The Breakdown of Authoritarian Regimes

  • Graeme Gill


The study of the third wave,1 embodied in the ‘transition literature’, has conceptualized the course of regime change in terms of three phases: regime breakdown, democratic transition, and democratic consolidation. Breakdown involves the deconstruction and possibly disintegration of the old regime, transition is the shift from old structures and processes to new, and consolidation is when those structures and processes have become stabilized and so embedded in the collective consciousness of the society that they gain normative authority. These phases are logically, but not always temporally, distinct; all three phases overlap, even if the forces driving them are not the same. This is clearest in the case of regime breakdown and transition. With domestic political forces the main actors in the third wave of democratization, that process was a zero sum game; democratic forces could not be successful without the withdrawal or collapse of authoritarian power. This does not mean that the two processes, the collapse of authoritarian rule and the establishment of a democratic regime, are the same; the breakdown of authoritarian rule does not inevitably lead to a democratic polity, and historically most cases of authoritarian collapse have spawned further authoritarian regimes.


Regime Change Authoritarian Regime Support Base Regime Survival Economic Difficulty 
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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    To use the language of Samuel P. Huntington, The Third Wave. Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1991).Google Scholar
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    For an attempt to schematize the transition in terms similar to this, see Robert H. Dix, ‘The Breakdown of Authoritarian Regimes’, Western Political Quarterly 35, 4, 1982, pp. 568–569.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    The probability that a democratic regime would survive four or five consecutive years of negative growth was said to be 57 per cent and 50 per cent respectively. Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation. Southern Europe, South America and Post-Communist Europe (Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), p. 79, citing an unpublished study by Fernando Limongi and Adam Przeworski.Google Scholar
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    Stephen Haggard and Robert R. Kaufman, The Political Economy of Democratic Transitions (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1995), pp. 33–36.Google Scholar
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    However, it is doubtful that anything can be read into these earlier bouts of economic difficulty, except perhaps that authoritarian regimes survived them, because all countries experience such periods at times.Google Scholar
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    Haggard and Kaufman, p. 46.Google Scholar
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    On economic crisis and the bureaucratic authoritarian regime, see David Collier (ed.), The New Authoritarianism in Latin America (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1979).Google Scholar
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    Haggard and Kaufman, Chapter 2. These examples are discussed more fully in Chapter 5.Google Scholar
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    For some figures, which are not wholly consistent, see Haggard and Kaufman pp. 34–35 and Luis Carlos Bresser Pereira, Jose Maria Maravall and Adam Przeworski, Economic Reforms in New Democracies. A Social Democratic Approach (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 37.Google Scholar
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    This is argued at some length in Haggard and Kaufman, Part One.Google Scholar
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    Amos Perlmutter, Modern Authoritarianism. A Comparative Institutional Analysis (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1981), p. 2.Google Scholar
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    This did not apply to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, but they were, chiefly for political reasons, still on the margins of the dynamic engine of global economic growth.Google Scholar
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    On this, see Laurence Whitehead, ‘International Aspects of Democratization’, Transitions... Comparative Perspectives, pp. 25–31.Google Scholar
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    On this see Harvey Starr, ‘Democratic Dominoes: Diffusion Approaches to the Spread of Democracy in the International System’, Journal of Conflict Resolution 35, 2, June 1991, pp. 356–381.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    It may be that the experiences of Portugal and Spain stimulated pressures for democratization in the South American countries because of their common cultural ties and the important symbolic role that the European metropoles played in Ibero-American culture.Google Scholar
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    For a brief discussion of some approaches to this see Diane Ethier, ‘Introduction: Processes of Transition and Democratic Consolidation: Theoretical Indicators’, Diane Ethier (ed.), Democratic Transition and Consolidation in Southern Europe, Latin America and Southeast Asia (London, Macmillan, 1990), p. 9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Guillermo O’Donnell, Modernization and Bureaucratic-Authoritarianism: Studies in South American Politics (Berkeley, Institute of International Studies, University of California, Berkeley, 1973). But see the discussion in Collier.Google Scholar
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    This is the distinction drawn by Perlmutter between autocracy and tyranny, which both refer to rule by a single individual, and authoritarianism which refers to ‘a collective dictatorship, an oligarchy, or a military government.’ Perlmutter, p. 1.Google Scholar
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    On the nature of the Spanish regime, see Juan J. Linz, ‘An Authoritarian Regime: Spain’, Erik Allardt and Stein Rokkan (eds.), Mass Politics: Studies in Political Sociology (New York, The Free Press, 1970). The military was clearly a subordinate element in Spain.Google Scholar
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    There is not a large literature on this sort of regime, but for some discussion, see for example, Robert H. Jackson and Carl G. Rosberg, ‘Personal Rule. Theory and Practice in Africa’, Comparative Politics 16, 4, July 1984, pp. 421–442; Guenther Roth, ‘Personal Rulership, Patrimonialism, and Empire Building in the New States’, World Politics xx, 2, January 1968, pp. 194–206; Ann Ruth Willner, The Spellbinders. Charismatic Political Leadership (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1984).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    In part this was agreed because of fears of the excessive politicization of the military that could result from a more institutional arrangement.Google Scholar
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    Huntington’s ‘reformists’ and’ standpatters’. Huntington, p. 121.Google Scholar
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    Perhaps the military institution, especially when in power, is the best illustration of this sort of structure.Google Scholar
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    See the discussion in Adam Przeworski,’ some Problems in the Study of the Transition to Democracy’, Transitions... Comparative Perspectives.Google Scholar
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    Diamandouros, p. 147.Google Scholar
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    On the difference between social and political revolution and their effects, see Theda Skocpol, States and Social Revolution. A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1979).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Graeme Gill 2000

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  • Graeme Gill

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