State Institutions and the Survival of Dictatorships

By Ezrow, Natasha M.; Frantz, Erica | Journal of International Affairs, Fall-Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

State Institutions and the Survival of Dictatorships


Ezrow, Natasha M., Frantz, Erica, Journal of International Affairs


Nominally democratic institutions such as political parties and legislatures are common in dictatorships, which rely on them to maintain control of the state. Parties and legislatures provide a means through which dictatorships co-opt potential opponents, distribute rents to supporters and mitigate elite conflicts. Indeed, regimes with these institutions have longer tenures than those without them. Using evidence from postwar dictatorships, this study demonstrates that parties and legislatures also enhance the ability of authoritarian regimes to withstand leadership transitions. Transfers of power are inherently destabilizing. Yet we find that dictatorships with parties and legislatures are far less likely to be associated with instability because these institutions insulate regimes from the disruptive effects of unconstitutional leadership transfers.

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Dictatorships are commonly perceived as repressive regimes in which power lies in the hands of a single individual, not with political institutions. Though this is true of some dictatorships, for much of the authoritarian world the reality is far more complex. Many authoritarian regimes grant partial political rights to their citizens, incorporate some level of power sharing between leaders and elites and rely on other strategies beyond repression for their survival. (1) Perhaps most surprising is the frequency with which dictatorships incorporate nominally democratic institutions, such as political parties and legislatures, into the regime apparatus.

Indeed, legislatures and political parties serve important functions in both democracies and dictatorships, but before turning to this discussion, it is important to clarify what we mean by political parties and legislatures. We define political parties as organized groups with roughly similar objectives and views that seek to influence policy through the process of getting candidates elected to public office. (2) Political parties in democracies represent the citizenry, help aggregate interests, channel public opinion and educate and socialize voters. Though political parties in dictatorships are not always able to influence policy, they serve a number of important functions, like coordinating elections and organizing the masses to prevent coup attempts. Moreover, parties allow the regime to recruit supporters, providing an additional means of controlling society and gaining legitimacy in the eyes of foreign observers. They also help co-opt elites by facilitating power-sharing deals and manage elite conflicts by distributing the spoils of power. We define legislatures as independent bodies of elected or selected individuals vested with the responsibility of making, amending or repealing laws. (3) These institutions also serve as a forum for elites to discuss policies, map out political agendas, coordinate actions or simply air grievances. (4)

Dictatorships rely on parties and legislatures because they help to prolong their survival. (5) Indeed, regimes that use these institutions are longer lasting than those that do not. (6) On average, dictatorships with neither a party nor a legislature rule for three and a half years, dictatorships with at least one party rule for eight and a half years and dictatorships with at least one party and a legislature rule for eighteen years. (7) These differences are substantial. Regimes with at least one party last more than twice as long as their institution-free counterparts, a relationship that is even more pronounced when they also possess legislatures. (8) Because parties and legislatures are so important in extending the longevity of regimes, of the 236 authoritarian regimes in power from 1946 to 2009, only four used neither a party nor a legislature during their tenures. (9)

Dictatorships appear to be well attuned to the fact that legislatures and political parties prolong their lifespans. Most incorporate parties and legislatures into the regime apparatus at some point during their rule. …

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