Supporters of Sudanese President and National Congress Party candidate Omar Hassan al-Bashir attend his re-election campaign rally in El-Ginana, West Darfur March 4, 2015. Bashir said he will step aside in 2020 if he is elected for one more term in April elections. (REUTERS/ Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah)

Voters in Uzbekistan, Sudan, Togo, and Kazakhstan will go to the polls in the coming weeks. Freedom House and others classify these countries as authoritarian and the elections are widely expected to fall short of being “free and fair.” How should we think about these elections — and the presence of other seemingly democratic institutions like political parties and legislatures — in non-democratic regimes? Why do leaders of authoritarian countries allow pseudo-democratic institutions?

In a recent article in the Washington Quarterly, we use data on autocracies worldwide from 1946 to 2012 to show that authoritarian regimes use pseudo-democratic institutions to enhance the durability of their regimes. The figure below shows the increasing durability of authoritarian regimes, particularly in the post-Cold War period. From 1946 to 1989, the average authoritarian regime lasted 12 years. Since the end of the Cold War, this number has increased to 20 years. Today, the typical autocracy has been in power for 25 years. From China (where the current regime has been in power for 66 years) to Jordan (69 years), and Belarus (21 years) to Zimbabwe (35 years), today’s authoritarian regimes are remarkably durable.

The figure also shows that rising authoritarian durability has tracked closely with the spread of democratic institutions (elections, legislatures, and parties), suggesting authoritarian leaders have learned to leverage these institutions to enhance their staying power. From 1951 to 1989, an autocracy with multiple parties and a legislature lasted about six years longer in office than one without them (11 years versus five years, on average). Incorporating regular elections (at least once every six years) extended a regime’s life by another year (to 12 years). This power prolonging effect has become even more pronounced in the post-Cold War period. Dictatorships with multiple political parties and a legislature now last 14 years longer than those without (19 years versus five years, on average). Regularly holding elections further extends their tenures to 22 years.

Prior work on “illiberal democracies,” “hybrid regimes,” and “competitive authoritarian regimes” already documented the post-Cold War surge in regimes that mix democracy with autocratic tendencies. Our study departs from this earlier scholarship by asserting that democratic institutions are not just features of regimes that sit closest to democracy on the democracy-autocracy spectrum. Democratic institutions are now almost universal, and the ways in which authoritarian incumbents use them are contributing to the increased durability of contemporary dictatorships.

So how do democratic institutions enhance authoritarian resilience? The most apparent explanation is that these institutions create a democratic façade, enabling authoritarian leaders to maintain international and domestic legitimacy. Authoritarian incumbents may view the adoption of elections and the legalization of opposition parties as a means of attracting international aid and investment, both critical to keeping their regimes afloat. Likewise, the increasing acceptance of the liberal democratic model among citizens around the world following the fall of communism has likely contributed to authoritarian regimes’ assessment that the adoption of democratic institutions is essential to maintaining domestic legitimacy.

But this answer is incomplete. Academic studies, such as those found here, here, and here, offer additional insights on how pseudo-democratic institutions prolong dictatorships, despite the risks they create for incumbents. (Sri Lanka’s Presidential election in January, which unseated longtime incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa, is one recent example of how pseudo-democratic institutions are still a gamble for authoritarian regimes). Although infrequently destabilizing, elections can create a focal point for mobilizing opposition, and political parties and legislatures can enable opponents to establish bases of support and provide a forum in which this opposition can coordinate.

Today’s savvy dictators, however, have learned to leverage institutions to their advantage. Political scientists show, for example, that leaders understand that institutional manipulation offers greater advantages and fewer liabilities than reliance on traditional tactics like overt repression, which forces compliance with the regime through brute force, but risks creating popular discontent that can lead to destabilizing civil unrest. Incorporating seemingly democratic institutions mitigates some of these risks by providing a leader with alternative methods of control that promote citizen participation, but on the authoritarian regime’s terms.

Autocrats’ ability to use democratic institutions to enhance their durability is likely to negatively affect the trajectory of democracy worldwide. This is because as autocracies last longer, the number of authoritarian regimes in place at any point in time is likely to grow, as some countries inevitably backslide from democracy to autocracy. While true that the pool of authoritarian countries is smaller than in years past (57 were in power in 2012, compared to 73 in 1991, by our definition), the durability of those autocracies that remain increases the prospect that reversions to autocracy will outnumber the pace of democratic transitions. In 2012, for example, there were three occasions of backsliding, but only one transition to democracy. Because regime type tends to diffuse across borders, particularly to neighboring states, any accumulation of autocracies could create an “autocratizing” momentum that would be difficult to reverse.

To mitigate the chances of a reverse wave, democracy promotion efforts would likely benefit from approaches that address the underlying sources of this enhanced durability. Our research suggests that growing authoritarian resilience is largely a result of these regimes’ increasing reliance on pseudo-democratic institutions to maintain power. Equipped with a better understanding of the dynamics that underpin authoritarian durability, policymakers can devise more targeted approaches to enhance the potential for these institutions to serve the democratic functions for which they were created.

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Andrea Kendall-Taylor holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of California, Los Angeles. She specializes in the political dynamics of autocracies, democratization, and political instability.

Erica Frantz is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Bridgewater State University. She specializes in the politics of dictatorship and is a collaborator on the NSF-funded Autocratic Regimes Data Set.

Some of the data used in this research was funded by the National Science Foundation (BCS-0904478 and BCS-090463).