The Role of Agency

A number of scholars have sought to explain authoritarian regime outcomes and survival through the actions of political actors (Gill 2015, pp. 9-16). While such actions can contribute to the development of longer term structural factors (see the ensuing sections), in the short term they can have important effects on regime development. Attempts to explain authoritarian regime survival usually involve a combination ofat least two of the following three elements:

  • • regime strength and capacity, or how regime elites go about building the regime;
  • • opposition strength and capacity, or how opposition forces seek to develop a viable opposition to the regime; and
  • • international influences, or how international actors attempt to affect domestic political development.

These three elements - what regimes do, what oppositions do, and what international actors do - interact with each other to shape regime-building. Different explanations deploy these elements to different degrees to explain authoritarian regime survival. The three examples discussed later in this chapter show how these different elements can be combined to produce theoretically robust explanations of political change and its absence.

Valerie Bunce and Sharon Wolchik (2011) have sought to explain under what conditions post-communist authoritarian leaders have been thrown out of office at the ballot box. The main focus of their argument is the role of the opposition and of international influences. They reject the view that the strength of the regime, the position of civil society, economic performance, recent political developments like a crackdown on opposition or US government support for the opposition can give any real insight into regime change or survival. Their focus is on the independent role of elections in bringing about regime change. The key, in their view, is the electoral strategy adopted by the opposition. They are, therefore, not interested in either the strength or structural position of the opposition, but only in the electoral strategy it brings to the election.

For Bunce and Wolchik (2011), the components of a successful electoral strategy include opposition unity, measures to improve the quality and transparency of electoral procedures, a well-organized campaign that offers policy alternatives and aims to increase voter turnout, and the conviction that real change is possible. This electoral model is said to have travelled from the Philippines in 1986 through Latin America into eastern Europe and then the FSU. International diffusion is therefore central to the argument and to regime change. They argue that central to the adoption of this model by opposition forces in the respective countries was not just a modelling of their actions on the earlier success of others, but the role played by democratic activists from the successful cases in the later ones. Transnational networks of pro-democracy activists gave practical advice and sometimes material assistance to domestic oppositions, and thereby helped them to develop successful campaigns. Bunce and Wolchik argue that where this model was applied - Slovakia, Croatia, Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan - authoritarian leaders were removed, and where it was not - Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus - those leaders retained power. Certainly in terms of the political trajectories reflected in Table 3.1, the three successes in the FSU improved their democratic credentials immediately after the respective colour revolutions and the three failures worsened theirs.

This is an attractive argument because it emphasizes the capacity of the opposition to bring about change, seemingly regardless of the strength of the regime. It is also credible because there is a logic to the argument that the better the election campaign mounted by the opposition, the more likely it is to enjoy success. However, as it stands, the argument is incomplete because it ignores the role played in this by the regime. The authors argue (Bunce & Wolchik 2011, pp. 226-227) that ‘the regimes where challenges to authoritarian rule did not succeed tend to be stronger on the whole than the other regimes’, but because there was significant variation in regime capacity (data for this is on p. 225) they saw no consistent link between regime strength and electoral outcome. It is not clear why differences in capacity should negate the basic picture that emerges: that stronger regimes tended to survive. Furthermore, Bunce and Wolchik focus upon electoral authoritarian regimes where a democratic process is used to stabilize a non-democratic regime. This means that the regime creates the rules that structure the electoral process, including measures that will tilt that process to the disadvantage of opposition forces. In those cases where there was electoral turnover as a result of the electoral model identified by Bunce and Wolchik, the ability of the opposition to carry out that model was a direct result of the regime effectively allowing them to do so. Rather than cracking down on the opposition, or tightening electoral controls even more, the regime had enabled the opposition to implement its electoral strategy and thereby mount an effective challenge to the regime. It may not have been a conscious decision by the regime to allow this to happen, but by enabling it to occur, the regime was central to the whole process. This basic point is reflected in the fact that the figures cited by Bunce and Wolchik (2011, p. 217) seem to suggest that generally the more ‘democratic’ the countries were, the more likely they were to experience successful electoral challenge and regime change. The fact that this was not universal reflects the fact that the nature of the regime was not the only influential factor. Thus, while the focus on electoral strategy does help to explain electoral outcomes, neglect of the way in which the capacity to implement this strategy was dependent upon the regime and the attitude it took to the structuring of the electoral process, makes this explanation for regime change only partial.

A different approach is to be found in the work of Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way (2010). They emphasize the importance of international influence with regime strength and capacity a contingent factor. Rather than seeing elections as independent mechanisms of regime change, the key factor in their view was international influence. There are two types of such influence, leverage and linkage. Leverage was defined as a government’s vulnerability to external pressure to democratize, something that was affected by the political and economic strength of the state, competing Western foreign policy objectives, and the influence ofcountries that sought to negate such Western influence. But in their view, leverage alone was rarely sufficient to bring about regime change principally because this focused overwhelmingly on electoral matters. Linkage was more complex, involving the density of ties and cross-border flows among competitive authoritarian countries on the one hand, and the US, pre-2004 European Union (EU) and the Western-dominated multilateral institutions on the other. Levitsky and Way identified six types of linkage: economic, intergovernmental, technocratic, social, informational and civil society. Linkage was seen as a mechanism that could increase the costs to regimes of abusing democratic principles and strengthen domestic pro-democracy constituencies, and thereby weaken authoritarian regimes. Both leverage and linkage were therefore about reducing the room for authoritarian regimes to function, and thereby to hamstring them so much that they would fall.

They argued further that where levels of linkage were low, the domestic organization of power by the regime was crucial. In their view, the role of the weakness or internal decay of states was often unrecognized in the literature, and that a coherent and well-organized state or party structure could assist autocrats to defeat democrats. Effective state and party organizations could enhance an authoritarian elite’s capacity to prevent defection, co-opt or suppress opponents, blunt protests and win elections. Where state and party were strong, powerful opposition could be overcome; where they were weak, relatively weak opposition could prevail. Central to this dynamic was coercive power, and the regime’s ability to use force to strengthen its position and overcome any challenges. They saw such coercive capacity as having two dimensions: scope, meaning the effective reach of the apparatus, and cohesion, meaning the level of compliance within the state apparatus. Broad scope and a high level of cohesion in the state (and party) apparatus was the key to regime survival. Coercion was where these two dimensions came together. A regime had to be able to wield the degree of coercion necessary to retain control, yet it was precisely high-intensity coercion that could most strain the unity upon which cohesion was built. While Levitsky and Way (2010) acknowledge that opposition capacity can be a factor, this is clearly seen as subordinate to the organizational power of the regime.

The essence of their argument is that where high levels of linkage to the West existed, competitive authoritarian regimes democratized. Where such linkage was low, regime outcomes depended upon the incumbents’ organizational power. Where state and ruling party structures were well organized and cohesive, a regime was able to remain stable and authoritarian; where these underdeveloped or lacked cohesion, regimes were unstable, but they were rarely democratized (Levitsky & Way 2010, p. 5).

Like that of Bunce and Wolchik (2011), this is a persuasive argument. However, the primacy accorded to international influence and the relegation of state strength to contingency status risks underestimating the role of the state and regime. Vulnerability to international influence in either its linkage or leverage form in part depends upon the strength of the state and the skill with which state elites handle those international connections. A strong state (in terms of scope and cohesion) will be much better able to fend off or to moderate international influences than a weaker state. Geographical location can be important here too, with close proximity to larger powers seeking to exercise democratizing influence (like the US or the EU) potentially increasing the impact that leverage or linkage may have. Lack of proximity may even compensate for greater weakness in the state. The role of the state is particularly important given the nature of authoritarian regimes. Because of the capacity of this type of regime to limit the autonomy and power of social forces in the society, the capacity of these to independently link up with external sources of influence (governments, NGOs), and thereby enhance the potency of leverage and linkage, will be more limited when the regime is strong than when it is weak. In this sense, external influences will be moderated through the authoritarian regime structures. This means that rather than the state’s organizational strength coming into play only when international linkages are weak, the nature of state organization will help to shape the role that international influences play domestically. The regime/state is not contingent; it is central. Nevertheless, it is striking that democracy is strongest among those states in Table 3.1 that are closest to the EU, both geographically (except Belarus) and ideologically.

The centrality of the state is recognized in the third type of approach, which emphasizes regime strength and capacity. An example of this is work by Way (Way 2005, 2010; Way & Levitsky 2006), who seeks to explain why authoritarian regimes in Armenia, Belarus, Moldova and Russia survived in the 1990s-2000s while Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine succumbed. He argues that autocrats were more likely to survive when they had at least one of what he calls ‘pillars of incumbent strength’. These were a single, highly institutionalized and coherent ruling party; an extensive, well-funded and cohesive coercive apparatus; and the state’s discretionary control over the economy. In Way’s view, ruling parties helped to discourage elite defection by institutionalizing the distribution of patronage4 and they helped pro-government deputies ride the coat-tails of more popular incumbents and thereby establish a dominant place in the legislature. He believed that non-material sources of cohesion, such as an ideology or revolutionary tradition, strengthened a regime by making it less vulnerable to economic crisis or perceived swings in its popularity, both of which could affect patronage considerations based upon access to material resources. But it was a powerful coercive apparatus that was key to maintaining control because this strengthened state capacity. However, such an apparatus had to be well-resourced; its effectiveness could be undermined by significant under-funding and by large wage arrears. And finally, discretionary control over the economy gave a regime the capacity to consolidate support by giving it access to material resources, to buy off the opposition, and to deny the opposition resources (e.g. McMann 2006). For Way, each of these three pillars strengthened the regime against potential oppositional activity. Way also recognized the role that state organizational power plays in the shaping of opposition mobilization.

Way’s focus on the characteristics of the regime acknowledges a key element in the durability and sustainability of authoritarian regimes. However, the argument that only one of the three pillars is sufficient to guarantee survival is problematic. It is unlikely that a regime could survive for long on the basis of only one of these pillars. In particular, discretionary control over the economy seems particularly weak; it is difficult to see how such control could be maintained without an effective state structure, including a coercive apparatus. This may not have to be developed to the extent envisaged in Way’s three pillars, but there would need to be at least some form of organizational control outside the economic sphere if such economic control were to be maintained.

None of these approaches, alone, are sufficient to explain post-1991 regime trajectories. In seeking to do this, we need to take into account as the two primary factors regime strength and opposition strength, with international influence being subordinate to these two. It is the relationship between these three, but especially the first two, that is at the heart of the explanation that follows.

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