Anti-regime Uprisings and the Emergence of Electoral Authoritarianism

Published date01 March 2017
Date01 March 2017
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2017, Vol. 70(1) 111 –126
© 2016 University of Utah
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DOI: 10.1177/1065912916675739
Przeworski (2009, 291) asks a puzzle fundamental to
democratic political reform:
Why would people who monopolize political power ever
decide to put their interests or values at risk by sharing it
with others? Specifically, why would those who hold
political rights in the form of suffrage decide to extend these
rights to anyone else?
He argues that revolutionary threats compel elites to
acquiesce to demands for the institutional reform. This
article asks a similar question regarding the introduction
of multiparty elections with universal suffrage for the
national executive and legislature in authoritarian
regimes. Why would autocrats embrace electoral compe-
tition that puts their own interests at risk?
Given the widespread adoption of authoritarian elec-
tions, a growing body of studies purports to explain the
functional roles of multiparty elections in autocracies.1
These studies tend to “view the establishment of elections
as a means by which dictators hold onto power” (Gandhi
and Lust-Okar 2009, 404). Yet as Brancati (2014, 321)
points out, they often “infer leaders’ motivation for adopt-
ing nominally democratic institutions from the outcomes
they produce.” Inferring the reasons for the emergence of
multiparty elections from the roles those elections play in
regimes, however, misses the fact that the functions served
by authoritarian elections do not necessarily explain their
causes (Brancati 2014, 321; Gandhi and Lust-Okar 2009,
Consequently, the current literature is plagued by a
lack of systematic cross-national studies on the establish-
ment of electoral authoritarianism (EA), defined as autoc-
racies that have multiparty elections, based on universal
suffrage, for the executive and legislature (Schedler 2013,
29). This is in marked contrast to the accumulation of
sophisticated empirical studies on the determinants of
democratization (e.g., Acemoglu et al. 2008). Researchers
have yet to develop a systemic understanding of what fac-
tors are significantly associated with regime change to
EA as well as whether the determinants of democratiza-
tion also promote such transitions.
In this article, I analyze the role of mass uprisings2 in
prompting transitions from closed regimes to EA regimes,3
drawing on mass-based perspectives about democratiza-
tion (Acemoglu and Robinson 2006; Bratton and Van de
Walle 1997; Bunce and Wolchik 2010; Przeworski 1991;
675739PRQXXX10.1177/1065912916675739Political Research QuarterlyKim
1University of Nebraska–Lincoln, USA
Corresponding Author:
Nam Kyu Kim, Department of Political Science, University of
Nebraska–Lincoln, 511 Oldfather Hall, Lincoln, NE 68588, USA.
Anti-regime Uprisings and the
Emergence of Electoral
Nam Kyu Kim1
This paper explores the role of threats from below in the emergence of electoral authoritarianism. Mass uprisings
for democratic regime change undermine closed authoritarian regimes by making it difficult for autocrats to maintain
their regimes through repression and co-optation. Anti-regime uprisings also promote the establishment of electoral
authoritarianism by toppling the existing closed regime or by compelling autocrats to offer political reform as a
survival strategy. Looking at closed authoritarian regimes from 1961 to 2006, my analysis reveals that anti-regime mass
uprisings are significantly associated with transitions to electoral authoritarianism. I also find that nonviolent uprisings
are more likely than violent uprisings to result in the establishment of electoral authoritarianism and that the effect
of anti-regime uprisings on transitions to electoral authoritarianism is greater when a country is surrounded by more
democracies or is ethnically or religiously homogeneous.
protest, nondemocratic regimes, political survival, transition
112 Political Research Quarterly 70(1)
Schedler 2013; Wood 2000). Widespread and sustained
mass uprisings demanding democratic reform produce
significant social unrest and political instability, under-
mining the regime’s legitimacy and thereby precipitating
regime overthrow. Therefore, anti-regime mass uprisings
pose a credible threat to leader tenure, making it difficult
for autocrats to maintain their rule through repression and
co-optation. I propose that mass uprisings promote the
emergence of EA in two ways: (1) they can topple existing
closed regimes, which may lead to the establishment of
new EA regimes or (2) they can compel authoritarian
elites to offer political reform as a survival strategy with-
out producing leadership change.
In my analysis of closed authoritarian regimes from
1961 to 2006, I find strong evidence for a relationship
between mass uprisings for regime change and transitions
to electoral autocracies. Anti-regime uprisings prompt
both EA transitions with and without leadership turnover.
Furthermore, my additional analyses confirm that EA
transitions follow anti-regime uprisings, not the other way
around. Last, consistent with previous studies on nonvio-
lent movements (Celestino and Gleditsch 2013;
Chenoweth and Stephan 2011; Schock 2005; Sharp 1973),
I find that nonviolent uprisings are more likely than vio-
lent uprisings to result in the establishment of EA and that
the effect of nonviolent anti-regime uprisings on EA tran-
sitions strengthens when a country is surrounded by more
democracies and is less ethnically fractionalized.
This article contributes to the burgeoning literature on
EA by systematically exploring the role of popular pro-
tests and by evaluating such protests against the political
and socioeconomic factors emphasized by competing
explanations. My study also weighs in on the ongoing
debate over the extent to which popular protests prompt
the collapse of authoritarian regimes and promote politi-
cal liberalization. These results contribute to a growing
body of quantitative evidence demonstrating the impor-
tance of popular protests in prompting suffrage exten-
sions (Aidt and Jensen 2014; Przeworski 2009) and
democratizations (Celestino and Gleditsch 2013; Teorell
2010; Ulfelder 2005). Last, this study provides a rare
cross-national examination of transitions to EA regimes,
highlighting the importance of both mass protests and
international factors.
Scholars generally agree over two defining characteris-
tics of EA: the existence of electoral contestation and the
violation of democratic principles of freedom and fair-
ness. The first attribute distinguishes electoral authoritar-
ian regimes from “closed” authoritarian regimes (Howard
and Roessler 2006; Schedler 2013). EA regimes regularly
allow electoral contest for executive power, although
elections are often flawed and minimally competitive.
Hence, EA regimes also differ from multiparty autocra-
cies, which emphasizes party pluralism without subject-
ing the head of government to electoral competition
(Schedler 2013, 82). Thus, authoritarian regimes, such as
Jordan, Kuwait, and Morocco, that allow for multiparty
competition only in legislative or subnational elections
do not qualify as electoral autocracies.
However, the formal properties of representative insti-
tutions do not distinguish between electoral autocracies
and democracies. As Diamond (2002, 28) notes, “The
distinction between electoral democracy and EA turns
crucially on the freedom, fairness, inclusiveness, and
meaningfulness of elections.” When an electoral regime
fully violates at least one of these minimum attributes of
democratic elections, it qualifies as EA (Schedler 2013,
80). In EA regimes, violations of the democratic princi-
ples through electoral manipulation are both frequent and
serious enough that the regime fails to meet conventional
minimum standards for democracy (Levitsky and Way
2010; Schedler 2013).
Theoretical Discussion
I argue that mass uprisings demanding regime change
promote institutional reform. In making this argument, I
follow extant scholarship on political liberalization and
democratization from below, focusing on the conflict
between regime and opposition actors (Acemoglu and
Robinson 2006; Bratton and Van de Walle 1997; Bunce
and Wolchik 2010; Chenoweth and Stephan 2011;
Howard and Roessler 2006; Wood 2000). According to
this perspective, multiparty politics are “extorted conces-
sions” (Cox 2009, 4) in that autocrats are compelled to
hold elections in response to popular revolutionary
threats. Below, I describe how mass protests for regime
change undermine closed authoritarian regimes and pro-
mote the introduction of multiparty politics. I also explain
why nonviolent protests are more effective in doing so
than violent protests.
Anti-regime Uprisings and Emergence of
Multiparty Elections
Widespread and sustained mass protests seeking regime
change pose a direct threat to incumbent authoritarian
regimes simply because they can expel long-ruling auto-
crats and overthrow incumbent regimes (Teorell 2010;
Ulfelder 2005). Such protests signal not only widespread
discontent with the government but also the potential for
regime change, demonstrating that many obstacles to
mobilizing and organizing popular support, to a degree,
have been overcome. Mass movements often serve as
focal points for facilitating coordination against the

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