Comparative Politics

More on Qadaffi’s Death: Violent Leader Removal Increases Likelihood of Democratization

Oct 21 '11

In response to my request for research on the effect of the death of dictators on the future prospects of the country in question, Michael Miller of the Australian National University sent along the following comments:

You pose some very interesting and timely questions related to Qaddafi’s violent ouster and what this implies for Libya’s democratic prospects. I have some research here directly on this question.

The gist is this: On average, the violent removal of an autocrat (whether by coup, rebellion, assassination, threat, or foreign assistance—it doesn’t seem to make much difference) makes it three times more likely that a country will democratize in the immediate future. About half of democratic transitions occur within five years of a violent ouster, and another quarter after a peaceful turnover between autocrats. Hence, there’s a big association between an autocratic leader leaving office and autocracy ending. I argue the main reason is that violence indicates and contributes to regime weakness. The periods of chaos following violence, when elites are divided and citizens are engaged, provide the best possible openings for democratic actors to make their demands.

But here’s the rub: That opening only matters if there exist democrats in the country and they have sufficient support and power to win over the next wave of opportunistic autocrats. For this reason, I find that the aftermath of violence is when socioeconomic conditions matter the most for predicting democratization. In particular, average income predicts
democratization if and only if there’s been a recent violent turnover. In other words, violence shakes up the system, but what you get out of it is largely a product of structure.

What does this say for Libya’s democratic prospects? If we only consider economic development, they’re quite good. Libya is wealthier (~$13,000/capita) and more urbanized than most people think, even accounting for oil wealth. This simple model suggests about a 59% likelihood of democratization within five years. However, if we add some political characteristics (like the current Polity score and the regional level of democracy), the picture is much more pessimistic, around 10%. Again, this would be lower still without Qaddafi’s death. Obviously, other factors, like international support and the democratic trajectories of Tunisia and Egypt, will also play a role.

The central point remains that violent leader removal does increase the likelihood of democratization. For Libya’s citizens, this is their best chance in decades to achieve self-rule.