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Democracies and Authoritarian Regimes

Democracies and Authoritarian Regimes (1st edn)

Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Natasha Lindstaedt, and Erica Frantz
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p. 1016. The Durability of Autocracylocked

p. 1016. The Durability of Autocracylocked

  • Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Andrea Kendall-TaylorDirector of the Transatlantic Security Program, Center for a New American Security
  • Natasha LindstaedtNatasha LindstaedtProfessor of Government, University of Essex
  •  and Erica FrantzErica FrantzAssistant Professor, Michigan State University


This chapter identifies sources of authoritarian durability. To maintain a firm grip on power, authoritarian regimes must maintain some support among three primary constituencies: the elite, the opposition, and the broader public. After discussing the relationship of these groups to regime durability, the chapter outlines the two primary strategies that autocracies use to maintain control—repression and co-optation—and the benefits and risks of each. Repression is defined as a form of socio-political control used by authorities against those within their territorial jurisdiction to deter specific activities and beliefs perceived as threatening to political order. Dictatorships have also learned to use political institutions—namely elections, political parties, and legislatures—to co-opt their opponents. The chapter then highlights other factors that research has shown to enhance regime durability, including regime type, state capacity, a country's access to natural resource wealth, and whether the regime was born out of a revolutionary struggle.

Many authoritarian regimes in power today have been around for decades. The People’s Action Party, for example, has controlled Singapore since its independence in 1965. The Chinese Communist Party has been in power for even longer, approaching nearly seven decades of rule. And the monarchy in Oman has governed for more than two hundred years. Of course, not all authoritarian regimes have this staying power. Cambodia’s Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge ruled for only four years. Similarly, the Turkish military’s reign in the 1980s lasted just three years. This variation in longevity raises the question: what makes some authoritarian regimes more durable than others?

Durability differs not only across regimes, but also over time. Since the end of the Cold War authoritarian regimes have grown more durable with post-Cold War autocracies lasting in power longer than their Cold War predecessors. From 1946 to 1989, the average duration of an authoritarian regime was twelve years. Since the end of the Cold War this number has almost doubled to an average of twenty years. Today, the typical authoritarian regime has been in power for twenty-five years.1 Iran’s theocratic regime, for example, has ruled for nearly four decades since the Shah was toppled in the Iranian Revolution in 1979. The Cuban regime has maintained power since 1959, even riding out the leadership handoff from Fidel Castro to his brother Raul in 2008 and the changeover to a non-Castro (long-time party man Miguel Diaz-Canel) in 2018. Learning from the mistakes—and successes—of their predecessors and peers, today’s autocracies are altering their tactics in ways that increase their longevity.

In this chapter, we identify sources of authoritarian durability. We first identify the domestic groups that influence authoritarian survival—namely, the elite, opposition, p. 102and public. After discussing the relationship of these groups to regime durability, we outline the two primary strategies that autocracies use to maintain control, repression and co-optation, and the benefits and risks of each. We then highlight other factors that research has shown to enhance regime durability, including regime type, state capacity, a country’s access to natural resource wealth, and whether the regime was born out of a revolutionary struggle.

Authoritarian constituents and their role in stability

No authoritarian leader rules alone. Even the most personalized and repressive dictators cannot survive in office without the backing of a core support group (Bueno de Mesquita et al., 2005). In autocracies, the stakes of losing support are high. While defeated democratic leaders can retire quietly or even make a repeated run for political office, members of ousted authoritarian governments are frequently jailed, exiled, or killed (Svolik, 2009, 2012). To maintain a firm grip on power, authoritarian regimes must maintain some support among three primary constituencies—the elite, the opposition, and the broader public.

The elite

Dictatorships that command support from a broad swath of elites—including individuals from an autocrat’s inner circle, the government, and the security services—tend to be the most durable. A strong and coherent elite is better able to resist bottom-up pressure to reform and less likely to collapse because of internal fissures or divisions. In contrast, regimes that fail to elicit elite buy-in or that allow ambitious members of the inner circle to develop independent bases of support are shorter-lived. A robust body of academic research shows that regime insiders pose the greatest threat to a dictator’s rule. Empirical analysis finds that regime insiders ousted 205 of the 316 authoritarian leaders (or two-thirds of all autocrats) that held office between 1946 and 2008 and lost power through non-constitutional means (Svolik, 2012).2 Dictators therefore seek to maintain the unity and cohesion of their elite by ensuring the perceived benefits of supporting the regime outweigh the cost of defection.

Not only do authoritarian regimes benefit from a cohesive political elite, but loyal security forces are critical to regime survival. As Geddes et al. (2014) show, about one-third of all authoritarian regimes from 1946 to 2010 were ousted via coups—the most common way that autocracies end. Many coups are carried out by senior military officers who are part of the regime’s inner circle. Durable autocracies, therefore, must secure the backing of these actors to maintain power. A loyal security apparatus is unlikely to make attempts or support the efforts of others to depose an incumbent regime through a coup; it is also more willing to protect a regime in the face of widespread citizen unrest (see Box 6.1).p. 103

Box 6.1: The security services and authoritarian durability

As we noted in the text, the loyalty of the security services is a key pillar of authoritarian stability. Given the importance that these actors play in the survival of autocracies, how do we know which security services are likely to be loyal? Political science research suggests that the loyalty of the security services is shaped by two often-related factors: the social composition of the regime and its military and the professionalism of the security apparatus (Bellin, 2012, Gause, 2011).

Security actors who are motivated by ethnic/sectarian or familial ties are the most loyal because these officials see their fate as closely tied to that of the leader. Those security services that are led by family members of the regime leader or that are largely composed by members from the incumbent’s ethnic group are therefore more willing to follow orders to employ violence to maintain control.

In contrast, professionalized security actors—namely those that serve in a security sector governed by rules, with established paths of career advancement and recruitment, and where promotion is based on performance, not politics—have an identity separate from the state. These officials can typically envision a career regardless of the specific leader in power, rendering them less willing to pursue actions, such as cracking down on protesters, which could tarnish their standing with prospective leaders and the public.

The outcomes of protests during the Arab Spring demonstrate the importance of the social composition and professionalism of the security apparatus (Bellin, 2012; Gause, 2011). Egypt and Tunisia, two countries that experienced regime breakdown, are two of the most ethnically homogeneous societies in the Arab world and both have relatively professionalized militaries. The Tunisian military was small and removed from politics. The Egyptian army lacked familial ties to Hosni Mubarak and his family. In these two cases, security actors realized that their institutions could play an important role under new regimes and thus were willing to abandon the regime in the face of protests. In contrast, in several countries where security actors stood firm and regimes remained in place (at least initially), such as Bahrain, Libya, and Syria, security services had close ties to the incumbent regime through familial and/or sect connections.

The opposition

In addition to managing the elite, authoritarian regimes must also contend with individuals who actively oppose the regime. Political opposition in autocracies may take a number of forms, including formalized political parties, civil society organizations, social movements, charismatic leaders with small groups of backers, and even armed groups. The opposition can threaten an authoritarian regime’s hold on power if these groups gain enough strength and/or resources to rival that of the incumbent regime (Dahl, 1971; Rustow, 1970). If the regime comes to view the opposition as a credible threat, it may be willing to grant concessions, such as greater political and civil liberties, in an effort to stave off the challenge. In some cases, such limited openings can enable the opposition to gain momentum. If enough concessions are made and power becomes evenly distributed between the regime and the opposition, a stalemate occurs in which it is difficult for any one faction to monopolize control or exert its preferred course of action on the other. To navigate out of the stalemate, an authoritarian regime may come to view competitive elections as a viable pathway out. Competitive elections, in turn, can threaten an autocracy’s hold on power.p. 104

In order to avoid this cycle, authoritarian regimes seek to ensure that they clearly maintain the upper hand relative to the opposition. In fully authoritarian regimes, the power imbalance between the regime and opposition is extreme and incumbents provide little space for opposition to exist. In hybrid regimes, governments tolerate or are unable to reign-in opposition competition. The ability of authoritarians to maintain power in hybrid regimes, therefore, depends decisively on their ability to ensure the playing field remains sufficiently tilted in their favour and that the opposition is unable to present a cohesive challenge to the regime.

The public

Authoritarian regimes must also maintain the support of at least a subset of the population to maintain power. The basis of an authoritarian regime’s public support is often referred to as a social contract, or an implicit agreement between members of society and the regime over the exchange of some mix of social benefits in return for compliance. Social contracts vary by country, but they often include considerations including economic performance, political stability, or ideological, religious, or tribal legitimacy. A country’s historical experience shapes citizen expectations of what their government should deliver. For example, the social contract in Tajikistan, which experienced civil war from 1992 to 1997 and has faced decades of low economic development, is likely to differ significantly from public expectations in petroleum-rich Saudi Arabia.

Public support enhances regime stability because it is difficult for challengers to unseat autocracies that enjoy high levels of popularity, regardless of whether this support is genuine or partly manufactured (Dimitrov, 2009). Some degree of public support enhances regime durability in two ways. First, public support reduces a regime’s coup risk. Members of the elite or security services will only be willing to stage a coup if they think the public (or at least some significant segment of it) will broadly welcome their action. In other words, the erosion of popular support or overt public displays of dissatisfaction with the government increases the risk of coups (Welch, 1970; Finer, 2017). By ensuring the loyalty of some segments of society, autocracies can affect the decision calculus of would-be-coup plotters and reduce the incidence of coups.

Public support can also enhance regime endurance by reducing the risk of wide scale protest. Throughout history, the public’s ability to overthrow autocracies has been limited. Regime-ending protests have been relatively rare because, in contrast to elites, citizens do not control weapons, personnel, or other political resources. Citizens’ power stems exclusively from their numbers. However, as we discuss at greater length in Chapter 8, protests are ousting a rising proportion of autocrats in the post-Cold War era. In many instances, the regime goes down with the ousted leader. The growing threat of protest helps explain why we see authoritarians such as Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping seeking to popularize narratives about the so-called risks of U.S.-backed attempts to unseat unfriendly dictators and tighten restrictions on political and civil liberties. As authoritarian regimes come to view the public as an increasing threat to their power, they are pursuing measures to make it harder for people to organize and threaten their hold on power.p. 105

Box 6.2: Authoritarian tactics

The absence of a viable alternative to the incumbent regime is a key source of authoritarian durability. If elites and citizens cannot envision a future under different leadership, they have little choice but to acquiesce to the current regime. Autocrats frequently use the following tactics to pre-emptively weaken challengers from the elite, opposition, and public to prevent the emergence of an alternative and maintain their control:

Divide and rule

Authoritarian regimes seek to use fissures within society—including inter-ethnic or geographic divisions—to create opposing factions they play off one another. Such ‘divide and rule’ strategies make it difficult for opponents to coordinate, which prevents the emergence of a unified or cohesive challenge to the regime. Many leaders, such as Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi and Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Arap Moi pitted tribal groups against one another to maintain their power (Black, 2000; Fox, 1996). In addition to exacerbating existing fissures, authoritarian leaders also seek to manufacture them. As we discuss later in this chapter, autocrats enable some opposition groups to participate in elections while banning others from participation. Because members of the opposition cannot be certain who receives support from the regime, this divide and rule strategy creates suspicion and distrust among the opposition and prevents their formation of a unified front.

Elite rotation

Authoritarian leaders may also regularly shuffle high-level government officials to ensure that no one individual is able to establish a personal following or base of support (Migdal, 1988). This practice also enables leaders to breed loyalty among their inner circle. By creating a system characterized by uncertainty and vulnerability, public officials come to realize they depend on and are indebted to the leader for their selection and maintenance of power. This was a favoured tactic of Zaire’s Mobutu. A New York Times correspondent wrote in 1988, ‘Every six months or so, Mr. Mobutu shuffles the Cabinet, with some ministers moving up, others put on the street and a few put in jail on graft or nepotism charges … the shuffling makes it hard for anyone to become a recognized rival to the President.’3 Similarly, Acemoglu et al. wrote that Zairian government officials were ‘constantly reminded of the precariousness of tenure by the frequency of office rotation, which simultaneously fuels the hopes of those Zairians anxiously waiting just outside the portals of power’ (2004, p. 168).

Promoting based on loyalty, weeding out competence

Authoritarian leaders often promote regime officials based on loyalty rather than competence and may sideline their most capable advisors to prevent the emergence of skilful and/or ambitious challengers. Georgy Egorov and Constantin Sonin (2011) underscore that, ‘while incompetent ministers are not completely unusual in democratic countries, most historians and political scientists would agree that dictatorships are especially marred by incompetence’ (p. 904).

Such preference for loyalty is most pronounced in personalist dictatorships, which lack strong political parties or militaries that can incorporate and harness skilled bureaucrats in a manner less threatening to the regime. In the personalist dictatorship under Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican p. 106Republic, for example, loyalty was the key criterion for political appointments. Vice President Jacinto Bienvenido Peynado was appointed ‘due to his loyalty and the fact that he preferred leisure to power’ (Crassweller, 1966). In a more extreme case, Cambodia’s Pol Pot was so fearful of potential rivals that he executed anyone with a higher education or public service experience upon his assumption of power (Kiernan, 2004).

Although these tactics help leaders prevent the emergence of political rivals, they also create liabilities for authoritarian leaders. As discussed in Chapter 5, autocrats who make promotions based on loyalty rather than competence and who actively remove experienced and competent individuals from important positions tend to receive inaccurate or incomplete information that can lead to policy miscalculations. Former Philippine government officials who served under Ferdinand Marcos reported that, ‘loyalty dictated that they would not state anything to contradict Marcos’ (Hawes, 1995, p. 158). Another study argues that personalist authoritarian leaders are the most likely to be involved in inter-state wars in part because these leaders receive inaccurate information that raises the risk of war (Weeks, 2012).

Emphasizing security threats

Authoritarian regimes use a country’s recent experience with instability or threats to security to justify repressive tactics. The military regime in South Korea under Park Chung Hee (1963–79) used the threat from North Korea to justify martial law. Similarly, Ferdinand Marcos (1965–86) used threats of an insurgency in the south to implement martial law in the Philippines and Peru’s Alberto Fujimori used the Shining Path insurgency to justify his more repressive measures. The political psychology literature suggests that dictators are wise to pursue this approach. Studies show that when individuals feel threatened—from a fear of outsiders, physical threats, or destabilizing change, for example—they prefer strong and decisive leaders willing to use force to restore or maintain order (Feldman and Stenner, 1997; Feldman, 2017).


Political purges are defined as the removal of elite members through violent means, including execution, imprisonment, or exile. Purges can be used to eliminate political enemies that threaten an autocrat’s power. Purges also dissuade future challengers by sending a clear message to other elites as to the risk of their ambitions. By removing members of the inner circle, purges enable leaders to reduce the size of the ruling coalition and concentrate power and benefits in a remaining group of supporters (de Mesquita, 2005). Saddam Hussein, for example, executed most members of his elite support group in 1979, replacing them with new supporters. Of those executed, most had been among his most intimate associates (Ezrow and Frantz, 2011). The great purge in the Soviet Union in the 1930s saw hundreds of potentially threatening government officials purged in order to eliminate challenges to Stalin’s rule (Egorov and Sonin, 2011).

Academic research suggests that purges are most likely to occur early in a leader’s tenure, although not before a new autocrat has established control (Bueno de Mesquita and Smith, 2017). Leaders such as Uganda’s Idi Amin, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, and China’s Mao Zedong carried out their purges relatively early in their tenures and all the purges petered out as the leaders aged. Of course there are exceptions. For example, Turkish Prime Minister Erdog˘an—in power since 2003—used a failed coup attempt in July 2016 to dismiss or suspend more than 140,000 Turkish workers who were believed to be critical of his government. Exceptions notwithstanding, purges tend to be most common in the first several years after a leader assumes power.p. 107

Research is divided, however, on the effect of a country’s coup risk on the timing of purges. Some studies suggest that purges are more likely to occur when a leader perceives that the risk of a coup is rising. Dictators are more inclined to purge strong and competent officers to diminish capabilities to organize a coup (Stepan, 1971; Finer, 2017; Belkin and Schofer, 2003; 2005; Roessler, 2011). A recent study, however, contradicts this claim. Using data on 438 military purges in 111 authoritarian countries from 1969 to 2003, a 2017 study finds that dictators are more willing and able to purge regime officials when they perceive their coup risk is low (Sudduth, 2017). This is because purges can trigger a backlash, prompting the elite to seek to remove the leader. In Pakistan, for example, just hours after Prime Minister Sharif dismissed powerful army Chief Gen. Pervez Musharraf in 1999, Musharraf and his remaining military supporters ousted Sharif in a coup. A dictator may therefore prefer to purge when he senses that the security services’ capacity to retaliate is low.

Although purges have been a common tactic in autocracies, little empirical work has tested the effectiveness of the tactic. Using cross-national statistical analysis, another study finds that purges increase the risk of coups in autocracies (Bove and Rivera, 2015). They suggest that elite fears of being the target of repression lead some actors to pre-emptively seek to oust the incumbent. Another work however, finds that purges can enhance regime stability in post-conflict environments (Braithwaite and Sudduth, 2016). This study finds evidence that military purges reduce a country’s risk of reverting to civil conflict.

Authoritarian survival strategies

Autocrats, like all politicians, seek to maintain power. This can be particularly hard for dictators who typically cannot rely on electoral legitimacy to defend their rule and face a constant threat of overthrow from their elite, opposition, and public. To mitigate these threats, dictators have two broad tools at their disposal: repression and co-optation. Each of these tools serves a distinct purpose for the regime. But each also generates risks. In determining their plan for maintaining power, dictatorships weigh the costs and benefits of both tools. In this section, we discuss the benefits and risks of a regime’s use of repression and co-optation.


Repression is perhaps the most obvious tool that dictatorships use to maintain power and is a defining feature of authoritarian governance. Repression is defined as a form of socio-political control used by authorities against those within their territorial jurisdiction to deter specific activities and beliefs perceived as threatening to political order (Goldstein, 1978). Unlike in democracies where governments that rely heavily on repression can be voted out of office, autocrats have little to no electoral accountability and repressive regimes often go unpunished. Dictatorships are therefore far more repressive than their democratic counterparts (Davenport and Armstrong, 2004; Poe and Tate, 1994; Poe, Tate, and Keith, 1999; Vreeland, 2008).p. 108

Repression comes in many forms (Davenport, 2007; Fein, 1995). The political science literature lacks consensus on how best to categorize different types of repression. Many empirical studies, such as those examining causes and implications of repression, divide repressive strategies into two broad bins: civil liberty or empowerment rights repression (i.e. censorship, restrictions on assembly), which typically affects the population at large, and physical integrity rights repression (i.e. torture, disappearances, political imprisonment), which generally affects specific individuals. Most dictators use a mixture of both. Researchers quantify these forms of repression using human rights reports and government records that document state coercion within countries over time.

Other scholars take a different approach to disaggregating repression and instead distinguish between ‘high intensity’ and ‘low intensity’ repression (Levitsky and Way, 2002). High intensity repression involves visible and more blatant actions, such as the use of violence against well-known opposition leaders or large groups of protesters, or the outright theft of elections. Low intensity repression, in contrast, is subtler and includes measures such as surveillance, detainment, and use of the tax police and libel suits to target the opposition. Low intensity coercion enables autocracies to weaken the opposition before it becomes too strong and signal to citizens the bounds of acceptable behaviour. Levitsky and Way (2002) note that a leader’s mix of these forms of repression depends in large part on the capacity of the state. Low intensity coercion requires extensive state scope, such as a well-trained state service that penetrates most of society. High intensity coercion, in contrast, demands a cohesive and loyal security apparatus, willing and able to use force to protect the regime.

The empirical record indicates that repression is an effective strategy for prolonging regime survival. Put differently, the more repressive the dictatorship, the lower the risk of overthrow (Escriba-Folch, 2013). Repression works as a survival tool in several ways. Most directly, regimes can prolong their rule by eliminating their most threatening opposition through political imprisonment, disappearances, and extra-judicial killings. In the Middle East, such targeted repression also weakens the opposition because the threat of state violence requires opposition actors to focus primarily on survival, rather than developing clear demands or policy agendas (Bellin, 2004).

Repression also works as a survival tool because it increases the costs of opposing the dictatorship, making disloyalty a less attractive option. In autocracies, citizen perceptions of a regime’s willingness and ability to use force can be just as important as the government’s actual repressive capacity. No autocratic government wants to be in the position of having to give the order to use force against protesters for fear that the security service will defect, which would spell the end of the regime. Regimes, therefore, go to great lengths to convince citizens of their capacity to put down anti-regime activity. In Russia, for example, President Putin created a new Presidential Guard in April 2016—a powerful structure comprised of more than 180,000 interior ministry troops plus special police units. Just a few months earlier, Putin signed into law a bill allowing agents from the Federal Security Service (FSB) to open fire on crowds, possibly without warning. These measures affect citizens’ willingness to participate in anti-regime activities by raising the perceived costs of their actions.p. 109

Finally, repression reduces anti-regime activity by making collective action more difficult. Most importantly, high levels of repression limit the extent to which citizens are willing to make their true opinions about the regime public. This acts as a deterrent against dissident activities because most individuals will only participate in protests if they believe others will do the same (Tucker, 2007). Because citizens in repressive regimes do not openly voice dissatisfaction with the regime for fear of government retaliation, it makes collection action hard to orchestrate. As a result, repressive autocracies experience fewer protests and other acts of civil disobedience relative to more permissive regimes (Kricheli et al., 2011).

A dictatorship’s use of repression, however, does not come without costs (Gartner and Regan, 1996). Repressive measures can breed popular discontent and decrease political legitimacy, increasing the chances that isolated acts of resistance will more easily escalate into destabilizing civil unrest (Lichbach, 1987; Moore, 1998). Similarly, in some cases, indiscriminate repression can actually serve to elicit a backlash against the state and strengthen opposition (Francisco, 1995; Kalyvas, 2006). Dictatorships, therefore, must factor in the capacity of their security services when contemplating the use of repression. Effective coercive apparatuses can deploy violence in a controlled way, ensuring that state repression does not go beyond specified targets and limits. In states with limited coercive capacity, however, autocratic governments can overreact to regime threats and take actions that actually serve to strengthen anti-regime activity and raise the risks of overthrow.

Moreover, repression makes individuals less inclined to convey information about levels of social discontent to the dictator out of fear of reprisal. Ronald Wintrobe (1998) termed this predicament the ‘dictator’s dilemma’, because the more dictators repress citizens to deter efforts to oust them, the less information dictators have about such efforts (Wintrobe, 1998). Repression, therefore, reduces the amount of information available to dictators, complicating their ability to rule. Dictators in highly repressive regimes sometimes operate from a faulty understanding of economic and/or political trends within their countries, raising the risk of policy miscalculations or other missteps that can weaken the broader regime’s hold on power.

Lastly, in order to increase levels of repression, dictatorships must allocate sufficient power to the security services, which, in the end, may constitute the greatest threat of all to their rule (Wintrobe, 1998). Armed with greater resources, the same individuals hired to protect the regime may at any moment turn against it.


In addition to repression, autocracies seek to prolong their political survival by co-opting support for their regime (Gandhi, 2008; Gandhi and Przeworski, 2006, 2007; Geddes, 2006; Magaloni, 2008; O’Donnell, 1979; Wintrobe, 1998). Co-optation, as we use it here, refers to a regime’s efforts to engender loyalty, often by tying strategically relevant actors or groups to the regime elite (Gerschewski, 2013).

Co-optation is an effective way to maintain power for a number of reasons. First, under dictatorship, it is a very real possibility that a generous leader will be replaced with p. 110a more repressive one. This possibility offers individuals, especially those who do particularly well under the current leadership, a powerful motive to support it (Wintrobe, 1998). Doling out benefits, whether in the form of lump sum payments, positions of power, or policy influence, gives individuals a vested interest in the continuation of the dictator’s survival and the regime’s more broadly.

Second, the use of co-optation decreases the likelihood that isolated episodes of discontent will escalate into the type of large-scale civil unrest that can trigger the dictatorship’s collapse (Kuran, 1991). Small scale protests over particularistic issues, such as student protests over poor facilities or civil servants complaining about salary arrears, are relatively frequent events in autocracies, but are rarely destabilizing. Co-optation, rather than repression, can enable leaders to maintain control without creating high levels of overall social discontent that in turn allow low-level protests to spread or gain momentum.

Third, the opposition’s decision over whether to ‘accept’ the regime’s offer of co-optation often divides it, increasing the coordination costs associated with challenging the regime (Magaloni and Kricheli, 2010). In most autocracies, for example, there are ‘opposition’ groups that are closely associated with the incumbent regime. These groups, sometimes called the ‘pseudo-opposition’ are often funded by the government or receive perks in exchange for compliance with the government line. By creating these relationships and permitting the pseudo-opposition to function, incumbent regimes can create a façade of multiparty democracy and simultaneously sow fissures within the opposition that make it hard for regime opponents to mount a cohesive challenge.

Finally, co-optation can be an effective deterrent against efforts by the elite to unseat the dictator. By ‘purchasing’ the support of key sectors of the population, dictators can convey to rivals that they are legitimately popular and that citizens will view any efforts to unseat them unfavourably (Geddes, 2006). In the post-Soviet space, for example, it has been the ‘popular autocrats’ in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Russia—those regimes that can use natural resource wealth to buy the support of the electorate—that have proven to be most resilient (Dimitrov, 2009).

Autocrats can co-opt support for their regimes in several ways. A leader’s distribution of patronage, or financial incentives provided in exchange for regime loyalty, is among the most common tool in autocracies’ arsenal of survival tactics. Regimes can use such ‘gifts’ to establish control over recipients and induce them to behave in ways that they might not otherwise, inculcating their loyalty over time (Wintrobe, 1998). A leader’s distribution of patronage is effective not only for ensuring the loyalty of the elite (Bueno de Mesquita et al., 2005), but also of other influential segments of society (Stokes et al., 2013; Wantchekon, 2003). For example, in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, governments fund the media, NGOs, artists, and intellectuals. In return, newspaper publishers publish exclusively pro-government stories, and opera singers, painters, poets, and intellectuals are called upon for public endorsements at politically opportune times, such as during election campaigns. The regime’s distribution of financial resources reduces the number of prominent individuals who openly challenge government policies and advocate for reform. (Kendall-Taylor, 2011).p. 111

There are several risks, however, associated with a regime’s reliance on patronage. First, purchasing the support of key segments of society requires that a regime have steady access to resources to sustain the practice. Those regimes that rely disproportionately on patronage may have a greater risk of breakdown in times of economic stagnation or decline. Second, the distribution of resources is not a credible guarantee of long-term support for the regime. In a study of the effects of targeted social spending in Brazil, for example, empirical research showed that while the recipients of government benefits were more likely to vote for the incumbent party in the proximate election, the loyalty of these recipients diminished over time (Zucco, 2013). Moreover, once an individual has received a gift from the regime, there is nothing to guarantee that the recipient will not use the transfer to strengthen his own coalition and seek the regime’s overthrow (Magaloni, 2008).

To mitigate the problems that arise from a strategy based on distributing financial incentives, dictatorships have also learned to use political institutions to co-opt their opponents. A large body of political science research shows that an autocracy’s use of institutions—namely elections, political parties, and legislatures—prolong their durability (Gandhi, 2008; Gandhi and Przeworski, 2007; Geddes, 2005; Magaloni, 2008). These institutions in authoritarian settings are often referred to as pseudo-democratic institutions because they mimic those found in democracies, but do not function in the same ways. Elections in autocracies, for example, do not typically serve as a mechanism for citizens to select their leaders, and legislatures do not meaningfully constrain executive power. Although many observers view pseudo-democratic institutions as little more than ‘window dressing’, these institutions shape the relationships between dictators and their ruling coalitions in ways that enhance the resilience of authoritarian regimes. We discuss them in detail in what follows.


Elections have become routine in contemporary autocracies. In 1970, only 59 per cent of autocracies regularly held elections (one at least every six years). As of 2008, that number increased to 83 per cent (Kendall-Taylor and Frantz, 2015). Although elections occasionally catalyse regime-ending protests (a topic we discuss in the next chapter), the empirical record shows that, on the whole, authoritarian regimes that hold elections last longer in office than those that do not (Geddes, 2005). Authoritarian elections serve several functions that enable incumbent regimes to solidify their support among the elite, opposition, and public.

Authoritarian elections enable incumbents to deter potential rivals by signalling the regime’s strength (Geddes, 2005; Magaloni, 2006). Autocratic governments, even those that are certain to win uncompetitive elections, allocate significant resources to election campaigns, including funding billboards, banners, and parades. They go to such great lengths in the run-up to elections because massive victory margins and high voter turnout convey a sense of insurmountable regime dominance that deters potential challengers.

Although many dictators may seek to win elections without using excessive fraud (to avoid the risk of triggering protests), even fraudulent tactics can buttress regime p. 112strength (Simpser, 2013). A regime’s ability to mobilize state resources, such as monopolizing the media, paying bribes, and pressuring state-run university students and employees to vote, discourage would-be rivals by demonstrating the unevenness of the electoral playing field and the difficulty challengers would face attracting sufficient support to unseat the incumbent (Geddes, 2005).

Elections also enable authoritarian regimes to maintain elite cohesion (Geddes, 2005; Blaydes, 2008). Elections institutionalize competition for power and resources, which helps mitigate potentially destabilizing elite disagreements or rivalries (Lust-Okar, 2006). Autocracies, for example, can use the insights they gain from the electoral process to more objectively reward those individuals who successfully turn out the vote (Blaydes, 2010; Lust-Okar, 2006). In Egypt, for example, Hosni Mubarak rewarded ruling party candidates that defeated Muslim Brotherhood candidates with appointed government posts (Blaydes, 2010). Authoritarian regimes use elections to motivate the elite to advance the regime’s goal of winning them and ensure that the most competent and committed individuals remain associated with the regime.

In addition to managing the political elite, elections in autocracies provide incumbents with an opportunity to weaken the political opposition. In autocracies, the regime sets the rules for who can compete (Lust-Okar, 2004). Dictatorships pursue a ‘divide and rule’ strategy in which they allow some opposition parties or candidates to participate in the election while disqualifying other (typically more popular) opposition parties or candidates from running. Authoritarian incumbents in the Ivory Coast, Kenya, and Zambia, for example, used nationality clauses to prevent many opposition candidates and parties from running in elections. In the Middle East, several Islamic parties have been banned from competing. And in Iran, the Guardian Council’s vetting process is so strict that it ensures that potentially threatening candidates are unable to run. In these ways, autocrats use elections to undermine opposition unity, complicating any group’s ability to mount a cohesive challenge.

Authoritarian regimes also use elections to boost public support. Political science studies demonstrate that many authoritarian regimes manipulate the economy in the run-up to elections to increase their popularity, including by ratcheting up public spending on social benefits and subsidizing goods such as bread and fuel to make them temporarily cheaper just before the election (Kendall-Taylor, 2012). Spikes in government spending ahead of elections also occur in democracies where candidates need popular support to win competitive elections. In authoritarian settings, however, popular support is a means of deterring rivals. Although autocratic incumbents can use fraud to ensure their electoral victory, their ability to mobilize supporters and secure massive numbers of real votes can influence their rivals’ perceptions of how difficult it would be to attract enough backers to unseat them (Schedler, 2006).

Finally, elections provide authoritarian regimes with an important source of information that they can use to calibrate their policies or approach to maintaining control (Ames, 1970; Brownlee 2007; Magaloni, 2006). Autocratic governments (particularly those that rely heavily on repression) often receive inaccurate or incomplete information. The elite are reluctant to pass along negative news and citizens are unwilling to convey their true preferences, making it hard for them to gauge the public mood. The p. 113results of multiparty elections, therefore, provide a source of objective information about regime popularity and opposition strength. In the case of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) in Mexico, this knowledge proved instrumental in ensuring the longevity of the regime. The PRI used electoral results to identify where the party lacked support and needed to focus additional resources to win votes (Magaloni, 2008).

Parties and legislatures

Like elections, political parties and legislatures are a common feature of contemporary autocracies. Although the vast majority of dictatorships have long incorporated at least one political party, they have increasingly adopted multiple political parties and feature legislatures. As of 2008, 84 per cent of autocracies allowed multiple political parties and a legislature (Kendall-Taylor and Frantz, 2015). As with elections, political parties and legislatures prolong the durability of autocracies (Gandhi and Przeworski, 2008; Geddes, 2005). Since the end of the Cold War, dictatorships with multiple political parties and a legislature lasted fourteen years longer in office than those without these institutions (nineteen years versus five, on average) (Kendall-Taylor and Frantz, 2015).

Political parties have been a standard feature in autocracies because they enable regimes to mobilize support. Autocrats use political parties to spread the regime’s ideology or policy views and distribute (or withhold) benefits to citizens in villages and neighbourhoods—extending the regime’s reach far beyond the capital city (Geddes, 2005). Magaloni (2006) shows, for example, that in Mexico, the PRI distributed benefits such as land, medicines, scholarships, and fertilizer to supporters while opponents were systematically refused these material benefits. Authoritarian parties tend to be particularly effective at trapping poor rural constituents into supporting the regime because these citizens depend most heavily on state transfers for their livelihood. Dictators also use parties to help win elections. These networks can mobilize voter support, organize public rallies, and carry out electoral fraud such as ballot stuffing, which requires the coordination of a mass organization (Brownlee, 2007). An authoritarian political party, in other words is, ‘an instrument by which the dictatorship can penetrate and control the society’ (Gershenson and Grossman, 2001).

In addition to mobilizing regime support, authoritarian parties enhance regime durability by providing citizens with a vested interest in perpetuating the regime. Authoritarian parties give members benefits, including jobs, preferential access to schooling for their children, and access to lucrative government contracts (Geddes, 2005). Political parties, in other words, provide citizens a pathway for upward mobility. They draw motivated citizens into the regime rather than having them challenge it externally.

Similarly, legislatures also incentivize potential opponents to participate within the system by providing perks and some policy influence in exchange for compliance (Gandhi and Przeworski, 2006; Reuter and Robertson, 2014). In a study using data from Russian regional legislative elections, Ora John Reuter and Graeme Robertson (2014) found that those regions where opposition elites held legislative leadership positions (and therefore had opportunities to profit from their positions) experienced fewer p. 114protests than those regions where the opposition was excluded. Legislatures, in other words, enable regimes to distribute financial perks to the opposition in exchange for agreement to refrain from mobilizing constituents. Similarly, in Jordan, King Hussein allows the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and its political party, the Islamic Action Front, to participate in the system, rather than exclude it. The palace gives the MB space to operate, including delegating some influence over education and social policies with the expectation that the MB respects the authority of the king and the continuity of the monarchy in return.

Authoritarian parties and legislatures also enhance regime durability by providing institutional forums that stabilize the dictator–elite relationship. Carles Boix and Milan Svolik (2013) argue that political parties and legislatures enhance authoritarian durability because they provide for regular interactions between leaders and their inner circle that enable each side to monitor the actions of the other. These repeated interactions, in turn, help alleviate the secrecy that often characterizes authoritarian governance and prevent unnecessary and destabilizing elite defections. Consistent with this argument, there is empirical evidence that elected authoritarian legislatures decrease a country’s risk of coups (Bove and Rivera, 2015). These institutions enable the regime to make policy concessions that satiate the elite and help mitigate intra-elite conflicts—decreasing the incidence of coups and prolonging regime durability.

Finally, like elections, parties and legislatures convey information that enables autocracies to identify and address potential sources of discontent. Parties can monitor citizen behaviour through cells that reach schools, places of employment, and neighbourhoods. They can collect information about who joins the party and who does not, enabling the regime to identify who to reward with patronage or administer with repression. Similarly, legislatures allow groups to convey their demands to the government without these demands appearing as acts of public resistance. The regime, in turn, can calibrate its response. For this reason, Jennifer Gandhi (2008) describes legislatures as allowing dictators to ‘control bargaining’ and her research shows that autocracies with multiparty legislatures are more responsive to society, produce more public goods, and perform better economically than noninstitutionalized regimes.

Other sources of authoritarian durability

In addition to repression and co-optation, political science research has identified a number of other factors that affect authoritarian durability. We review the most widely discussed factors here.

Authoritarian regime type

Some types of autocracies are more durable than others: military dictatorships are the shortest lived while single party regimes tend to last longest in office (Geddes, 1999, 2003). Monarchies have also proven durable—on par with single-party dictatorships—but there is relatively less empirical research on the comparative durability of these p. 115regimes. Regime type affects the longevity of autocracies because structural differences across governments, including the composition of the groups that staff governments offices, the segments of society they draw on for support, and the procedures they use to make decisions, create different incentives for leaders and elites, in turn affecting the endurance of regimes.

Military dictatorship

Unlike civilian politicians who value maintaining power above all else, the military elite prioritizes military efficacy and unity. Disagreements about how to respond to governance challenges and elite rivalries, therefore, tend to be particularly destabilizing in military dictatorships, because elite divisions have the potential to divide the military, pitting one military faction against another (Geddes, 2003). Rather than risk a civil war-like scenario, military officers respond to political factionalism by returning to the barracks. Moreover, military leaders can envision a life beyond politics given that they can expect to continue their careers (and receiving paychecks) as military officers, which lowers the costs of leaving office. Regime officials in other types of autocracies, in contrast, expect a far worse fate. For these reasons, military dictatorships carry within them ‘the seeds of their own destruction’ and are the least durable form of dictatorship (ruling for an average of nine years) (Geddes, 2003, p. 131).

Although military dictatorships rarely last long, certain factors can prolong the tenure of these regimes. Military regimes are more durable, for example, in those countries where the civilian leadership is viewed as incompetent, making military dictatorship a relatively more attractive option, as was the case in Thailand and Nigeria. Military regimes are also more durable in those countries where conflict and/or instability can be used to justify military rule, as in Pakistan, where the military used ongoing conflict with India to validate its political activism. Finally, military regimes are more durable when they have the support of foreign actors. Many of Latin America’s military regimes—such as Brazil’s military dictatorship that ruled for more than twenty years (1964–85)—endured with the support of the United States during the Cold War.

Importantly, when they do collapse, military regimes are the most likely of all dictatorships to democratize. This is largely because they frequently step down from power before conditions in the country have reached a crisis level. Military regimes often negotiate orderly transitions, rather than cling to control at all costs, making democracy easier afterwards (for more on pacted transitions see Chapter 8). For these reasons, about 60 per cent of military regimes democratize when they fall from power (Geddes et al., 2014).

Single party dictatorship

Single party dictatorships tend to be the longest-lasting form of autocracy (lasting on average for twenty-three years). Factions and elite fissures in single party regimes are common, but unlike in military regimes they are rarely destabilizing. Party elites understand that they are all better off in power, which provides strong incentive to resolve policy differences and competition over leadership positions (Geddes, 1999). Single party regimes are also resilient to succession and economic crises—two factors that raise the risk of authoritarian breakdown. The party structure provides an institutional p. 116channel for managing succession, which makes these regimes well equipped to navigate leadership transitions (Kendall-Taylor and Frantz, 2016). Often times this is handled through internal party elections, which as the chapter has previously stated can add to the longevity of a regime. Single party regimes have also been remarkably resilient even in the face of long, severe economic decline (Geddes 1999). These regimes can rely on other methods of control, such as party ideology or co-optation through the party structure, to ride out economic challenges.

When single party regimes do collapse, they transition to a new dictatorship more frequently than they democratize; in fact, democratization has only occurred in about 40 per cent of cases (Geddes et al., 2014). Even in those places where transition to democracy did transpire, the democracy has been of low quality, such as in Eastern Europe. This may be because institutionally entrenched authoritarian parties leave in place long-lasting legacies, potentially deteriorating the quality of the democracy that follows (Loxton and Mainwaring, 2018).

Personalist dictatorship

The behaviour of elites in personalist dictatorships largely mirrors that of single party elites (Geddes, 1999). Like single party officials, members of personalist ruling cliques calculate that they can ‘hang together, or hang separately’ and therefore have strong incentive to continue supporting the regime and its leader. However, personalist regimes tend to be less durable than single party regimes (lasting on average fifteen years in office), because they are more vulnerable to collapse following the leader’s departure. Leaders in personalist dictatorships often marginalize or purge potential rivals and dismantle institutions that might constrain their power. These regimes, therefore, often collapse with the departure of the founder. Moreover, personalist autocracies are the most reliant of any regime type on the distribution of patronage to sustain their rule. Economic crises or deep structural economic reforms—events that disrupt the patronage on which these governments depend—often spell the end of them.

When personalist regimes fall from power, their departures are often violent. Personalist rule provides few institutional channels for negotiation over rules and power sharing. Instead, it gives rise to all-or-nothing power struggles. These leaders, therefore, most often cling to power in the face of domestic challenges, often resulting in violent and protracted transitions (Geddes et al., 2014). Recent events in Iraq, Libya, and Syria illustrate this dynamic. Personalist dictators also create environments that are not conducive for democracy once these leaders fall from power. Personalist dictators actively dismantle institutions and isolate competent individuals out of fear for their own survival. In doing so, the country is devoid of any institutional framework and expertise to build off of. As a result, personalist regimes tend to be followed by new dictatorships, such as in the case of Uganda when Milton Obote was followed by Idi Amin, and then again by Milton Obote, or in Guinea when Ahmed Sékou Touré was followed by Lansana Conté.

Monarchic dictatorship

As we noted in Chapter 3, political science research long asserted that monarchy was incompatible with modern political order. Monarchies were considered ‘an p. 117anachronism in the modern world of nations’ (Hudson, 1977, p. 167) and researchers largely overlooked these regimes. Then the Arab Spring erupted. Protests toppled leaders in four authoritarian republics (Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya) while the eight Arab monarchies stood firm. As a result, scholars have reenergized their efforts to better understand the sources of durability in monarchies.

Some suggest that the exceptional legitimacy that many monarchies enjoy enhances the resilience of these regimes (Schlumberger, 2010). While other types of autocracies must manipulate elections or inflate national security imperatives to remain in power, monarchic rule is buttressed by traditional religious and tribal legitimacy, which induces exceptionally loyal support from citizens. The structure of monarchies also increases their durability. Those monarchies with large ruling families, like in Saudi Arabia, tend to be especially long-lived (Herb, 2004). Large ruling families function like political parties in single party dictatorships and are capable of penetrating society to distribute patronage and provide channels for citizen–regime consultation. Monarchies with small ruling families, in contrast, operate more like personalist regimes with less familial collaboration and greater dependence on the discretion of the monarch. Finally, most monarchies have access to oil and gas resources, which also enhances their durability (Brownlee et al., 2013; Stepan et al., 2014). Oil and gas wealth provides these governments with revenue needed to forestall and contain challenges to the regime. We discuss the relationship between natural resource wealth and regime durability at greater length below.

In addition to domestic sources of durability, Middle Eastern monarchies have also benefited from U.S. and Western support (Stepan et al., 2014; Yom and Gause, 2012). Monarchs with powerful foreign allies have a lower cost of using repression because international responses to human rights abuses in these countries are often muted. External supporters have also buttressed regime durability by providing these governments with additional economic and coercive resources. During the Arab Spring, for example, external support from Saudi Arabia reinforced regional monarchies’ efforts to resist citizen uprisings. Riyadh distributed economic resources to some of the poorer kingdoms, and Saudi troops directly intervened in Bahrain to assist with the crackdown on protesters.

Like personalist dictatorship, when monarchies do collapse they are unlikely to democratize. In the post-1945 period, democracy replaced monarchy in only one country: Nepal in 1991, where the king agreed to a transition to constitutional monarchy, and again in 2006, after a brief return to unconstitutional monarchy. Because the total number of monarchic dictatorships is small to begin with, any assertions about their tendencies have to be tentative. That said, thus far the ouster of monarchies has rarely led to democracy and arguably left most people in the countries once ruled by them worse off, as the experiences of Yemen and Afghanistan illustrate.

State capacity

Numerous political science studies examine authoritarian durability through the lens of state capacity. State capacity can be defined as the state’s ability to, ‘penetrate society, regulate social-societal relations, extract resources, and appropriate or use resources in p. 118determined ways’ (Migdal, 1988, p. 4). As this definition makes clear, state capacity is a multifaceted concept that encapsulates a number of distinct state functions. Given the complexity of the concept and the difficulty in operationalizing it, there is no consensus on how to measure state capacity. Although studies vary in terms of the specific components of state strength they emphasize, the central message to emerge is that a strong state is better suited for maintaining authoritarian rule (Slater and Fenner, 2011; Way, 2005). Moreover, not only do strong states prolong authoritarianism, but state capacity also is critical to the durability of democracy. Research suggests, however, that while building state capacity is likely to extend the life of an autocracy, it also raises the chances that should a transition occur, democracy will be more likely to emerge and endure.

Studies on authoritarian state capacity have emphasized four key components: the state’s ability to repress opposition, co-opt citizen support, access and control economic resources, and register its citizens. Because we discussed repression and co-optation in a previous section, we focus here on the latter two factors.

Authoritarian regimes that can effectively extract revenue from their economies are likely to last in office longer than those that do not have access to or control over financial resources. Beyond facilitating a regime’s ability to co-opt support through actions such as paying soldiers or wooing voters with handouts, autocracies’ ability to collect revenue provides them with stores of capital they can use to ride out or pre-empt crises (Slater and Fenner, 2011). The scope of an authoritarian regime’s control over economic resources also affects its durability (Way, 2005). Extensive state control over economic activity enables authoritarian regimes to cultivate the loyalty of state employees, limit the size of the private sector (which produces income that can be used to fuel opposition activity), and minimize the number of non-state organizations that citizens might come to view as an alternative to the government. Moreover, citizens’ dependence on the state for services gives autocrats a ‘wider menu of punishment options’, providing the government with opportunities to sanction anyone demonstrating opposition sympathies (Slater and Fenner, 2011, p. 23).

The capacities of authoritarian regimes to penetrate, monitor, and collect information about citizens and organizations also prolong the tenure of these regimes (Slater and Fenner, 2011). A regime’s ability to conduct national censuses, compile local voter lists, and maintain birth registries, school rolls, and economic data provides valuable information states can use to enhance social control. Those authoritarian regimes that can make their citizenry more ‘legible’ can not only effectively target coercion and co-optation, but such information can enhance their policies. By having a strong pulse on domestic social and economic dynamics, governments can calibrate policy choices and responses to citizen demands in ways that enhance regime performance and therefore public support for the regime.

Natural resource wealth

Closely related to state capacity, a regime’s access to natural resource wealth increases the durability of authoritarianism. Not only do natural resource abundant countries tend to be authoritarian (Beblawi and Luciani, 1987; Ross, 2004), but they also tend to p. 119be highly durable political systems (Wright et al., 2015; Smith, 2004, Ulfelder, 2007). Often referred to as rentier states—or countries that derive a substantial proportion of their national income from natural resource-related revenue—these autocracies have easy access to income that enables them to more effectively co-opt and repress their citizens, making them more resistant to collapse than their resource poor counterparts.

Resource-rich governments can rely on natural resource rents as their primary source of income and use the income to buy political support and avoid having to tax their citizens. Because they do not pay taxes, citizens in these countries, in turn, have little incentive to make demands on the regime, dampening domestic democratizing pressure. Natural resource revenue also provides dictatorships with income they can use to ride out a crisis. During the Arab Spring, for example, the oil-rich monarchies were able to stave off widespread protests by purchasing public support, while their resource poor counterparts collapsed in the face of mass unrest (Brownlee et al., 2013). Just days after Ben Ali fled Tunisia and a week before the onset of Egypt’s revolution, Kuwait’s oil-rich government announced a grant of U.S.$3,500 to every citizen and a year’s worth of free staples such as sugar, cooking oil, and milk. Likewise, Saudi Arabia announced an $80 billion package of public-sector wage hikes, unemployment payments, increased college stipends, and investments in low-income housing (Brownlee et al., 2013). Oil revenue enabled these governments to grant concessions to their citizens and diminish pressure for regime change or meaningful reform.

Natural resource wealth also increases authoritarian durability by enabling autocracies to invest in their security apparatus, enhancing the capacity and loyalty of security actors (Ross, 2004). In addition to their ability to use concessions to stave off protests, the oil-rich Arab states were also better able to fund their coercive forces. Oil-rich Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, and UAE, for example, deployed cohesive military responses to protesters that ensured regime continuity (Brownlee et al., 2013). Natural resource-rich countries also experience fewer coups (Wright et al., 2015). This is because natural resource income allows governments to sustain higher-levels of military spending relative to non-resource endowed countries, which enhances military support for the regime.

Revolutionary regimes

Revolutionary regimes, which include dictatorships like those in the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Vietnam, are remarkably durable (Levitsky and Way, 2013). Revolutionary regimes are regimes that emerge out of sustained, ideological, and violent mass mobilization, and whose establishment is accompanied by significant efforts to transform state and social structures (Huntington, 2006; Skocpol, 1979; Levitsky and Way, 2013).

Revolutionary regimes tend to be so enduring because they face little domestic opposition to their rule (Levitsky and Way, 2013). The violence that accompanies revolutions eliminates both immediate rivals to the new regime and alternative centres of power that could mobilize against it. These new regimes also use any post-revolutionary conflict as cause to eliminate remaining organizations that could compete for power. In Iran, for example, the Islamic government’s ruthless campaign against the p. 120Mojahedin-e-Khalq and other insurgent groups in the years immediately following the fall of the Shah resulted in the defeat of nearly all effective opposition.

Revolutionary regimes also have strong and cohesive political parties that provide a foundation for enduring rule (Levitsky and Way, 2013). Military struggle breeds strong organizational structures and can inject military-style discipline into governing institutions. In Zimbabwe, ‘military commandism’ remained deeply ingrained in ZANU-PF structures long after the guerrilla struggle ended in 1979. Revolutionary leaders also enjoy substantial legitimacy, which they can use to unify the party and ride out crises. In China, for example, the generation of the Long March (1934–35) strongly supported a crackdown on the pro-democracy protests in 1989 and possessed the authority to unify the party behind such a strategy.

Finally, revolutionary regimes benefit from highly capable security services and are relatively immune from coups (Levitsky and Way, 2013). Years of military struggle create a security cadre with experience in sustained, high intensity coercion that they are often willing to employ to sustain the regime. The security forces in these countries also tend to be led by officers who participated in the revolutionary struggle and that fully support the revolutionary ideology, making them unlikely to seek to overthrow the political leadership. In Cuba, for example, there was ‘almost total overlap’ between the ruling civilian and military elites.

Revolutionary legacies are not permanent. Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way (2013) note in their study that the passing of the revolutionary generation creates challenges for these regimes. Some revolutionary government such as China, Vietnam, and Mozambique were able to navigate the transition away from the revolutionary transition. The key to stability in these cases has been the regime’s ability to create a new narrative about the basis of their legitimacy. In China, for example, the communist party has shifted its basis of legitimacy from the revolution to its ability to deliver economic growth. Those countries unable to transform the legitimacy narrative face greater prospects of failure.


There tends to be a widespread assumption that authoritarianism is inherently unstable and that it is just a matter of time before a given autocracy collapses. But as we noted at the outset of this chapter, many contemporary authoritarian regimes are quite durable. In fact, some of today’s most challenging dictatorships have proven to be especially enduring, including North Korea (sixty-nine years), Iran (thirty-eight years), and Russia (eighteen years). Moreover, authoritarian regimes are learning and adapting their survival tactics in ways that have made them even more robust in the post-Cold War era. In this chapter we identified those factors that contribute to authoritarian durability. Being able to articulate what keeps these regimes in power is important for understanding the political dynamics at play in the countries they govern. Any erosion in the pillars of authoritarian stability, for example, suggests that a country’s prospects for regime breakdown have grown.p. 121

Understanding authoritarian survival dynamics also provides valuable insight into democratization. In particular, the factors we identified in this chapter can help illuminate those countries where authoritarian regimes are least entrenched and therefore that might be most ripe for political change. Moreover, this chapter highlighted that political institutions such as parties, elections, and legislatures enhance authoritarian durability. Political observers, therefore, should not necessarily view a regime’s adoption of these institutions as a step towards democratization. On the contrary, as we discussed in this chapter, mimicking democracy has become an effective approach to strengthening authoritarian rule.

Key Questions


If you were assessing a particular regime’s prospects for maintaining power, what factors would you measure?


How do the elite affect authoritarian durability? How might the relative importance of this factor be changing over time?


What are the benefits and risks of a leader’s reliance on co-optation and repression?


China is currently one of the longest-lasting regimes in the world; how would you explain its durability?


What factors explain why the monarchies in the Middle East are so stable and resilient?

Further Reading

  • Frantz, E. and Kendall-Taylor, A., 2014. ‘A Dictator’s Toolkit: Understanding How Co-optation Affects Repression in Autocracies’. Journal of Peace Research, 51(3), pp. 332–46.
  • This article offers a clear overview of how dictators maintain themselves in power and lays out all of the key tools that they have used both historically and today.

  • Gerschewski, J., 2013. ‘The Three Pillars of Stability: Legitimation, Repression, and Co-optation in Autocratic Regimes’. Democratization, 20(1), pp. 13–38.
  • This article provides an understanding of what makes authoritarian regimes stable. The article focuses on three areas as the title suggests: how authoritarian regimes foster legitimacy, who they co-opt, and how they repress their citizens.

  • Svolik, M.W., 2009. ‘Power Sharing and Leadership Dynamics in Authoritarian Regimes’. American Journal of Political Science, 53(2), pp.477–94.
  • This article argues that the dynamics of power sharing in authoritarian regimes. The article explains why some dictators last longer than others, looking at the strategic behaviour of the dictator and the ruling coalition.


    • 1 Data on dictatorships come from Barbara Geddes, Joseph Wright, and Erica Frantz, ‘Autocratic Breakdown and Regime Transitions: A New Data Set’, Perspectives on Politics 12, no. 2 (2014) pp. 313–31, who code autocratic regime start and end dates from 1946 through 2010. Their data set also includes information on the type of dictatorship, the mode of entry, and the type of transition.

    • 2 Non-constitutional means include any exits from office that did not follow a natural death or a constitutionally mandated process, such as an election, a vote by a ruling body, or a hereditary succession.

    • 3 Steven Greenhouse, New York Times, 24 May 1988.