What Makes Military Dictators Transition Out of Dictatorships?

Frequent leadership cycles are common in dictatorships. Historically, military dictators, whose power is derived from the armed forces, have been subject to more subsequent coups and regime changes than their non-military counterparts. Given their short-lived tenure, military dictators always have to gauge their fate based on the premise of losing office, and a sense of foreboding and insecurity may haunt them throughout their tenure. In the face of these challenges, what should a military dictator pursue to ameliorate the insecure future self? This concern might be what leads a military dictator to transition to democracy.

Human ambitions turn out to be futile in the face of death. Given the risk of losing office and a high likelihood of serious punishment or execution, enhancing one’s post-tenure fate in the following administration is a military dictator’s utmost priority. A democratic institution’s core properties that could ensure a safer fate render democratization, not another military junta, much more appealing to the departing dictator. Considering this, political science professor Alexandre Debs in his 2016 article sheds new light on the underlying mechanisms behind military dictators’ transition out of dictatorship.

Noting historical evidence that military dictatorships have been ephemeral and often followed by abrupt democratization, Debs begins his study by focusing on military dictators’ characteristics in comparison to non-military dictators. One such comparison is that military dictators are more likely to use means of violence compared to their civilian counterparts. Debs analyzes the concept that a military dictator poses a material threat to any potential successor. Military dictators, who are proven to be specialized in violence, cannot credibly commit to not employing violence in subsequent contests for office. This commitment problem, in turn, increases the risk of elimination that the military dictator faces if he loses office.

Debs demonstrates this claim with the 1946-2004 Archigos data on the post-tenure fate of dictators. The author shows that 28 out of 203 military dictators (14 percent) were killed by subsequent autocratic successors, while 21 out of 275 non-military dictators (8 percent) had the same fate after a transition to another dictator. However, when it came to transitioning to a democracy, none of the 51 military dictators or 45 non-military dictators were killed. The notably larger effect for the military dictators’ post-tenure fate implies that military dictators experienced greater improvement in their post-tenure fate after democratic transitions compared to their non-military counterparts.

Thus, to avoid the ironic consequence—the more militarily capable, the less likely to survive—when transitioning to another dictatorship, a military dictator has ample reason to quickly replace his authority with democratic systems. Debs provides a historical review of three post-World War II examples—Lesotho, Uruguay, and Haiti—to substantiate military dictators’ propensity to transition out of dictatorships. In short, Colonel Elias Tutsoane Ramaema of Lesotho, General Gregorio Alvarez of Uruguay, and Lieutenant General Henri Namphy of Haiti stepped down and paved the way for transitions to democracy under circumstances that could improve their post-tenure fates. This then raises a question of what properties of democracy are enticing for the liberating despot’s needs—alleviating the commitment problem and thus securing a safer post-tenure fate.

Debs borrows two fundamental properties of democracy from the late Robert Dahl’s well-known 1971 book titled “Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition” to materialize his argument: inclusiveness and public contestation in the selection of leaders. With a greater level of inclusiveness, political candidates vying for votes are unlikely to be good at using violence since it would negatively influence their popularity. Therefore, a democracy is likely to select leaders who are less capable of using violence, making the military dictator’s transition to democracy less threatening. With a greater level of public contest for office, the military dictator issuing violent threats regarding coming back to office are less present because any violent actions would encounter intense public opposition. Eventually, both properties facilitate democratic transitions by minimizing the importance of violence in selecting leaders and reducing the threat that the military dictator would pose to their successors.

When a military dictator’s commitment to not using violence can become credible under a new democracy and democratic leaders do not benefit from physically eliminating their potential competitors, the military dictator’s post-tenure fate improves. There is always the chance that the first new democratic leader might eliminate the former military dictator. However, this scenario is not likely to happen under a democratic regime because doing so would incur undeniable costs, such as a deterioration in popularity. Also, the former military dictator is no longer a material threat; a consolidated democracy shrinks the former military dictator’s potential clout in the new regime in exchange for a safer post-tenure fate.

Debs formalizes aforementioned mechanisms and findings using a theoretical framework. He finds that given a dictator’s ouster, the more capable the dictator is of using violence, the more they could represent a threat to a new leader and challengers. Therefore, military dictators suffer a greater chance of elimination than their civilian counterparts. This potential fate leads military dictators to set up democratic institutions, seeking a more favorable post-tenure fate. Based on this logic, the author provides additional insight into key determinants of democratization and contributes to understanding the underlying causes and patterns of past and ongoing transitions.

Article source: Debs, Alexandre. “Living by the Sword and Dying by the Sword? Leadership Transitions in and out of Dictatorships.International Studies Quarterly 60(1). (2016): 73-84.

Featured photo: cc/(jaflippo, photo ID: 518899548, from iStock by Getty Images)

Changwook Ju
Changwook Ju (MPP’18) is a staff writer for International Affairs at the Chicago Policy Review. He is interested in alliance politics, the causes of war, crisis bargaining, domestic politics and foreign policy, non-democracy, nuclear strategy, and the political economy of conflict. He spent two years in the Republic of Korea Marine Corps as a sergeant, and holds dual undergraduate degrees in Public Policy and Political Science from Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, South Korea.

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