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II. Conceptualizing the Gray Zone
A. The Origins of the Discussion
B. The Conceptual Difficulty of Separating Democracies From Autocracies
C. Attempts to Solve the Gray-Zone Problem
1. Diminished Subtypes of Democracy
2. Electoral Authoritarianism
3. Hybrid Regimes
4. Advantages and Disadvantages
III. Empirical Evidence
A. Quantitative Evidence
B. Case Studies
IV. Implications for Democracy Assistance
V. Directions for Future Research
Semiauthoritarianism denotes a form of government that is neither fully democratic nor fully authoritarian. It might be the result of an authoritarian regime’s having adopted some of the features of a democracy, or of a democracy having restricted political or civil liberties. The term is by no means uncontested. As will be seen below, many other terms exist to describe such regimes that fall into the gray zone between democracy and authoritarianism. However, this research paper is not concerned with terminology but rather with the conceptual issues surrounding the phenomenon of countries’ not fitting into the existing tripartite typology of democratic, authoritarian, and totalitarian regimes. In this research paper, the notion of a gray zone will be employed to denote this phenomenon. It is suitable for the purposes of this paper because it does not make any assertions as to the quality of the regimes discussed (i.e., closer to democracy, closer to authoritarianism, stable, in transition). In addition, it provides a good base to discuss the conceptual challenges inherent in classifying regimes. After all, the size of the gray zone depends on the reach of the concepts employed by the researcher. It is not uncharted territory but territory simultaneously charted by two concepts that should not overlap.
Since the 1990s, the number of countries in this gray zone has undoubtedly increased. Although only about 5% of the world’s countries were characterized as “partly free” by Freedom House (https://freedomhouse.org/) in 1974, their number had grown to as much as one third by 2007. Although much (but not nearly enough) empirical knowledge exists about each of these cases, there is a dearth of concepts and typologies that would enable us to group them in ways that highlight their similarities and differences. In fact, semiautocracies, hybrid regimes, semi democracies, and related concepts are but a large residual category in which regimes are placed that are neither genuinely democratic nor genuinely autocratic.
There are good reasons for scholars and students of comparative politics to feel uneasy about the large number of countries that do not fit into the existing tripartite regime typology. The fact that so many regimes eschew easy categorization by means of these classes suggests that serious problems exist with respect to the normative and theoretical assumptions and the concepts that underlie this typology. Add to this the considerable methodological difficulties inherent in gathering, systematizing, and making sense of information on so large and so heterogeneous a population of cases, and it is easy to see that this challenge will keep scholars of comparative politics busy for some time to come. This uneasiness extends to the makers of foreign policy in the developed democracies of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. As a consequence of this lack of information, it is difficult for them to assess whether such regimes do or do not pose a threat to national interests, and to decide on the proper instruments to help these regimes develop and become liberal democracies.
The next section explains the roots of the difficulties just outlined, sheds light on efforts made to characterize and bundle the multitude of cases in the gray zone between democracy and authoritarianism, and introduces the most important concepts brought forth since the 1980s. Then, some empirical evidence is summarized to examine how these concepts have emerged from or are applied to such gray-zone regimes. First, a brief analysis of some relevant indices is provided to illustrate the difficulty of drawing the conceptual line between democracies and autocracies. Second, four of the cases most frequently mentioned in the literature on the topic are briefly introduced: Egypt, Malaysia, Russia, and Venezuela.
Thereafter, the policy implications will be discussed. In particular, from an external perspective, the difficulties this lack of knowledge poses for international democracy support are highlighted. Thereafter, possible avenues and conceptual limits of future research are briefly sketched. The last section summarizes the results and rounds off the research paper with a brief conclusion.
II. Conceptualizing the Gray Zone
A. The Origins of the Discussion
Only in the past two decades has the issue of regimes that are per definition neither pure democracies nor pure autocracies become a prominent issue on the agenda of comparative political science. This does not mean that such regimes have not existed before. At the outset of the 20th century, there were quite a number of countries in which reasonably free and fair elections among several candidates or even parties were held, but which could not be considered democratic. These regimes tended to follow, as Larry Diamond (2002) puts it, the “optimal path to stable polyarchy, with the rise of political competition preceding the expansion of participation” (p. 23). In the so-called Third Wave of democracy, which began in Portugal in 1974 and swept across most of southern Europe, Latin America, Asia, Africa, and central Europe within two decades, a large number of regimes did not become liberal democracies, however. In a large number of young democracies (most prominently in Africa and Latin America), human rights violations and military interference in politics was so widespread that many observers hesitated to label these regimes “democratic.” After the breakdown of the Soviet Union, the number of regimes that introduced free and fair elections but retained many authoritarian traits continued to grow. Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way (2002) have identified three paths that led to such regimes. The first two originated in a closed authoritarian regime, which either regressed or collapsed and subsequently adopted democratic institutions, often as a result of internal and external pressure. The third path was the regression of a democratic regime. Subsequently, many of these regimes proved unable to either progress to democracy or reestablish a closed authoritarian regime. At the time, the overwhelming number of democratization scholars held that these regimes were merely transitory and would soon become true democracies. This “transition paradigm” (Carothers, 2002) started to change around the middle of the 1990s and was seriously questioned by the beginning of the 21st century. A growing number of publications suspected that these “hybrid” regimes were not transitional but displayed remarkable stability.
Conceding that there was no inevitable path to full democracy for regimes that either embarked on democratic transition or improved civil liberties raised the question of how these regimes should be conceptualized. Are they democracies or nondemocracies? As easy as this question may sound, it entails two further questions. First, which concept of democracy should form the basis for this research? And even if we could agree on one concept of democracy, where do we draw the border between democratic and nondemocratic regimes?
B. The Conceptual Difficulty of Separating Democracies From Autocracies
Semiauthoritarian regimes are an unwieldy category because they are defined by what they are not: They are not a democracy, nor are they genuinely autocratic. And since autocracies are also defined by what they are not, that is, a democracy, what is left of the equation is that semiauthoritarian regimes are neither democracies nor nondemocracies. At the same time, however, they display elements of both.
The root of this confusing problem lies in how democracy is conceptualized. Scholars do not agree on what procedural characteristics a regime needs to display in order to be called a democracy. The minimalist electoral democracy concept, for example, demands elections that are free, fair, inclusive, and meaningful, which not only entails a real chance for the opposition to come to power, but also presupposes a range of civil liberties such as freedom of organization, freedom of speech, and freedom of information. On the other end of the spectrum are maximalist concepts that, in addition to the characteristics just listed, entail a wide range of civil rights, the absence of veto players not legitimized by democratic procedures, horizontal accountability, and the rule of law.
Different as all these concepts may be, they have two features in common that pose considerable difficulties in the process of separating democracies from nondemocracies: (1) They are made up of several criteria, and all of the criteria are necessary elements of a democracy; and (2) more problematically, most of these indicators relate to phenomena that are not either/or conditions but matters of degree. In consequence, the researcher must decide on artificial thresholds that separate existence from nonexistence of the elements inherent in this concept. For example, how many persons need to be prevented from voting in order for the condition of universal suffrage to be violated? When exactly do elections cease to be free and fair? As a result of the two features above, further conceptual difficulties emerge: Is the half-fulfillment of two conditions equal to the nonfulfillment of one condition? And is a regime that fails on five of eight conditions less democratic than a regime that fails on only one?
The fact that most people would answer the latter question in the affirmative illustrates the biggest problem with existing regime typologies. Per definition, regime typologies must be able to cover all existing cases, and the classes they establish must be mutually exclusive: Each case must correspond to only one type. This means that if the tripartite typology were a true typology, a gray zone could not exist. That it does exist is attributable to the difficulty of establishing a single threshold for a concept that consists of several criteria, each of which is gradual in nature and therefore necessitates the imposition of an artificial threshold.
C. Attempts to Solve the Gray-Zone Problem
Three main strategies exist to deal with such gray-zone regimes: Conceptualize them as deficient democracies, as subtypes of authoritarian regimes, or as a genuine regime type (hybrid regimes). It needs to be noted that these approaches are not equal to regime types, and the empirical overlaps between them are considerable. This, of course, is again a result of the conceptual difficulties just outlined.
1. Diminished Subtypes of Democracy
Arguably the most prolific reaction to the conceptual challenges just outlined is the creation of ad hoc concepts to characterize regimes that share most attributes associated with a liberal democracy but not all. In most cases, the deficiency is expressed with an adjective, resulting in terms such as tutelary democracy, illiberal democracy, neopatrimonial democracy, and delegative democracy, to just name a few of the literally hundreds of such concepts that have emerged in recent decades. In their famous treatise on conceptual innovations in comparative politics, David Collier and Steven Levitsky (1997) call these concepts “diminished subtypes” of democracy.
Whereas “classic” subtypes share all the attributes associated with democracy and add other features to arrive at increased differentiation (e.g., parliamentary vs. presidential democracies; consensus vs. majoritarian democracies), diminished subtypes are characterized by the lack of one or more of the defining attributes of a liberal democracy. For example, a regime in which horizontal accountability is absent is not a liberal democracy anymore, but might still be more democratic than an electoral democracy. According to one count, the number of such “democracies with adjectives” (Collier & Levitsky, 1997) went into the hundreds, creating confusion and making systematization difficult. In a notable contribution, a research team associated with Wolfgang Merkel (Merkel, Puhle, Croissant, Eicher, & Thiery, 2003) sought to clear up this confusion. These researchers formulated a very demanding concept of an embedded democracy that consists of five “partial regimes,” that is, elections, public participation, effective power to govern, horizontal accountability, and civil liberties. Merkel et al. (2003) also developed 34 indicators to account for “defects” in these partial regimes, with one type of defective democracy corresponding to each partial regime. In this way, they identified four basic diminished subtypes of democracy, namely, exclusive democracy (which covers any violation of democratic elections and political participation and therefore combines two partial regimes), tutelary democracy, delegative democracy, and illiberal democracy. In other words, the strategy of extending the root concept of liberal democracy into the gray area by subtracting attributes of the root concept persists. Thereby, the root concept is extended toward or even beyond the minimalist concept of an electoral democracy, and a fluid conceptual boundary encompassing both the minimalist and the maximalist concepts is imposed between democracies and authoritarian regimes, and various “defects” or “deficits” mark the difference between electoral and liberal democracy.
2. Electoral Authoritarianism
“Electoral authoritarianism” is another way of conceptualizing “institutionalized ambiguity” (Schedler, 2002, 2006b). It follows the suggestion of Juan Linz (2000) not to build subtypes of democracy but rather to rely on subtypes of authoritarianism when charting the gray zone. Andreas Schedler maintains that electoral authoritarianism is different from regime hybridity (see below) because regimes in the former category are “neither democratic nor democratizing but plainly authoritarian, albeit in ways that depart from the forms of authoritarian rule as we know it” (Schedler, 2006b, p. 5). They are different from both electoral democracies, which conduct free and fair elections, and closed autocracies, which do not stage multiparty elections. Again, however, it is difficult to draw the line between these regime types, with the result that some of the examples that Schedler gives for electoral authoritarian regimes are also textbook examples in some of the literature on hybrid regimes, notably Russia, Egypt, and Malaysia. The proponents of the electoral authoritarianism concept share the stance that these regimes are semiautocratic by their own choice and not because they lack the capabilities to manage the full transition to democracy. On a conceptual level, these authors shed light on the interplay between political and civil rights, and a distinction is made between hege monic and competitive electoral authoritarianism. The former pertains to regimes whose “elections and other ‘democratic’ institutions are largely façades, yet they may provide some space for political opposition, independent media, and social organizations that do not seriously criticize or challenge the regime” (Diamond, 2002, p. 26). In competitive authoritarian regimes, which Levitsky and Way (2002) categorize as hybrid regimes (see below), “formal democratic institutions are widely viewed as the principal means of obtaining and exercising political authority. Incumbents violate those rules so often and to such an extent, however, that the regime fails to meet conventional minimum standards for democracy” (p. 52). Hence, elections are free but hardly fair, with incumbents seeking to control the outcomes by means such as intimidating opposition candidates, corrupting journalists, vote buying, and ballot-box stuffing.
3. Hybrid Regimes
Instead of extending the range of cases that the concepts democracy and authoritarianism cover by including (diminished) subtypes of either regime type, Terry Karl (1995, 2005) proposed to treat hybrid regimes as a unique regime type that combines free and fair elections—but not the other traits of a minimalist concept of democracy— with autocratic elements. In fact, the various conceptualizations of hybrid regimes discussed subsequently tend to be based on the two procedural dimensions of democracy identified by Robert Dahl (1971): contestation for political office and public participation in politics. While hybrid regimes tend to grant many or even most of the political rights necessary for political contestation, they tend to control day-to-day politics by systematically excluding certain social groups; by restricting the rights to participate in politics; or by disempowering parliaments, the judiciary, and other control institutions. Often, a relaxation of political rights leads to a tightening of civil liberties, and vice versa.
However, elections are not the only realm in which contestation in competitive authoritarianism is played out. As Levitsky and Way (2002) point out, three more arenas are involved. First, in the legislative arena, the opposition can use the legislature as a platform to organize and voice dissent even if it is unable to seize political power. Second, in the judicial arena, judges are often formally independent and can challenge incumbents by declaring a referendum illegal, sanctioning electoral fraud, or protecting the media. Naturally, the incumbents will seek to co-opt or intimidate judges, but such action can be costly in terms of regime legitimacy. Third, the media in competitive authoritarian regimes often enjoy limited or even complete freedom to report on controversial issues and can serve as watchdogs exposing government malfeasance or as mouthpieces of the opposition. As is the case with the judicial arena, the incumbents tend to apply more subtle means than do closed authoritarian regimes for suppressing media freedom.
Marina Ottaway (2003) has added a further important arena, namely, that of gaining public support. The most obvious way of doing so is generating output legitimacy by means of providing public services or stimulating economic growth. Where this option is not available (most of the hybrid regimes are developing countries), leaders can rely on personal charisma, co-opt potential opposition by means of patronage networks, or portray themselves as guarantors of stability, security, and the national interest. A number of later studies confirm that public opinion is indeed an arena that should not be neglected in the analysis of semiauthoritarian regimes.
In a broad manner and almost by intuition, hybrid regimes are often conceptualized as nearer either the autocratic end of the spectrum of political regimes (semiauthoritarian regimes) or the democratic end (semidemocracies). Although such a denomination might be the result of a more or less value-free analytical assessment of the number of democratic preconditions fulfilled or not fulfilled, some authors introduce a normative element to justify their labels. They point out that democracy has today become the only legitimate form of government and that international pressure on nondemocracies to become liberal democracies is rising. Because of this, they argue, many authoritarian regimes introduce democratic features (such as elections) to mask their authoritarian character. Hence, Diamond (2002) claims that “virtually all hybrid regimes in the world today are quite deliberately pseudodemocratic” (p. 24). In a similar vein, Ottaway (2003) holds that a defining feature of semiauthoritarian regimes is that “they are carefully constructed and maintained alternative systems” (p. 7).According to Ottaway, such regimes need to be distinguished from countries that are still in transition to democracy and those that strove to become democratic but failed. Although theoretically relevant, it is difficult to ascertain whether a regime is in a protracted transition, has failed to democratize, or is semiauthoritarian by choice. With respect to semiauthoritarian regimes, Ottaway proposes a subdivision into three types of semiauthoritarian regimes. “Semiauthoritarian regimes in equilibrium,” for which she cites Egypt as a textbook case, “have established a balance among competing forces” (p. 20) and are therefore able to persist for a long time. “Semiauthoritarianism in decay” (p. 20) denotes regimes that are regressing toward full authoritarianism, such asAzerbaijan, or from democracy to semiauthoritarianism, such as Venezuela, and that tend to be much more unstable than semiauthoritarian regimes in equilibrium. “Semiauthoritarian states undergoing dynamic change” (p. 20) form a third category and comprise regimes verging on democratization. Ottaway’s examples are Senegal and Croatia, although Senegal was showing, to apply Ottaway’s terminology, signs of “decay” when this research paper was written.
As can be seen from the above discussion, the term semi authoritarian is frequently used as a residual category to cover diminished subtypes of democracy and electoral authoritarian regimes as well. Only at the end of the first decade of the 21st century did the more systematic study of hybrid regimes as a distinct regime type pick up. For example, building on the competitive authoritarianism concept formulated by Levitsky and Way (2002), Joakim Ekman (2009) created a profile of hybrid regimes based on six criteria, namely competitive elections (a minimum condition to be fulfilled in order for a regime to be classified as hybrid), significant levels of corruption, lack of democratic quality, a problematic press freedom situation, a poor civil liberties situation, and lack of the rule of law. According to Ekman, the more of these criteria that are met, the closer the regime verges on authoritarianism.
In a similar fashion, Heidrun Zinecker distinguishes democracies, autocracies, and hybrid regimes by means of five “partial regimes,” that is, civil rule, polyarchy, rule of law, civilizedness, and political exclusion/inclusion. If none of these conditions is fulfilled, the regime is authoritarian, and if all are fulfilled, it is a democracy. Hybrid regimes are characterized by the presence of at least civil rule and polyarchy, and the nonfulfillment of at least one of the three other conditions. Of particular importance for Zinecker is the exclusion/inclusion dimension, for it functions as a link between regime characteristics and issues of socioeconomic transformation. According to Zinecker, the democratization of a hybrid regime requires the transformation not only of political but also of socioeconomic institutions.
Finally, Leonardo Morlino (2009) straightforwardly argues that conceptualizing hybrid regimes as a genuine regime type can be justified only if it can be proven that regime hybridity is not a transitory phenomenon. For him, only those countries that have been “partly free” in the Freedom House survey for at least 10 years qualify as hybrids. In a way similar to that of Zinecker (2009), Morlino classifies these regimes on the basis of “seven ambits that are important when analyzing any political regime” (p. 290), that is, rule of law, electoral process, functioning of government, political pluralism and participation, freedom of expression and beliefs, freedom of association and organization, and personal autonomy and individual freedom, and arrives at three types of hybrid regimes: quasi democracies, limited democracies, and democracies without state.
4. Advantages and Disadvantages
Each of the approaches outlined above has advantages and disadvantages. The advantages of creating diminished subtypes are that the perceived deficiencies of individual regimes are highlighted and that democracy can continue to serve as the root concept if a regime is perceived to verge closer to democracy than to authoritarianism. However, there are several notable disadvantages in this strategy. First, some scholars argue that it is unethical to classify one third of the countries in this world by what political scientists perceive to be not their special traits, but their deficits. The more serious disadvantage, however, is the conceptual dilemma this strategy poses. In terms of the strict demands of a typology, since these “diminished subtypes” do not possess all the necessary attributes prescribed for a regime to be called a liberal democracy, they should not be called democratic if liberal democracy is the root concept. In this case, it might be better to take electoral democracy as the root concept and create categorical subtypes.
The concept of electoral authoritarianism seems to solve both these problems. It represents a categorical subtype of authoritarianism that is juxtaposed to a minimalist concept of an electoral democracy. However, it does not address the problem of how to classify those regimes that are democracies but not liberal democracies. Clearly, the strategy of creating diminished subtypes of democracy cannot be applied anymore if the root concept is not a liberal but an electoral democracy. Hence, nonliberal democracies cannot be conceptualized anymore on the basis of the deficits ascribed to them, and entirely new subtypes building on positive or neutral characteristics would have to be created. This is more difficult than it seems.
Treating “hybrid regimes” as a distinct regime type does not solve, but rather dodges, this problem. The concepts presented by Ekman (2009) and Zinecker (2009) allow researchers to broadly measure a hybrid regime’s relative distance from democracy and authoritarianism, and they allow scholars to cluster hybrid regimes around different dimensions that, however, again point to deficits. The more explicit classification proposed by Morlino exemplifies this dilemma. His typology again yields “democracies with adjectives” (Collier & Levitsky, 1997).
III. Empirical Evidence
A. Quantitative Evidence
As the previous sections should have made clear, the number of gray-zone regimes depends on the democracy concept applied as well as its operationalization. This pertains to electoral authoritarianism as well because, as pointed out above, authoritarianism is defined as the absence of democracy. This section compares several assessments regarding the number of “hybrid regimes.”
Based on the Freedom House index, which is one of the most popular indices for classifying political regimes, Diamond (2002) counts 73 liberal democracies, 31 electoral democracies, 17 ambiguous regimes, 21 competitive authoritarian regimes, 25 hegemonic electoral authoritarian regimes, and 25 closed authoritarian regimes for the year 2001. If we count as hybrid regimes those that are neither liberal or electoral democracies nor closed authoritarian regimes, the number comes to 62 (far more than one third out of a sample of 167 countries). If hegemonic authoritarian regimes are excluded, almost one fourth (38 regimes) can be classified as hybrids. This tallies well with the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index for 2008, which lists 36 out of 167 regimes covered as “hybrid” (p. 2), and Morlino’s findings, which identify 35 hybrid regimes. According to Diamond, the largest percentage of hybrid regimes is found in sub-Saharan Africa, where 27 (17) out of 48 regimes are neither liberal nor electoral democracies nor closed authoritarian regimes (the number in parentheses, in this sentence and below, is the number of hybrid regimes when hegemonic electoral authoritarian regimes are subtracted). In the Middle East and North Africa, 10 (4) out of 19 fall into this category, 12 (7) out of 27 in the post-Communist regimes, 7 (3) out of 25 in Asia, and 6 (5) out of 33 in Latin America and the Caribbean. According to Ekman’s index, 30 countries fulfill at least the minimum criterion of competitive elections and can therefore be classified as hybrid regimes. Russia and Venezuela are positive on all indicators and are therefore the hybrid regimes closest to authoritarianism, whereas Romania and Croatia are positive on only one indicator and are therefore closest to democracy. Although the number of hybrid regimes in all the indices mentioned so far does not differ much if hegemonic authoritarian regimes are excluded from Diamond’s typology, there is no consensus on which regimes qualify as hybrid and which do not. A comparison of the indices just introduced yields great variation.
B. Case Studies
Although, as pointed out above, gray-zone regimes are very different from each other, the different combinations of democratic and authoritarian traits are illustrated in this section by means of four brief case studies. This analysis follows the “competitive authoritarianism” concept and examines the four arenas identified by Levitsky and Way (2002), augmented by the public support dimension identified by Ottaway (2003). The emergence and traits of competitive authoritarianism are outlined for Egypt, Malaysia, Russia, and Venezuela because these four cases figure prominently in the debate, they represent four of six continents, and they display remarkable differences with respect to their “hybridity.” As a preface to the case studies, the next two paragraphs briefly shed light on the history of regime hybridity in each case.
Egypt and Malaysia can both be characterized, in Ottaway’s terms, as “institutionalized” semiauthoritarian regimes. The institutional base of semiauthoritarianism in Egypt was built under Anwar el-Sadat in the 1970s. He replaced the military regime of his assassinated predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser, with a presidential system that nominally guaranteed political and civil rights. In Malaysia, a race riot in 1969 ended the democracy inherited from the British colonizers after the country’s independence in 1957. After an 18-month state of emergency, the ruling United Malays National Organization reorganized itself, and gradually a regime combining authoritarian and democratic elements was set up. One crucial difference between the two countries is that in Malaysia, leadership succession took place under the auspices of the former leader, whereas leaders in Egypt remained in power as long as they were alive.
In contrast to these long-standing regimes, Russia’s and Venezuela’s semiauthoritarianism emerged only in the late 1990s. Again, there are crucial differences between these two cases. In the Russian Federation, semiauthoritarianism gradually replaced an authoritarian regime after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Semiauthoritarianism was most visibly engineered under Vladimir Putin, who had succeeded the ailing Boris Yeltsin as president of the Russian Federation in late 1999. Whereas Putin arguably had an incumbent advantage in the 2000 presidential elections, the former Venezuelan army colonel Hugo Chavez had not been in office when he won the 1998 presidential elections in Venezuela. However, he was well-known for his leading role in a 1992 coup attempt.
Of the four regimes described here, only Venezuela had the status of an “electoral democracy” in the Freedom House survey, which it lost, however, in 2009. Until then, opposition parties and candidates were allowed to organize and compete in presidential and parliamentary elections. They had a real chance of winning, but the playing field was not level. As a result of the media restrictions discussed below, Chavez and his followers receive better and more benevolent media coverage, and government resources are used to shore up support in election campaigns. In addition, Chavez’s staffing of the National Electoral Council and the use of fingerprint identification equipment have shored up allegations of irregular election procedures because they allegedly allow authorities to connect voters to their ballots. In the other three cases, the opposition is similarly disadvantaged in media coverage, resource endowment, and election procedures and faces additional difficulties. In Malaysia, the electoral system favors the ruling Barisan Nasional. In addition, electoral rolls are frequently manipulated, districts are gerrymandered, and party organization and campaigning are restricted. Nevertheless, opposition parties have been able to win the gubernatorial elections in individual provinces. In Egypt, strict party registration rules, high thresholds for presidential candidates, and electoral manipulation have made it virtually impossible for opposition candidates to contest the presidency. The same is true of Russia, where state-controlled media, high thresholds for candidates, and intransparent elections have made elections increasingly less competitive.
The independence of the judiciary is severely limited in all four countries. In Egypt, the Ministry of Justice controls promotions and compensations for judges, giving the executive undue influence over the judiciary. In addition, exceptional courts appointed by the president try security cases, and the Emergency Law allows the arrest of political activists. Corruption and executive interference hamper judicial independence in Malaysia, Venezuela, and Russia. However, the courts are not entirely dysfunctional in any of the cases.
Freedom of information in Egypt is severely hampered by government ownership of all terrestrial television stations, the licensing requirements for newspapers, and a state monopoly on the printing and distribution of newspapers. In addition, criticism of state authorities and organizations is discouraged by means of defamation suits. The Russian and Malaysian governments apply similar tactics. Although not unheard of in Russia and Egypt, intimidation is the main form of influencing journalists in Venezuela. However, with the Law on Social Responsibility of Radio and Television, passed in 2004, and the refusal to renew the licenses of critical media, the Chavez administration has started to resort to censorship as well.
As for public support, it is important to note that with the possible exception of Egypt, the strongmen in all four cases have enjoyed genuine popular support. In Venezuela, this support recently started to dwindle, which prompted Chavez to further restrict civil liberties. Similar processes are at work in Malaysia, where regulations banning Muslim conversions to Christianity fueled popular unrest, which was in turn answered with arrests and a media crackdown. Putin has not yet had to face such challenges.
IV. Implications for Democracy Assistance
As the research paper so far has shown, semiauthoritarian regimes can endure for a long time. Given that in such regimes, persons are more important than institutions, it is extremely difficult to predict how a semiauthoritarian regime will react to internal or external crises such as severe economic downturns or the death of a paramount leader. Such a crisis might well lead rival elite groups into a struggle for succession, with potentially negative impacts on the well-being of the population and regional stability. For these reasons and the normative conviction that democracy is the best of all regime forms, governments and civil society organizations in Western industrialized states seek to assist democratization in such countries.
As the above sections should have made clear, however, the study of gray-zone regimes is still in its infancy. Considerable headway is being made with regard to concept formation and regime classification, but a theory of hybrid regimes that could guide democracy assistance does not yet exist.5 For this reason, the relationship between democracy assistance and semiauthoritarian regimes is characterized by three major paradoxes that are very difficult to resolve. First, as Ottaway (2003) points out, democracy assistance is one of the major reasons that such a large number of semiauthoritarian regimes emerged in the first place. Development aid and inclusion in international regimes is frequently tied to demands for democratization, which has prompted many authoritarian leaders not to commit to democratization, but to set up democratic façades. Second, democracy assisters demand that semiauthoritarian rulers become accountable to their people but at the same time require these rulers to be responsive to the donor community. More emphasis is placed on the implementation of externally prescribed best practices than on generating homemade solutions in often messy democratic politics. This, one must add, is especially true for those regimes that are dependent on outside economic assistance. Third, given the lack of knowledge about such regimes and the resulting lack of systematic strategy on the side of the donor community, democracy assisters can never be sure whether their well-meant interference will contribute toward democratizing the regime in question, have no impact at all, or even help extend authoritarian rule.
To overcome these paradoxes, democracy promoters face two major decisions. The first is whether the regime should be changed by means of exerting pressure on the incumbents, propping up the opposition, and (re)designing legal, administrative, and representative structures. The underlying logic is that even if not much is known about the causes for the existence of such regimes, at least the symptoms of authoritarianism can be addressed. Although this approach has the potential to change a regime, it also necessitates the commitment of substantive funds over a long time and runs the great danger of fomenting disorder and even civil war if the intervention fails. The alternative would be less invasive attempts to improve existing structures. This approach might help improve organizational and administrative capacities and the level of education, yet these often are not what the opposition lacks in a country where leaders are simply reluctant to give up power.
The second decision closely relates to the first one and pertains to the instruments and targets of democracy promotion. Again, the lack of knowledge about hybrid regimes makes it difficult to assess the impact of particular instruments on the regime in question. According to Ottaway, global democracy promotion not only tends to avail itself of the same terminology and narratives concerning the benefits of democracy but also tends to prescribe very similar recipes in very different contexts. Among these recipes are election monitoring, propping up civil society organizations, training journalists, and educating the population on the virtues of democracy. However, these strategies, which aim at thwarting the “games semiauthoritarian regimes play” (Ottaway, 2003, p. 137) in the realms of electoral, legislative, and judicial procedures, in the media, and in public support, have proven to be of only limited usefulness. As Zinecker suggests, what are also needed are attempts to remedy the structural factors that brought such regimes into power in the first place.
For example, democracy is very difficult to establish in countries with societies polarized along ethnic or income lines, those with low income standards, those still in the process of state formation, and those where a powerful opposition against the ruling regime does not exist. In addition, the rulers, the opposition, and the general population must be convinced that democracy is indeed the regime form best suited to overcome these difficulties. This, according to Ottaway, necessitates linking politics and policies, which means that democracy assistance should refrain from prescribing outcomes in the form of best practices while at the same time demanding that democratic procedures are followed.
A precondition for establishing a democracy is that rulers can be either convinced or coerced to refrain from manipulating political outcomes, which in turn necessitates either a reformist leadership or a strong opposition willing to follow democratic procedures. In such cases, the chances for success are best if demands for support come from the regime and are not imposed from the outside. In general, the tools applied to promote democracy must be applied in a context-sensitive manner, which requires intimate knowledge of the case in question. Of general relevance are issues such as whether semiauthoritarianism has persisted for a long time and is likely to persist, the relationship between incumbents and opposition, the (non)existence of likely collaborators in civil society, the regime’s (in)dependence on outside funding, the socioeconomic situation, the degree of social cohesion, the quality of existing regime structures, the level and features of corruption, experience with democratic procedures, and so on. This list shows that there are no easy solutions, and it is here that improved knowledge about different types of hybrid regimes and their internal dynamics is clearly necessary in order to design better policies to deal with the challenges emerging from such regimes.
V. Directions for Future Research
As the preceding sections have shown, the study of gray-zone regimes is still a young and evolving discipline. Future research will have to address three broad issues: conceptual, contextual, and causal. With respect to the first issue, four major roads can be imagined to tackle the dilemma of having to impose an artificial threshold on phenomena that are matters of degree rather than type. First, conceptualize regimes exclusively in degrees, which, however, would in its final consequence mean that the three-part typology in its present form would have to be given up and that one or more gradual concepts extending across all regime forms would have to be found. Second, conceptualize regimes exclusively in types, which would necessitate the creation of a multitude of indicators to capture not only the basic regime types but also their manifold variations. This would be the highly impractical political science equivalent of squaring the circle. Third, further pursue the practice of establishing an artificial threshold between democracies and autocracies while conceptualizing each regime type’s quality as a continuum. As seen above, the drawback of this strategy is that it works only with minimalist concepts. The more demanding the concepts become, the larger the gray zone in which they overlap becomes. Thus, most promising is the practice of applying a minimalist concept of an “electoral democracy” and carefully separating it from “electoral autocracies.” Fourth, further pursue the third strategy and deal with the gray zone by conceptualizing it as a distinct regime type.
With respect to either strategy, another dilemma has to be addressed when applying these concepts to concrete cases. On one hand, both small-N and large-N comparative studies have to be based on uniform criteria that allow the researcher to make inferences that transcend these cases. On the other hand, such analysis must take heed of the problem that in different settings, different forms of violating democratic principles might be applied. For example, whether an election is free and fair has to be decided from case to case because the methods used to influence elections differ and cannot be specified a priori. Hence, the study of hybrid regimes needs to be conceptually and methodologically sound and contextually informed.
A final desideratum for further research concerns questions of causes and effects. This applies especially if the gray zone is classified as a distinct regime type. For example, in what ways do hybrid regimes come about, and how does this history influence their stability? What role do domestic factors such as political culture, the socioeconomic background, and the character of the regime play? Are certain types of hybrid regimes more stable than others? Does a specific regional environment promote the formation of hybrid regimes? And are hybrid regimes harmful to regional stability? In sum, what needs to be developed in the years to come are theories that address these questions.
Semiauthoritarianism represents a true challenge for comparative politics because theories that explain the genesis and impacts of semiauthoritarian or hybrid regimes on regional and domestic stability do not yet exist. The vast amount of work on the subject is still conceptual in nature. This is one of the reasons that international support for democracy faces such great difficulties in picking the right instruments. Comparative politics has begun only very recently to systematically conduct research on such regimes, which truly makes semiauthoritarianism a topic for political science in the 21st century. The conceptual foundation of the existing tripartite regime typology is the root of the difficulties inherent in such theory building, and three different strategies to overcome these difficulties have been introduced in this research paper. In addition, a number of indices have been examined to gauge the number of such regimes existing in the world. Finally, Egypt, Malaysia, Russia, and Venezuela were compared to tease out the similarities in the ways they limit elections, stifle parliamentary and judicial activity, and constrain press freedom, but nevertheless gain a modicum of support. However, these regimes also illustrate important differences with regard to their historical origin, their duration, and the instruments their leaders utilize to stay in power. Future research can pursue a number of promising paths, and this research paper has aimed to enable the reader to gain a better understanding of the challenges involved in theorizing semiauthoritarian regimes. It is hoped that the theoretical and practical relevance of conducting such research has become obvious.
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