With authoritarian rulers ascendant in many parts of the world, one wonders what must happen for their countries to liberalize. The likes of Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey or Xi Jinping in China are entrenched, experienced and not unpopular — so should their opponents simply resign themselves to an open-ended period of illiberal rule?
According to Daniel Treisman, a UCLA political scientist, that’s not necessarily the case. For a recent paper, he analyzed 218 episodes of democratization between 1800 and 2015 and found they were, with some exceptions (such as Danish King Frederick VII’s voluntary acceptance of a constitution in 1848), the result of authoritarian rulers’ mistakes in seeking to hold on to power. The list of these errors is both a useful handbook for authoritarians and a useful reminder that even the most capable of them are fallible, with disastrous consequences for their regimes.
According to Treisman, deliberate liberalization — whether to forestall a revolution, motivate people to fight a foreign invader, defeat competing elite groups or make a pact with them — only occurred in up to a third of the cases. In the rest, democratization was an accident: As they set off a chain of events, rulers didn’t intend to relinquish power. Some of them — such as Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet president — have admitted as much.
Treisman’s list of mistakes is worth citing in full. There are five basic ones:
- Hubris: An authoritarian ruler underestimates the opposition’s strength and fails to compromise or suppress it before it’s too late. King Louis Philippe of France was deposed in 1848 after, as Treisman puts it, turning “a series of reform banquets into revolution by refusing even mild concessions.” Romanian Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was making a routine speech when he realized he was being overthrown. Indonesian President Muhammad Suharto believed he could get the country under control right up to the moment of his resignation.
- Needless risk: A ruler calls a vote which he “fails to manipulate sufficiently” (like Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1988, when he lost a plebiscite on whether he should be allowed to stay in power) or starts a war he cannot win (like Leopoldo Galtieri in Argentina with the Falklands conflict of 1982).
- Slippery slope: That’s Gorbachev’s case: a ruler starts reforms to prop up the regime but ends up undermining it.
- Trusting a traitor: This is not always a mistake made by the dictator itself, although it was in the case of Francisco Franco in Spain, who chose King Juan Carlos, the dismantler of fascism, as his successor. In Gorbachev’s case, it was the Politburo — the regime’s elite — that picked the wrong man to preserve its power.
- Counterproductive violence: Not suppressing the opposition when necessary can be a sign of hubris in a dictator, but overreacting is also a grave mistake. The example Treisman gives is Bangladeshi President Hussain Muhammad Ershad, who was forced to resign by an uprising that started after police shot an opposition activist at a rally. But the error was also made by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2013, when his riot police descended on a few hundred peacefully protesting students and brutally beat them, setting off the much bigger protests that resulted in Yanukovych’s ouster.
These are all very human errors of judgment. Dictators are people, too, and sometimes they’ll act on imperfect information or erroneous gut feeling. But Treisman makes the point that they may be prone to such errors precisely because they are dictators. They’ll be fooled by polls which people don’t answer sincerely, taken in by their own propaganda (like Malawi ruler Hastings Banda, who called and lost a referendum in 1993 because he’d been impressed by the high turnout at rallies in his support even though people had been forced to attend them). And sometimes they’ll rule for so long that their mental faculties will be less sharp than at the outset.
I have a particular interest in watching Putin for any of the errors on Treisman’s list. So far, it’s as if he’d read the paper before Treisman wrote it. His suppression has been timely and cleverly measured, his election manipulation always sufficient, his temporary successor, Dmitri Medvedev, avoided the liberal slippery slope, and he’s only started wars against much weaker rivals. He helps his regime’s propaganda by treating it as truth, but he doesn’t buy it to the point of losing vigilance. In the 2018 election, he kept his main opponent, Alexei Navalny, out of the race, mindful that modern technology allows a rival to loosen media restrictions — something Treisman notes can lead a hubristic dictator to an electoral loss.
But even Putin, after 17 years in power, is in danger of making a miscalculation one day, perhaps finally misreading the mood of the increasingly cynical Russian public that keeps registering support for him in largely worthless polls. It’s easy to imagine the choleric Erdogan getting into an armed conflict Turkey cannot sustain or using disproportional violence as Turks’ patience with his reprisals wear thin. It’s a possibility, although a remote one, that, after Xi’s power consolidation, the Chinese Communist Party will opt for a more liberal successor and he won’t be able to hold the reins as tightly.
Treisman notes that in 85 percent of the episodes he studied, democratization was preceded by mass unrest. Sooner or later, people tend to get tired of regimes in which they have little say. Then, it only takes a misstep from the one person at the center of such a regime. Dictators often overestimate the external danger to their power, the plots of foreign or exiled enemies. In the final analysis, they are the biggest threat to themselves.
Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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