Challenge of Semi-Authoritarianism By Martha Brill Olcott, Marina Ottaway Publisher: Carnegie Carnegie Paper No. 7, October 1999 The post-cold war...
Martha Brill Olcott
Carnegie Carnegie Paper No. 7, October
The post-cold war world has seen the rise of an increasing number of regimes that cannot be
easily classified as either authoritarian or democratic, but display some characteristics of eachâ€”
in short, they are semi-authoritarian regimes. These regimes have adopted some of the formal
traits of democracy, such as constitutions providing for the separation of powers and contested
presidential and parliamentary elections, and they allow some degree of political freedom to their
citizens; nevertheless, they are able to protect themselves from open competition that might
threaten the tenure of the incumbents. Such regimes abound in the former Soviet Union: in
countries like Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan, for example, former communist bosses have
transformed themselves into elected presidents, but in reality they remain strongmen whose
power is barely checked by weak democratic institutions. Semi-authoritarian regimes are also
numerous in Sub-Saharan Africa, where most of the multi-party elections of the 1990s have
failed to produce working parliaments or other institutions capable of holding the executive
accountable. In the Middle East, tentative political openings in Algeria, Morocco and Yemen
appear to be leading to the consolidation of semi-authoritarian regimes rather than to democracy,
following a pattern first established by Egypt. In the Balkans, the communist regimes have
disappeared, but democracy remains a distant hope even in countries that are at peace. Even
more worrisome is the example of Latin America, where steady progress toward democracy has
been interrupted by the new semi-authoritarianism of Peru and Venezuela.
Several factors explain why a growing number of regimes are adopting outwardly more
democratic political systems: the loss of appeal of socialist systems during the 1990s, the
creation of newly independent states, and the corresponding need felt by an increasing number of
governments to legitimize themselves in the eyes of their citizens and of the international
community; the pressure by donor countries, which have launched democracy promotion
programs and in some cases even make economic aid contingent on the implementation of
democratic reforms; and the demonstration effect of democratization in the neighboring
A combination of external pressures and countervailing forces created by domestic opposition
has limited the capacity of most governments to impose their policies unilaterally and to continue
governing in an authoritarian fashion. But these pressures have not been sufficient to bring about
a new distribution of power in most countries. As a result, reforms have remained incomplete
and the new regimes have been able to prevent further change through their successful
manipulation of the new institutions and often of the opposition as well. The new semi-
authoritarian regimes continue to go through the motions of a democratic process, but they have
become masters at stifling electoral competition or at keeping parliaments powerless and
judiciary systems cowed. They have also learned to manipulate public opinion: on the one hand,
they claim that that they are committed to popular empowerment and the redistribution of power;
on the other, they emphasize that the risks of instability they claim are inherent in untrammeled
competition and by so doing succeed in deflecting criticisms and reducing internal pressure for
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