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Executive election rules in dictatorships matter. Here’s why.

- May 12, 2015

President Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon (right) and President Jikwaya Kikwete of Tanzania (left) photographed at the London Conference on The Illegal Wildlife Trade, Feb. 13, 2014. Ali Bongo Ondimba has been president of Gabon since 2009. His father was president of Gabon from 1967 until his death in 2009. (UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office/Flickr)
On April 25, the president of Togo won election to his third term – his tenure follows 38 years of rule by his father. Next year, Gabon’s president will run for reelection, following 41 years of rule by his father. In other countries, fathers’ attempts to hand power to their sons ended with regime failure. Some argue that Hosni Mubarak’s plan to hand power to his son contributed to the Arab Spring in Egypt in 2011. Others say Ali Abdullah Saleh’s attempt, after 33 years in power, to put his son into power in Yemen contributed to that country’s current civil war.
Meanwhile, sons of founding fathers currently rule two of the world’s greatest economic success stories: Singapore’s prime minister is the son of first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, who died in March, and Botswana’s president is the son of that country’s first president. Some analysts consider these countries to be democratic, and others characterize them as “soft authoritarian” or “liberal authoritarian” regimes because, despite having civil liberties and multiparty elections, the ruling party never loses an election.
Why do some non-democracies endure while others collapse? Why are some non-democracies economic successes while others are failures? Recent research indicates that part of the story is political institutions, such as parties, legislatures, and contested elections.
Recently in The Monkey Cage, Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz discussed how seemingly democratic institutions, such as political parties and legislatures, make dictatorships more durable, and Michael Miller showed that multiparty elections in authoritarian regimes are associated with improved human development, economic growth, and responsiveness to citizens. This research primarily focuses on parties and legislative elections.
But what about executive elections – those of the president or prime minister? Do contested elections for the highest office undermine the durability of dictatorships? Do contested executive elections affect outcomes like economic growth? And what about the manner of elections, e.g., direct vs. indirect voting? Questions like these are often ignored because most presume that election rules in an ongoing dictatorship are irrelevant, since dictators don’t usually lose elections.
In my recently published article, “The Durability of Presidential and Parliament-Based Dictatorships,” however, I find that executive election rules in dictatorships affect a number of outcomes, including regime durability, economic growth, and political stability.
Most non-monarchy dictatorships prior to 1994 did not hold contested elections at the executive level (my research doesn’t consider monarchs, since they are never elected). The most common “executive selection system” during the Cold War was “Unelected”; either no elections were held or elections were uncontested. Following the Cold War’s end, a surge of contested presidential systems emerged in dictatorships, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and former Soviet Republics in Eastern Europe, and Central Asia. By 1995, contested Presidential systems were the most common form of executive selection system in authoritarian regimes worldwide.
Meanwhile, approximately five to 10 countries per year, both during and after the Cold War, used what I call a Parliament-based system, in which contested elections are held for the legislature, and the legislature elects the executive. In some cases – e.g., Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia – the executive is a Prime Minister. In other cases – e.g., Botswana and pre-2005 Egypt – the executive is a president that is elected indirectly through the legislature rather than directly by the voters. Pre-2005 Egypt was an interesting case: the multiparty Parliament was empowered to elect the president with a two-thirds majority, and then voters confirmed that election in a referendum.

Frequency of non-monarchy authoritarian regimes with Unelected (including single party) and multiparty Elected (Parliament-based and Presidential) executive selection systems, 1975-2012. Graph by Tyson Roberts, data from multiple sources.

Frequency of non-monarchy authoritarian regimes with Unelected (including single party) and multiparty Elected (Parliament-based and Presidential) executive selection systems, 1975-2012. Graph by Tyson Roberts, data from multiple sources.

If authoritarian leaders don’t lose elections, then why does the type of executive selection matter? My most important finding in this research was that the type of executive selection determines how long a regime will last.
For this finding, I build on the work of political scientists Barbara Geddes, Erica Frantz, and Joseph Wright, who show that party-based authoritarian regimes tend to be more durable than military regimes or personalistic dictatorships. A party-based regime tends to share power with a broader set of elites; these elites have an incentive to work together to keep the party in power. But in military regimes, many officers prefer to hand power to civilians in order to preserve the unity and reputation of the armed forces, leading to brief spells in power. In personalistic regimes, the support base is narrow, which makes holding executive office more lucrative but also less secure.
I calculate average risk of regime failure as the number of failures divided by the number of country-years. A military regime has a 12 percent chance of failure (meaning democratization or transition to a non-military authoritarian regime) in a given year, a personalist regime has a 6 percent chance of failure, and party-based regimes have just a 3 percent chance of failure in a given year.
If a party-based regime has a Parliament-based executive selection system, the power-sharing and regime-sustaining effects of a party-based regime are amplified. The executive relies upon party members to win legislative office and then support his candidacy. In a presidential-based election system, on the other hand, the executive runs for office directly, thus relying less on party members, and more on the armed forces to repress voting in opposition areas.
This helps explain why party-based authoritarian regimes with Parliament-based executive systems have been durable, e.g., Malaysia, Singapore, and Botswana. The average risk of failure for these regimes is less than 1 percent in a given year, while regime failure risk for party-based regimes with Presidential-based election systems is 5 percent. In other words, the durability of party-based systems is largely driven by regimes with a Parliament-based executive selection system. Authoritarian regimes that switch from a Parliament-based to a presidential system (such as Egypt in 2005 and Yemen in 1994) have a regime failure risk three times higher than regimes that maintain a Parliament-based system.
To understand further how the Parliament-based system extends the lifetime of party-based dictatorships, I have found a number of intriguing patterns that fit with this story. Economic growth is particularly high in such regimes; Singapore, Malaysia, and Botswana are just a few examples. These regimes are also stable politically, with few cabinet shake-ups or military coups.
The divergent trajectories of regimes with father-son rulers, or attempts at such, illustrate the dynamics of varying executive selection systems and their interaction with underlying power relations. In Togo and Gabon, each with a presidential system that concentrates power in the executive office, the son directly inherited his father’s post. In Singapore and Botswana, with Parliament-based systems that require greater power-sharing, politicians from outside the family held the top post between the terms of the founding father and today’s leader. In Egypt and Yemen, a Parliament-based system had been in place for many years, and then a presidential system was introduced – an institutional change of increased centralization of executive power accompanied by an attempt to transfer executive office from father to son – resulting in revolts by groups resisting a decrease in their influence.
Tyson Roberts is a lecturer at UCLA and UC Irvine. His research interests include comparative political institutions, democratization, international political economy, and the politics of economic development.