What Makes Military Dictators Transition out of Dictatorships?

By Ju, Changwook | Chicago Policy Review (Online), September 6, 2017 | Go to article overview

What Makes Military Dictators Transition out of Dictatorships?


Ju, Changwook, Chicago Policy Review (Online)


Frequent leadership cycles are common in dictatorships. Historically, military dictators, whose power is derived from the armed forces, have been subject to more subsequent coups and regime changes than their non-military counterparts. Given their short-lived tenure, military dictators always have to gauge their fate based on the premise of losing office, and a sense of foreboding and insecurity may haunt them throughout their tenure. In the face of these challenges, what should a military dictator pursue to ameliorate the insecure future self? This concern might be what leads a military dictator to transition to democracy.

Human ambitions turn out to be futile in the face of death. Given the risk of losing office and a high likelihood of serious punishment or execution, enhancing one’s post-tenure fate in the following administration is a military dictator’s utmost priority. A democratic institution’s core properties that could ensure a safer fate render democratization, not another military junta, much more appealing to the departing dictator. Considering this, political science professor Alexandre Debs in his 2016 article sheds new light on the underlying mechanisms behind military dictators’ transition out of dictatorship.

Noting historical evidence that military dictatorships have been ephemeral and often followed by abrupt democratization, Debs begins his study by focusing on military dictators’ characteristics in comparison to non-military dictators. One such comparison is that military dictators are more likely to use means of violence compared to their civilian counterparts. Debs analyzes the concept that a military dictator poses a material threat to any potential successor. Military dictators, who are proven to be specialized in violence, cannot credibly commit to not employing violence in subsequent contests for office. This commitment problem, in turn, increases the risk of elimination that the military dictator faces if he loses office.

Debs demonstrates this claim with the 1946-2004 Archigos data on the post-tenure fate of dictators. The author shows that 28 out of 203 military dictators (14 percent) were killed by subsequent autocratic successors, while 21 out of 275 non-military dictators (8 percent) had the same fate after a transition to another dictator. However, when it came to transitioning to a democracy, none of the 51 military dictators or 45 non-military dictators were killed. The notably larger effect for the military dictators’ post-tenure fate implies that military dictators experienced greater improvement in their post-tenure fate after democratic transitions compared to their non-military counterparts.

Thus, to avoid the ironic consequence-the more militarily capable, the less likely to survive-when transitioning to another dictatorship, a military dictator has ample reason to quickly replace his authority with democratic systems. Debs provides a historical review of three post-World War II examples-Lesotho, Uruguay, and Haiti-to substantiate military dictators’ propensity to transition out of dictatorships. In short, Colonel Elias Tutsoane Ramaema of Lesotho, General Gregorio Alvarez of Uruguay, and Lieutenant General Henri Namphy of Haiti stepped down and paved the way for transitions to democracy under circumstances that could improve their post-tenure fates. …

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