What Strongmen Have to Fear

Autocrats have increasing reason to fear the power of people in the streets. Here's why the leaders of democracies should take note.

George CASTELLANO/AFP/Getty Images
George CASTELLANO/AFP/Getty Images

Since January 2010, mass protests have contributed to the ousting of autocratic leaders from Kyrgyzstan, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. These events caused many political observers to celebrate the ability of the masses to topple dictators and spur political change. And in our most recent study, we find that these movements are indicative of a broader shift in the politics of authoritarian regimes: Revolts (leader exits due to mass protests, uprisings, strikes, or riots) are unseating a greater proportion of autocrats than ever before.

Using data from political scientist Milan Svolik that capture autocratic exits from 1948 to 2008, and our own updates through 2012, we find that the percentage of autocrats ousted in revolts has tripled from 4 percent to 12 percent since the end of the Cold War. In fact, from 2010-2012, a quarter of dictators who lost power did so via revolt. At the same time, coups have declined considerably in the post-Cold War era. The proportion of autocrats ousted via coup — which accounted for as much as half of all autocrat ousters in the 1960s and ‘70s, for example — has fallen to less than 10 percent in the last decade. Revolts have now overtaken coups as the most common way in which autocrats exit from power.

So why does this trend matter? The way that an autocrat exits office affects the political trajectory of a country. The underwhelming performance of democracy in the wake of the Arab Awakening and pessimism about Ukraine’s future after President Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster have led some to claim that people-powered revolutions are overrated. While it is true that autocratic ousters lead to democratization only 20 percent of the time, our research shows that the prospects for democracy are actually highest when ousters occur via revolt. Revolts were followed by transitions to democracy 45 percent of the time from 1946 to 2012. Successful coups, in contrast, resulted in democracy in only 10 percent of autocrat ousters.

This is not to say that Western actors seeking to support democracy should endorse revolt across the board; uprisings come with their own significant costs and caveats. Revolts capable of threatening a leader’s position are usually violent events that put citizens’ lives on the line. Furthermore, revolt is far from a surefire way to topple an autocrat — as the protests following the 2010 Belarusian presidential election, the 2011 Russian parliamentary elections, and the underwhelming Arab Spring protests of Algeria and Jordan underscore. And even in the cases where such revolts do result in autocrat exit, democracy follows less than half of the time. These results hardly constitute a definitive recommendation for democracy promoters — but they do shape our understanding of how political change happens, and can shape democracy-promotion strategies going forward.

The growing vulnerability of autocrats to revolts marks a pronounced rise in the importance of the people in the survival of dictators. Historically, autocrats have been most concerned with threats emanating from the elite, and therefore relied on strategies such as elite rotation and other coup-proofing tactics to mitigate such threats. As more dictators are being toppled by revolt, these leaders must go to greater lengths, playing an increasingly complex game to remain in control. In other words, today’s dictators have to contend not only with threats emanating from the elite, but increasingly from those they govern. This trend is something current autocrats are surely attuned to, and is affecting the political dynamics at play in these regimes in ways that generate at least three key implications for Western engagement with authoritarian governments.

First, autocrats are becoming more unpredictable partners. Authoritarian leaders who feel most at risk of popular revolt are factoring public opinion into their decisions to a greater extent than they have in years past. This means that leaders who previously felt unconstrained in their abilities to pursue sometimes publicly unpopular initiatives with the United States, such as counter-terrorism or counter-narcotics cooperation, may be less willing to do so for fear of popular blowback. In other words, some of our most important "frenemies" could become unreliable partners. Alternatively, public sentiment that aligns with Western interests may prompt some autocrats to increase their level of engagement in certain domains to enhance their standing with their countrymen.

Next, Western engagement with the political opposition and the public is becoming ever more difficult. The vivid images of revolts featured in the media provide autocrats with convenient "examples" of Western efforts to destabilize their countries. Anti-Western narratives, particularly dominant since the Color Revolutions, have featured prominently in the survival strategies of autocrats in Russia, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe, just to name a few. Most recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin has publicly blamed the West for orchestrating Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster, and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has used his state controlled media to blame the United States for ongoing protests in his country. (In the photo above Venezuelan opposition protesters face off with security forces in San Cristobal.) The rise of revolts, therefore, makes it easier for autocrats to discredit members of their political opposition or other pro-democracy advocates by labeling them puppets of the West. This increases the risk that Western involvement could actually undermine local pro-democracy efforts. Moreover, in many cases, local activists may eschew Western support, preferring to go it alone or to forge their own ties with non-Western opposition leaders with experience leading successful movements of their own. In such an environment, it is likely that the West will find it increasingly difficult to plug-in to local democracy promotion efforts.     

Finally, autocrats are striking back against the masses with even greater restrictions on civil and political liberties. The prevalence of revolt and anti-Western narratives provides authoritarian leaders with justification for greater repression. Autocrats afraid of revolt are using anti-NGO laws and other legislation to limit the space for opposition. Following the 2011 protests in Russia — which brought tens of thousands out onto the streets in the largest anti-Kremlin protests since the 1990s — Putin proposed (and subsequently passed) a new treason act and a "foreign agent law." The latter requires NGOs engaging in political activity and accepting funding from abroad to register as "foreign agents," severely restricting the ability of Western actors to engage in Russia. The turmoil in Ukraine and Putin’s probable fear that such unrest could spark opposition in his own country has pushed him even further in his pursuit to limit domestic political freedoms. If revolts continue to unseat autocrats, observers and practitioners are likely to have even less space for engagement.

Should these trends continue, effective democratization efforts will require both an understanding of these dynamics and a new and innovative set of strategies. In the past, the West has worked with political opposition or local democracy advocates, including by publicly backing opposition movements to enhance their domestic legitimacy (as was the course in the Philippines under Ferdinand Marcos, in South Korea under Syngman Rhee, and in Chile under Augusto Pinochet). This strategy may have limited applicability in today’s environment. By offering overt support for the political opposition in many autocracies, Western countries would risk undermining local pro-democracy efforts.

Instead, the United States will have to pay more attention to public sentiment in autocratic countries. It must put forth greater effort to neutralize anti-Western attitudes and frame U.S. cooperation with autocracies in ways that highlight the benefits to the local population. Another effective strategy would be to leverage the rising threat of the masses through indirect engagement. For example, sustained international media attention to regime abuses increases the likelihood that autocrats will avoid actions that could breed public discontent or elicit domestic backlash. In addition, autocrats are likely to be attuned to the public perception of their legitimacy, which, even in autocracies, is largely shaped by citizens’ views of procedural fairness. Efforts to publicize government failures to comply with their own legal system, to track the unjust application of laws (including the use of tax collectors or health inspectors to shut down the opposition), or to criticize new legislation that threatens domestic rights could be particularly effective.

In this new political climate, the United States and its partners in democracy must find creative ways to level the playing field for the political opposition and other activists. That may be its best bet for advancing their causes in a world where autocrats increasingly fear the power of the masses.

Andrea Kendall-Taylor is a senior fellow and the director for the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. Twitter: @AKendallTaylor

Erica Frantz is an assistant professor in political science at Michigan State University.

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