Unlikely Democrats: Economic Elite Uncertainty under Dictatorship and Support for Democratization

In the following blog post, the authors summarize the forthcoming American Journal of Political Science article titled Unlikely Democrats: Economic Elite Uncertainty under Dictatorship and Support for Democratization”:

This paper puts forth a novel and generalizable causal mechanism that can help to explain a range of cases of democratization that are puzzling under existing theory. Our mechanism centers on the critical role of uncertainty on the part of economic elites over the future actions of “dictator candidates” that aspire to seize power under dictatorship.

Economic elites are typically thought of as playing an anti-democratic role in political regime outcomes: because they are better off when they can play by their own rules rather than those set by average citizens, they seem a priori unlikely to prefer democratic rule. At the same time, they are often critical to autocratic regime survival through their control of the levers of the economy. As a result, recent scholarship has assumed that authoritarian rulers act as perfect agents of economic elites.

Autocracies, however, can pose grave dangers for economic elites. Indeed, autocracies are associated with fewer institutional constraints than democracies, enabling autocratic rulers to violate property rights more easily. Once in power, dictators often have incentives to renege on the promises made to economic elites during their rise to power and exclude economic elites from their ruling coalition in order to build loyalty among insiders, enhance their autonomy, and eliminate threats to their rule. History is replete with examples: Marcos in the Philippines, Velasco in Peru, Suharto in Indonesia, and Ataturk in Turkey.

Building from these insights, we relax the assumption that economic elites will support dictatorship first and foremost, and explore the implications this holds for democratization. We argue that in the face of uncertainty regarding the future actions of potential autocratic rulers, economic elites may play an important role in spurring democratization. We construct a noisy signaling model in which a potential autocrat attempts to persuade economic elites that he will be a faithful partner should the elites install him in power. This allows us to generate clear predictions about how elite uncertainty affects elites’ incentives to democratize. In particular, we demonstrate that higher uncertainty over a potential autocratic successor’s policies – generated  by variance in the pool of potential autocrat types, as well as uncertainty in the truthfulness of a potential autocrat’s policy promises generated by a noisier informational environment – increases the likelihood that economic elites will seek to abandon dictatorship altogether and instead push for democratization.

We then provide an illustrative overview of cases in which the uncertainty mechanism we propose has likely operated, and provide key details of some of these cases: Colombia, Thailand, Pakistan, Peru, Central Africa, Madagascar and South Africa. Finally, we demonstrate in detail how the two chief mechanisms in the model that underpin elite support of democratization – uncertainty in the pool of potential dictators and uncertainty in the informational environment – manifested themselves concretely in the jockeying between elites and dictator candidates in the lead-up to Bolivia’s transition to stable democratic rule in 1982.

About the Authors: Michael Albertus is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago.  Victor Gay is also at the University of Chicago.  Their articleUnlikely Democrats: Economic Elite Uncertainty under Dictatorship and Support for Democratizationwill be published in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science and is currently available for Early View.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.