The Political Economy of the End of Tyranny

Ronald Bailey


Poor man rise up and break the shackles that stop your progress!

We live in interesting times. Long-standing autocracies in the Arab world are collapsing like overcooked soufflés. The urgent question is: What happens next? The collapse of authoritarian regimes is not all that unusual. Between 1945 and 2002, 316 authoritarian leaders across the globe fell from power through nonconstitutional means, according to a 2009 study [PDF] in the American Journal of Political Science by University of Illinois political scientist Milan Svolik.

By nonconstitutional means, Svolik includes any exits that were not the result of natural death, a constitutionally mandated process like an election, a vote by a ruling body, or a hereditary succession. Of the 303 despots for whom Svolik could unambiguously ascertain how they lost political power, it turns out that only 32 tyrants were removed by a popular uprising. Another 30 left under public pressure to democratize, e.g., Chile’s Augusto Pinochet. Twenty were assassinated, e.g., Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, and only 16 were removed by foreign intervention, e.g., Panama’s Manuel Noriega. The remaining 205 were ousted by other government members or by members of the security forces—that is to say, by classic coups d’etat. Uneasy indeed lies the head that wears the crown, general’s cap, or keffiyeh.

Svolik develops a model of dictatorship in which autocrats achieve power initially as the first among equals in a ruling coalition. He argues that “a central problem of authoritarian governance is the problem of power sharing between the dictator and the ruling coalition.” Constant jockeying for access to resources and authority among members of the coalition makes holding onto power unstable, so new dictators have an incentive to try to weaken members of the coalition that might challenge them by rewarding loyalists.

However, as Svolik’s data show, this process of power consolidation provokes successful coups d’etat about two-thirds of the time. But the longer a dictator rules, the more secure his power. Svolik finds among tyrants who ruled for less than 10 years, 162 were removed by coups while only 31 died in office. On the other hand, among despots who ruled for 10 years or more, only 41 were removed by coup while 45 died in office. “Thus for dictators who survive in office for at least ten years, the odds of dying of natural causes rather than being removed by a coup improve from less than one in five to more than one in one!,” notes Svolik. He also finds that the tenure of military dictators averages a bit over four years while single-party and personalist dictators average about 11 years in power. Why the difference?

One dynamic is that personalist dictators destroy pre-existing social and political institutions, which eliminates rival centers where would-be opponents might organize and plot. A good case in point is Muammar Qaddafi, who has undermined the army that initially brought him to power. Instead he and his children have created alternative institutions that are dependent for resources directly from them. A good example is the Khamis brigade, a special military unit directly created and run by Qaddafi’s son Khamis. Reports suggest that the Khamis brigade is actively trying to retake towns close to Tripoli now controlled by opponents to the Qaddafi regime. Similarly, the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin ruthlessly transformed that single-party state into a personalist dictatorship by means of periodic purges, so that all who remained in the government and military were directly beholden to his patronage. Stalin died in his bed.


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