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The Handbook of Political, Social, and Economic Transformation$

Wolfgang Merkel, Raj Kollmorgen, and Hans-Jürgen Wagener

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780198829911

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: March 2019

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198829911.001.0001

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Parties as Agents of Transition

Parties as Agents of Transition

(p.580) Chapter 63 Parties as Agents of Transition
The Handbook of Political, Social, and Economic Transformation

Saara Inkinen

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter reviews recent political science literature on the role of political parties and party systems in regime transition processes. The first part focuses on parties as collective actors, discussing the effects of different regime and opposition party strategies on the liberalization and breakdown of autocratic regimes. It also notes how such strategies may be shaped by autocratic regime subtypes and the internal organization of political parties. The second part goes on to consider party systems as an institutional arena that constrains party interactions. It examines arguments linking democratization to the institutionalization and type of autocratic party system, with an emphasis on competitive and hegemonic autocratic regimes. Directions for further research are provided in the conclusion.

Keywords:   political parties, party systems, transition, autocratic regimes, democratization, agency, institutions


THE study of transitions from autocratic rule has traditionally been concerned with the role that parties and party systems play in democratic consolidation. With the spread of limited multiparty autocracies in the post-Cold War period, transitologists have begun to consider the consequences of partisan institutions more broadly; especially, how party strategies and party system structures shape the transition process prior to the consolidation phase. I review recent scholarship linking parties and party systems to regime transitions with a particular focus on two questions that are central to this emergent research programme: (1) how do parties and party systems contribute to the liberalization and breakdown of autocratic regimes; and (2) under what circumstances are such transitions likely to result in either a democracy or a new autocracy.

I divide the chapter into three parts. The first section discusses how political parties as collective actors shape regime transitions, focusing in turn on opposition and regime party strategies. It also notes that more attention should be paid to other institutional factors when analysing the effects of different party strategies. The second section then shifts focus to party systems as the institutional arena that constrains party interactions. It proposes that, even though this literature has expanded our theoretical and empirical purview by suggesting new mechanisms for linking party systems to regime change, scholars should take more seriously the variance that exists in party system structures under autocratic rule. The final section concludes the chapter by highlighting challenges and understudied areas in need of further research.

Political Parties as Agents

As core political actors, parties have long been at the heart of ‘transitology’, or the study of transitions from autocratic rule. Scholarly consensus on how and when parties matter for regime transitions has evolved over time, however, reflecting in part changing realities.

(p.581) Early actor-centred transition theories underscore the importance of parties for the consolidation of newly established democratic regimes. Drawing on the first third-wave transitions from military and single-party rule in Latin America and Europe, this approach is rooted in the belief that founding elections will restore the primacy of electoral competition in selecting political leaders and, in doing so, propel contending regime and opposition factions to organize as political parties. In their landmark book, for example, O’Donnell and Schmitter (1986) emphasize the critical role parties play in coalition building at the onset of democratic rule. They show that democracy is more likely to survive when the elected party coalition succeeds in accumulating new interests entering the political arena while simultaneously accommodating the old political and economic elites.

The classical transition paradigm, which views founding elections as ‘the “heroic” moment for political parties’ (O’Donnell and Schmitter 1986, 57), does not assign parties a prominent role in the earlier phases of the transition process. As such, it faces the challenge of explaining more recent post-Cold War transitions, the majority of which have occurred in limited multiparty autocracies—i.e., in non-democratic regimes that have introduced party pluralism and elections long before an eventual transition occurs (see Hadenius and Teorell 2007).

By contrast, new institutional theories call attention to how parties may contribute to political liberalization and the breakdown of autocratic regimes. They start with the basic premise that institutions not only constrain political behaviour but also constitute it by means of defining the identities and goals of actors. The fact that competing regime elites and opposition groups choose to organize as parties is thus expected to crucially shape their capacities and strategies during regime transitions. In particular, party organizations should channel regime and opposition activities increasingly into the electoral realm, whereby party strategies aim at either retaining or subverting power through elections. Not surprisingly, new institutionalist theories of parties have developed in close association with the study of autocratic elections as ‘a new mode of transition’ (Lindberg 2009).

Along these lines, one body of work has focused on the strategies opposition parties use to mobilize the masses against autocratic incumbents. Howard and Roessler (2006) suggest that an opposition coalition can promote political liberalization, but could also trigger regime breakdown and democratization. The argument is that opposition coordination helps to channel votes for the challenger parties while raising the costs of coercion and manipulation for the incumbent government. Since a unified opposition is better positioned to challenge the regime, the ruling autocratic elites have stronger incentives to respond to opposition demands with concessions. Empirically, Howard and Roessler find a significant association between opposition coalitions and improvements in the protection of political rights. Yet evidence on the broader impact of opposition coalitions remains mixed: whereas Bunce and Wolchik (2010) find no effect of coalitions on regime breakdown, Wahman (2013) shows that coalitions increase the likelihood of breakdown but not of democratization.

Another strategy argued to fuel regime transitions relates to the opposition parties’ use of innovative electoral strategies. For Bunce and Wolchik (2010), regime breakdown is more likely when the opposition parties not only coalesce but also employ sophisticated mobilization strategies—including voter registration drives and electoral monitoring procedures—that explicitly aim to ‘maximize their votes and, if necessary, to support public protests demanding a change in leadership’ (Bunce and Wolchik 2010, 73). Their analysis demonstrates that innovative electoral campaigns increased the odds of the incumbent autocratic government being ousted and, in at least some cases, of democratization (p.582) too. Importantly, however, Bunce and Wolchik only focus on the colour revolutions in postcommunist Eurasia, rendering it difficult to assess the generalizability of their findings.

Theories that point to opposition parties as the triggers of transition processes share a common vulnerability to claims of endogeneity, whereby liberalization and regime breakdown might result ‘more from authoritarian weakness than opposition strength’ (Way 2008, 62; see also Wahman 2013). In partial response to this critique, other studies have examined the conditions under which ruling autocratic parties might induce a top-down transition. In a broadly comparative study, Wright and Escribà-Folch (2012) show that ruling elites are more likely to democratize when they can rely on a regime party to protect their interests in a subsequent democracy. They also show that electoral competition matters: the effect of regime parties is strongest when multiple parties were allowed during the autocratic period. This may be because competition forces the regime party to build up larger distributional networks and, consequently, more mass support which facilitates voter mobilization in subsequent democratic elections.

These relationships do not appear to hold in all cases. Wright and Escribà-Folch suggest that regime parties in personalist regimes may not only fail to foster democratization but actually increase the likelihood of a transition to a subsequent autocracy relative to other regime types. Levitsky and Way (2010), for their part, condition these effects on the organizational strength of the regime party. It is by now conventional wisdom that a strong party organization is an important pillar of autocratic rule: it not only strengthens elite unity by facilitating power sharing and executive succession (e.g., Boix and Svolik 2013), but also helps the incumbent regime win elections by providing an infrastructure for grassroots mobilization and electoral fraud (e.g., Magaloni 2006). While this has led most scholars to infer that strong regime parties prolong autocratic rule, Levitsky and Way argue that organizational strength may also influence regime transitions. Analysing a global sample of post-Cold War transitions, they find that ‘powerful incumbents, confident in their ability to win elections’ were more likely to invest in ‘strong democratic institutions’ (Levitsky and Way 2010, 357), increasing thereby the prospects of democratization. Further research on how different regime types and the organizational structure of political parties shape party strategies will be essential to better understanding whether and how parties facilitate regime change.

Party Systems as Arenas

Party systems—or patterned interactions in party competition and cooperation—are also likely to matter for regime transitions, although in a more indirect manner. The dominant perspective on party systems is to view them as institutional arenas or the rules of the game. By constraining certain party interactions while enabling others, party systems serve to contextualize the strategic choices parties make during the transition process. An extensive literature exists that examines the impact of party systems on democratic consolidation from this perspective (see, e.g., Morlino 1995). Far fewer studies have explored how party systems influence the breakdown of autocratic regimes and the establishment of successor regimes.

(p.583) Despite the paucity of studies, some tentative hypotheses can be derived from the cross-national literature. Wahman (2014) emphasizes the relationship between party systems and opposition coalitions. He argues that in institutionalized party systems—in which stable, established parties interact with one another in predictable ways—a united opposition is more likely to result in substantial democratic improvements after turnover. This is because, in such systems, newly elected coalition governments have stronger incentives to dismantle incumbent advantages through democratization, as there is less uncertainty surrounding their potential re-election. Wahman’s qualitative study helps us to better disentangle the context-dependent consequences of opposition coalitions. Comparing transitions in Kenya, Senegal, and Ghana in the early 2000s, he finds that a high degree of party system institutionalization predicted democratic reforms, whereas an inchoate party system was indicative of a stagnated transition or even autocratic fallback.

There is also some indication that the type of party system may be important. Recent scholarship has shown that the distribution of electoral strength in the party system can be crucial for regime breakdown and democratization. Indeed, most scholars now agree that hegemonic regimes with dominant-party systems are associated with greater stability than competitive autocratic regimes. Yet hegemonic regimes are also associated with a lower likelihood of democratization than competitive regimes, with the former typically passing through the latter type before reaching democracy. The overwhelming conclusion is that ‘an authoritarian multiparty regime without a single dominant party is the typical stepping-stone to democratization’ (Hadenius and Teorell 2007, 152).

While there is growing evidence to suggest that party systems matter for regime change, the systematic study of these institutions is still in its infancy. It is not yet clear whether and how other party system properties—such as the degree of ideological polarization or the effective number of parties—shape transition processes. It is also not clear whether the varying effects of hegemonic and competitive regimes reflect actual differences in party system types. Most studies operationalize these concepts without consideration for the institutionalization of opposition parties, and may thus unwittingly conflate the effects of party systems with those of regime party strength. Further clarifying the causal mechanisms that underlie these empirical findings will be a central task for future transitology research.

Directions for Future Research

The study of partisan institutions and regime transitions has come a long way. Since the early theories focusing on democratic consolidation, this research programme has expanded to consider the impact of political parties and party systems also during the phases of liberalization and autocratic breakdown. The literature reviewed has significantly improved our knowledge of how these institutions shape regime transitions and the successor regimes that are likely to emerge out of such processes.

Despite great progress in recent decades, much work remains to be done in further evaluating the robustness of these findings and tackling underdeveloped topics. This review suggests three especially promising avenues for future research. First, many of the insights concerning parties and party systems derive from studies with a relatively narrow geographic (p.584) focus. While such studies are valuable for theory building, the global spread of limited multiparty autocracies suggests that our understanding of partisan institutions would benefit from broader cross-national comparisons. As the studies by Wahman (2014) and Wright and Escribà-Folch (2012) demonstrate, this can be done using both systematic case studies and large-N quantitative analyses.

Second, research on partisan institutions has mostly examined alternative mechanisms linking parties or party systems to transitions in isolation. More could be done along the lines of developing general frameworks, capable of not only incorporating but also of adjudicating between disparate explanations. This is an area where the largely underexplored relationships between different party strategies and party system structures may prove particularly important for deepening our understanding of why parties adopt certain strategies and under what circumstances these are likely to be successful.

Finally, researchers are only beginning to examine the long-term effects of partisan institutions. Recent work has begun to clarify how parties and party systems influence liberalization, autocratic regime breakdown, and the establishment of a successor regime. Yet, we know much less about the path-dependent regime trajectories that such ‘modes of transition’ may bring about, in particular with regard to the prospects of consolidating new democratic or autocratic regimes. To the extent that most transitions in the near future are likely to involve limited multiparty autocracies, this should remain a core research topic for transitologists focusing on parties and party systems for some time to come.


Bibliography references:

Boix, C., and M. W. Svolik. 2013. The Foundations of Limited Authoritarian Government: Institutions, Commitment, and Power-Sharing in Dictatorships. The Journal of Politics 75 (2): 300–16.

Bunce, V. J., and S. L. Wolchik. 2010. Defeating Dictators: Electoral Change and Stability in Competitive Authoritarian Regimes. World Politics 62 (1): 43–86.

Hadenius, A., and J. Teorell. 2007. Pathways from Authoritarianism. Journal of Democracy 18 (1): 143–57.

Howard, M. M., and P. G. Roessler. 2006. Liberalizing Electoral Outcomes in Competitive Authoritarian Regimes. American Journal of Political Science 50 (2): 365–81.

Levitsky, S., and L. A. Way. 2010. Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lindberg, S. I. 2009. Introduction. In Democratization by Elections: A New Mode of Transition, edited by S. I. Lindberg, 1–21. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

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Morlino, L. 1995. Political Parties and Democratic Consolidation in Southern Europe. In The Politics of Democratic Consolidation: Southern Europe in Comparative Perspective, edited by R. Gunther, P. N. Diamandouros, and H.-J. Puhle, 315–88. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

O’Donnell, G., and P. C. Schmitter. 1986. Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Tentative Conclusions about Uncertain Democracies. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Wahman, M. 2013. Opposition Coalitions and Democratization by Election. Government and Opposition 48 (1): 3–32.

Wahman, M. 2014. Democratization and Electoral Turnovers in Sub-Saharan Africa and Beyond. Democratization 21 (2): 220–43.

Way, L. A. 2008. The Real Causes of the Color Revolutions. Journal of Democracy 19 (3): 55–69.

Wright, J., and A. Escribà-Folch. 2012. Authoritarian Institutions and Regime Survival: Transitions to Democracy and Subsequent Autocracy. British Journal of Political Science 42 (2): 283–309.