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Most people in human history have lived under some kind of nondemocratic rule. Political scientists, on the other hand, have focused most efforts on democracies. The borders demarcating ideal types of democracies from nondemocracies are fuzzy, but beyond finding those borders is another, arguably greater, inferential challenge: understanding politics under authoritarianism. For instance, many prior studies ignored transitions between different authoritarian regimes and saw democratization as the prime threat to dictators. However, recent scholarship has shown this to be an error, as more dictators are replaced by other dictators than by democracy. A burgeoning field of authoritarianism scholarship has made considerable headway in the endeavor to comprehend dictatorial politics over the past two decades. Rather than attempting to summarize this literature in its entirety, three areas of research are worth reviewing, related to change inside of the realm of authoritarian politics. The two more mature sets of research have made critical contributions, the first in isolating different kinds of authoritarian turnover and the second in separating the plethora of authoritarian regimes into more coherent categories using various typologies. How do we understand authoritarian turnover? Authoritarian regimes undergo distinct, dramatic, and observable changes at three separate levels—in leaders, regimes, and authoritarianism itself. Drawing distinctions between these changes improves our understanding of the ultimate fates of dictators and authoritarian regimes. How do we understand the diversity of authoritarian regimes? Scholarship has focused on providing competing accounts of authoritarian types, along with analyses of institutional setup of regimes as well as their organization of military forces. Authoritarian typologies, generally coding regimes by the identities of their leaders and elite allies, show common tendencies, and survival patterns tend to vary across types. The third research area, still developing, goes further into assessing changes inside authoritarian regimes by estimating the degree of personalized power across regimes, the causes and consequences of major policy changes—or reforms—and rhetorical or ideological shifts.


Carolien van Ham and Staffan Lindberg

The quality of elections in Africa demonstrates considerable progress from the early attempts in the 1950s and 1960s to the increasingly democratic era following the end of the Cold War. In terms of scope, 46 of 49 countries in sub-Saharan Africa now select the most powerful public offices (i.e., the executive and/or legislature) via elections, and reserved power domains have become relatively uncommon. In terms of choice, single-party elections, once so common across Africa, have now all but vanished from the continent. However, the integrity of elections still varies widely, ranging from elections with serious irregularities to elections that are fully free and fair. Even so, considerable progress is apparent over the last three decades. A full 47% of countries in sub-Saharan Africa now hold elections that are free and fair or only involve minor irregularities. Equally important, electoral interruptions in the form of coup d’état, civil war, or annulment of elections have become very rare. Africa is also a continent where the contemporary trend of elections generating broader democratization is particularly palpable. By providing opportunities for citizens to remove incumbents from office and generating expansion of civil liberties after elections are over, stimulating citizens and other actors to increase pressure for more democratic freedoms, elections seem on average to have been conducive to democratic developments in Africa. Elections also increasingly lead to turnovers, especially elections of high electoral integrity, where on average 34% are associated with alternations in power. Taking a long-term view on developments from 1960 until 2017, African elections have seen an impressive increase in quality over time, and provide a much more significant contribution to democratization in sub-Saharan Africa than is often acknowledged in the literature.