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Modern dictatorships in the disguise of democracies

23 April 2010

Mention "dictatorship" and most people think of the dark terror of the Soviet Union during the Stalin era, Chile under Pinochet or present-day North Korea and Burma. But such countries are not representative of today’s authoritarian regimes.

An Egyptian man votes, 2005. (Photo: UPI/EYEVINE/IBL) “The most common form of dictatorship today is a dictatorship disguised as democracy. Elections are held with several parties, but through election rigging, bribes and threats, the ‘right’ party always ends up winning”, explains reader Jan Teorell.

Together with Jan Teorell, Professor of Political Science Axel Hadenius, who this year is a visiting researcher at Uppsala, has built up a database of the political leadership in the nations of the world between 1972 and 2005.

In the database, the 193 countries are divided into democracies and authoritarian states, with the latter subdivided into smaller groups: one party rule, military dictatorship, multiparty dictatorship and dictatorial monarchy. Saudi Arabia, whose royal family rules the country completely autocratically, features among others in the last and smallest group.

One party rule and military dictatorship were formerly the most common forms of authoritarian regimes.

“Many people are surprised to find that our study showed that this had changed. Now multiparty dictatorships are the most common form. Some examples are Russia, Egypt and Tanzania, countries which do indeed hold elections but where the party in power always wins”, says Jan Teorell.

Jan TeorellThe Lund researchers’ study also showed that military dictatorships were not the most short-lived. That is what many people thought, not least because the military often seizes power with the promise of rapid democratisation. But the fact is that multiparty dictatorships, which were seen as very stable, on the contrary led to the fastest transition to democracy.

According to Jan Teorell, the explanation is that although a multiparty dictatorship does indeed have rigged elections, it still provides the opportunity both for the regime to split into factions and for the opposition to unite.

Dissenting voices within the dominant party get a chance to be heard, and the dissenters can gradually create their own parties. If the small parties in the opposition then unite, they can together become a strong political force.

”Multiparty dictatorships are sensitive to major popular movements and demonstrations. Since they are trying to appear legitimate and democratic, it is more difficult for them than for example for China to counter demonstrations with violence”, says Jan Teorell.

He gives the Philippines as an example. In 1986, against all odds, the opposition candidate Corazon Aquino won the election, which dictator Ferdinand Marcos tried to declare invalid in order to hang on to power. This led to such enormous protests that he was unable to repress them with military force and had to be flown out of the country with the help of the USA.

Multiparty dictatorships are particularly sensitive during times of economic hardship.

“It is expensive to stay in power by undemocratic means. One has to buy votes, pay bribes and provide generous support to one’s underlings on all levels... ” points out Jan Teorell.

Another democracy researcher in Lund, Christian Göbel, is a political scientist, a specialist on China and a post-doctoral fellow at the Centre for East and Southeast Asian Studies. Christian Göbel has another angle of approach in his research – not the regime’s way of organising itself but rather its relationship with the population and what it rests on.

Christian Göbel“Coercion alone is not effective in the long term, even for a dictatorship. Using violence is expensive in every way. But an authoritarian regime that is at least partly perceived to be of use to its citizens does not need to resort to violence”, he thinks.

How does a regime set about being useful, or at least appearing to be? One way is to build up rules and regulations, institutions and an administration so that society functions. Another is keep informed of the needs of the people through offshoots at the city and village level, and to meet these needs to a certain extent. A third method is to try to control people’s views and judgements.

“In China the state actually pays quite a lot of attention to the problems of farmers. But meanwhile a lot of work is put into propaganda aimed at legitimising the restrictions and censorship which are also used. The more successful a regime is with these sorts of methods, the less it needs to use open violence”, explains Christian Göbel.

If a dictatorship builds up rules and institutions for trade, finance and the judiciary, for example, the regime becomes more stable. But these rules and institutions can also – perhaps with certain alterations – be used if the country gradually becomes a democracy.

Thus Taiwan for example had a much better starting position than Thailand when these two countries became democratic: in Taiwan much of what is needed in a modern society was already in place, whereas Thailand had to start from scratch.

“That is why it makes sense to support the setup of organisations, rules and regulations even in a dictatorship”, thinks Christian Göbel. He believes in this sort of assistance, and also thinks it is a good thing that Western organisations support environmental movements and social movements in China, for example.

Political scientists often talk about three waves of democratic development and two counter-waves. The first wave of democratisation took place at the end of the 1800s when western countries became democracies, and was followed by a counter-wave in the period between the two world wars, with dictatorships in Germany and Italy among others.

The next wave of democracy came after World War II when these dictatorships fell and many colonies gained their independence. The counter-wave that followed meant that many of these new countries were transformed into one party states or military dictatorships.

The third wave of democratisation began in the middle of the 1970s. It extended to several continents: Latin America, Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall and Africa with South Africa as the leading example. The last few years have not, however, brought any net profit of new democracies.

“The pessimists think we may be in a third counter-wave. But one must bear in mind that every counter-wave starts from a higher level than before, so when seen as a whole, the world is still heading in the right direction”, thinks Jan Teorell.

In the autumn, his book, which builds on the large democracy project, is coming out. In his further research he has now taken up a closely related issue, namely election rigging – in Sweden.

“We are so used to seeing corruption and election rigging as strange deviances which exist abroad. But it is actually the Swedish freedom from election rigging which is deviant!” says Jan Teorell.

He has gone back in time as far as the feuds of the 1700s between the Hats party and the Caps party, when there were many complaints about irregularities in the elections. The aim of the study is to see how Sweden – as quite an unusual exception when compared internationally – gradually managed to get rid of this problem.

- Ingela Björck