This chapter focuses on the pathways through which authoritarian regimes break down. Authoritarian regime exits fall into two general categories. Authoritarian regimes break down as a result of top-down processes initiated by regime insiders, such as military coups and elections. Authoritarian regimes also break down as a result of bottom-up pathways, including protests or insurgencies. The chapter then shows how the mode of regime failure influences a country's subsequent political trajectory. Some modes of exit like coups rarely lead to democratization, while other pathways, like peaceful protest, are more likely to usher in democracy. The chapter also discusses a different type of political transition: the departure of the regime's leader. It traces the pathways of authoritarian leader failure and explains how authoritarian leader exits influence the chance that the regime falls with the leader.
This chapter details the factors that increase the prospects of authoritarian regime failure. In-depth accounts of the downfall of specific authoritarian regimes show that it is most often a confluence of risk factors that bring down regimes. It is important to underscore that problems in dictatorships may persist for years without leading to breakdown. Authoritarian regimes can and often do persist in the face of elite divisions and defections, poor socio-economic conditions, corruption, and demographic challenges such as youth bulges. Such long-term factors increase a regime's risk of collapse by reducing a government's resilience to other short-term factors that often initiate its downfall. These short-term ‘triggering events’ include economic crises, fraudulent elections, and natural disasters. The chapter then considers how external forces—such as foreign aid, sanctions, and diffusion—can cause authoritarian breakdown.