term connection to a highly capable state apparatus.[6] Nowhere in the postcolonial world has such state capacity been more impressive than in the “developmental states” of Northeast and Southeast Asia, which have helped produce rates of economic growth and industrial transformation unrivaled anywhere else in the world. To be sure, these Asian party-states are a highly diverse lot, as we have both explored at length elsewhere.[7] State capacity has historically been especially impressive in what were once called the Newly Industrialized Countries (NICs) of Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore. Party domination of the authoritarian regime has been more pronounced in China, Malaysia, Singapore, and Taiwan than in Indonesia and Korea, where the military clearly played a central role in long-lasting authoritarian regimes alongside party apparatuses. Yet even if Korea and Indonesia were not party-dominated like their developmental state neighbors, we argue that, for purposes of studying democratization, they were both effectively party-led regimes. This is because it was party leaders and not military leaders who made the decision to concede democratization.

A history of state-led rapid development redounds to the political benefit of the ruling party in a variety of ways. An impressive record of transformative accomplishments in the economic realm provides the kind of “usable past” that proves vital for a formerly authoritarian party seeking “regeneration” under democratic conditions.[8] Decades of state-led industrialization and poverty reduction incubate a vibrant middle class with moderate political leanings, making voters less susceptible to the appeals of reformist challenger parties that lack any established record of fostering developmental success. Indeed, when ruling parties in developmental states concede and lead democratic reform during relatively good times,[9] they can puncture the only significant threat to their considerable popularity and legitimacy: their nondemocratic character.


Yet even at the best of times and with the most ample of resources at their disposal, ruling parties will always see any concession of democratization as a risk. For conceding to be perceived as a calculated risk, however, ruling parties must not only have impressive antecedent strength; they must also confront a clear and strong signal that their apex of domination has passed. A concede-to-thrive scenario is unlikely to unfold when a ruling party appears either to be maintaining power at its very apex or rapidly hurtling toward its nadir. It is most likely to occur when clear and strong signals indicate that the party has passed its prime, but is only slowly sinking toward parity in popularity and resources vis-à-vis its most important rivals.

More specifically, a ruling party will most likely concede-to-thrive when it still expects to win super-majoritarian support in a democratic election, partly thanks to authoritarian legacies of extreme gerrymandering and malapportionment. Democratic concessions become less likely, however, as the prospects for incumbents to secure a solid victory become more uncertain. If, for example, the ruling party resists democratic reform for too long and its popularity plummets, its internal cohesion frays, and its legitimacy formula becomes discredited, the party risks a situation where a democratic election will produce immediate outright defeat and perhaps even retribution against its leaders.[10] In this scenario, the ruling party’s only options are to accept defeat and prepare a comeback from the ranks of opposition, or to unleash repression against its opponents in a bid for uninterrupted authoritarian hegemony. This latter outcome is currently unfolding in contemporary Ba’athist Syria and ZANU-run Zimbabwe, for example. Or, as we see with the National Party in South Africa, ruling parties that hold on for too long can plummet so far that they become effectively obsolete from the moment of political opening. What this suggests is that there is a kind of “sweet spot” in which strongly resourced ruling parties are most likely to concede-and-thrive. Since a party enters this zone upon receiving worrisome signals of declining popularity and legitimacy, however, we call it a bittersweet spot.

What kind of events present especially clear and strong signals to an authoritarian party that it has passed its apex? Much as developmental states provide a variety of sources of antecedent strength to ruling parties, signals of their growing vulnerability also take a variety of forms. Since they occur when a ruling party remains dominant, these diverse signals all similarly come as a serious shock. The first type of shock is electoral. When a long-dominant ruling party first suffers noticeable losses of electoral support in a “competitive authoritarian” or more deeply undemocratic election, it is an especially clear signal that a party’s popularity has begun to wane. Such results can be blamed on an unpopular individual leader rather than any secular softening of support for the party writ large, and hence not be taken as a clear signal that a party’s apex has passed. Yet the fact that elections directly capture partisan preferences of voters means that electoral shocks can serve as especially clear and strong signals of incipient decline. For instance, the KMT in Taiwan and the DJP in South Korea chose the path of democratic reform after their electoral dominance had begun to wane, even under conditions of considerable repression and severe gerrymandering, during the early 1980s.

A second common type of shock is economic. Even the strongest economies are far from immune from global financial turmoil, as the developmental states of Northeast and Southeast Asia learned in the late 1990s. Economic shocks are fuzzier signals of party weakening than electoral shocks, since they can be more readily and credibly blamed on exogenous actors and factors. Yet they do tend to increase pressure both outside and within an authoritarian ruling party for political reform, and can be widely perceived as a strong signal that the authoritarian model has passed its prime. In regimes that are deeply dependent upon their track records of economic performance for their deeper historical legitimacy as well as for their more proximate popularity, economic signals can be among the most powerful of all. Even when electoral support remains relatively good, suddenly bad economic tidings can signal that a regime is passing from its apex to a “bittersweet spot” most conducive for conceding-and-thriving.

Outbursts of contentious politics represent a third common kind of shock. The issue here is not simply the size of public protest, but its type. A signal of party decline will be especially strong and clear if protests not only target the ruling party’s policies, but broadly question its right to rule. Signal strength and clarity are also enhanced to the degree that the opposition movement is cross-class in composition and nationalist in rhetoric. The cross-class nature of contentious opposition – as we see emerge in Taiwan, Korea, and Indonesia – neutralizes state strategies to divide and conquer, particularly for those regimes originally founded on “protection pacts” aimed at stabilizing the polity by containing and suppressing the forces of the radical Left.[11] The nationalist orientation of opposition movements challenges the existential core of the ruling party’s legitimacy formula, which lies in its credible claim to have saved the nation from chaos and backwardness.

Finally, a fourth kind of clear and strong signal that a regime has passed its apex of power can be geopolitical. Many if not most authoritarian regimes in the postcolonial world have depended to at least some degree on superpower patronage, especially during the Cold War. When such sponsors credibly threaten to retract support unless meaningful steps toward democratization are taken, it lends added weight to those forces within the ruling party who wish to attempt a concede-to-thrive strategy. As with electoral, economic, and contentious signals, such geopolitical signals by no means make a ruling party’s decision to risk a concede-to-thrive strategy inevitable. Yet they make it more probable, and it is a probabilistic argument that we are developing here.


Conceding-to-thrive is never a structural imperative, but a structured choice. Hence we need to complement structural considerations with examination of the more contingent and agentive factors that turn conceding-to-thrive from a viable and likely outcome to an actual one. Since powerful dominant party institutions tend to invest extremely strong decision-making powers in the hands of their top leaders, democratic concessions ultimately result from the strategic considerations of the very top party leadership such as Chiang Ching-Kuo in Taiwan, Roh Tae-Woo in Korea, and B.J. Habibie in Indonesia. We thus do not argue that a majority of ruling-party members must find a conceding-to-thrive strategy to be in their personal interests. It is more important that such a strategy be incentive-compatible for the party leadership when the party enters the “bittersweet spot” that lies much closer to its apex than its nadir. In sum, parties with the strength to concede have only adopted the strategy to concede after receiving clear and strong signals that their power was in incipient but gradual decline.

Conceding and Thriving in Asia

Our three initial cases of conceding-and-thriving are Korea, Taiwan, and – doubtlessly most controversially – Indonesia. The case of Indonesia might seem at first glance to appear a strange one to compare with Korea and Taiwan. Yet in fact it brings into sharper relief the importance of the key factors we contend shape the likelihood of a concede-and-thrive scenario: antecedent strengths, worrisome signals, and leader strategies. Whereas Korea’s and Taiwan’s experiences of “strong-state democratization” are often explained by these countries’ intense security concerns with their communist neighbors, this factor was absent in Indonesia’s democratic transition. Nor did Indonesia’s ruling Golkar party have any of the “democratic narrative” running through its history that is often invoked to explain the KMT’s democratic exceptionalism in Taiwan. Furthermore, Indonesia shows that neither the developmental state nor the ruling party need be extraordinarily strong for a concede-and-thrive scenario to be viable. Despite the reputational damage it suffered from its association with the discredited dictator, Suharto, Golkar has leveraged its antecedent territorial infrastructure to position itself at the heart of every coalition government since President B.J. Habibie conceded democratic elections in 1999. Indonesia’s experience thus suggests that the threshold of antecedent party-state resources necessary for conceding-and-thriving might be lower – and thus more potentially generalizable to a wider array of cases – than the experience of Korea and Taiwan alone would imply.

After considering these three positive cases, we intend to gain variation on our dependent variable by assessing the absence (at least to date) of strong-state democratization in three additional Asian cases: Malaysia, Singapore, and China. In Malaysia, we contend that UMNO entered its bittersweet spot at the same time as Indonesia’s Golkar in 1998. Yet what was perceived as an ambivalent signal of impending trouble for the ruling party resulting from the Asian financial crisis, plus an especially coercive incumbent, led UMNO to miss its prime opportunity to concede-and-thrive. By contrast, Singapore’s ruling PAP is currently in the ideal position to concede and thrive, having just suffered unexpected but quite mild setbacks in the 2011 elections. The big question in Singapore is whether this will be taken as a strong enough signal to warrant democratic concessions, given the PAP’s continued super-majoritarian strength. Finally, we argue that China’s CCP will have an especially difficult time at calibrating its bittersweet spot in the absence of “competitive authoritarian” elections, an absence that also reduces confidence that it could reliably win free and fair elections if they were permitted. The key point, however, is that whereas most scholars suggest that China’s best hope for democratization lies in either a near-term economic crash or an irreparable internal party rift, we offer a scenario in which the CCP might be more likely to concede democratic reform from a position of increased strength than one of extreme weakness. Indeed, our framework suggests that the classic claim by O’Donnell and Schmitter that democratic transitions universally require “important divisions within the authoritarian regime itself” might not always hold true.[12]

Apologists for Asian authoritarianism have long maintained that the region is distinctly ill-suited for democracy. Our framework suggests, by stark contrast, that the developmental states of Northeast and Southeast Asia are especially well suited for democratization. Unlike regions of the world where the failure of an authoritarian regime threatens  the failure of the entire state apparatus, Asia is stocked with states that are sufficiently robust to deliver good governance, whether manned by authoritarian or democratic leaderships. They are also “blessed” with moderate and conservative middle-class electorates that tend to prefer parties with solid developmental records over untested if more reformist and redistributive party challengers. Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have proven these points most emphatically. Even a country with a wobblier Leviathan that suffered a more tumultuous authoritarian exit such as Indonesia has shown that democratization in the wake of decades of rapid state-led growth tends to be marked by continuity more than upheaval in governing coalitions. The key implication is that dominant authoritarian parties can similarly change their regime type without ceasing to be the central player in the regime itself in developmental party-states such as Singapore, Malaysia, and even China.


[1] Barbara Geddes, “What Do We Know About Democratization After Twenty Years?” Annual Review of Political Science 2 (1999), p. 129.

[2] Adam Przeworski, Democracy and the Market: Political and Economic Reforms in Eastern Europe and Latin America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

[3] Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way, Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes after the Cold War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[4] Dan Slater, “Strong-State Democratization in Malaysia and Singapore,” Journal of Democracy 23:2 (April 2012), pp. 19-33.

[5] Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Geddes, “What Do We Know?”; and Gary W. Cox, “Authoritarian Elections and Leadership Succession, 1975-2004,” Paper presented at the annual meetings of the American Political Science Association, Toronto (September 2009).

[6] Dan Slater and Sofia Fenner, “State Power and Staying Power: Infrastructural Mechanisms and Authoritarian Durability,” Journal of International Affairs 65:1 (Fall/Winter 2011); Levitsky and Way, Competitive Authoritarianism.

[7] Joseph Wong, Betting on Biotech: Innovation and the Limits of Asia’s Developmental State (Cornell University Press, 2011) and Healthy Democracies: Welfare Politics in Taiwan and South Korea (Cornell University Press, 2004); Dan Slater, Ordering Power: Contentious Politics and Authoritarian Leviathans in Southeast Asia (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010); and Richard Doner, Bryan Ritchie, and Dan Slater, “Systemic Vulnerability and the Origins of Developmental States: Northeast and Southeast Asia in Comparative Perspective,” International Organization 59 (Spring 2005), pp. 327-361.

[8] Anna Grzymala-Busse, Redeeming the Communist Past: The Regeneration of Communist Parties in East Central Europe (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[9] Stephan Haggard and Robert Kaufman, The Political Economy of Democratic Transitions (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

[10] Cedric Jourde, “The Master is Gone, but Does the House Still Stand? The Fate of Single-Party Systems after the Defeat of Single Parties in West Africa,” in Edward Friedman and Joseph Wong, eds., Political Transitions in Dominant Party Systems: Learning to Lose (New York: Routledge, 2008).

 [11] Slater, Ordering Power.

[12] Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe Schmitter, Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Tentative Conclusions about Uncertain Democracies (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986).