Monday, June 28, 2004

The Institutions of Autocracy 

Anyone who reads this blog regularly must have some interest in the question of what happens when democracies monkey with their political institutions.

Guess what: there's more institutional analysis out there to love. Non-democracies, too, have political institutions much more complex than what their "dictator says, you do" reputation would suggest. For the most part, the rules, norms and power struggles limiting the direct rule of autocrats, revolutionary committees, or juntas are tough for outsiders to see. It's often even hard to know where to look.

But sometimes autocracies have more familiar political institutions which somewhat resemble those found in democracies. The temptation is to dismiss these as so much window dressing, but as Jonathan Edelstein reminds us, sometimes such prejudgments are foolish (as Matthew Yglesias tends to forget). You could make a strong case that despite the fact that adopting a multiparty structure doesn't magically transform a state into a democracy, the choice has real consequences for a dictatorship. You could furthermore make the case that alterations in the structure of an autocratic state's parliament or party system are worth analyzing. Take a look at this fascinating post on political reform in Syria:
The Syrian political system can best be compared to the sham popular front governments that ruled most of Communist-era Eastern Europe. The Bulgarian Fatherland Front, the National Front governments of East Germany and Czechoslovakia, the Democratic Bloc of Poland and the Communist-led ruling bloc in Hungary were all technically multi-party coalitions... In practical terms, of course, none of this mattered; the Communists' coalition partners had no real political influence and were little more than channels for patronage.

Syria uses a slightly modified form of the eastern European system. Of the 250 seats in the Syrian parliament, 83 are allocated to independents - some of whom are more independent than others - and 167 to the National Progressive Front. The Ba'ath party holds 135 of the NPF's seats, with its coalition partners - including, somewhat ironically, the Syrian Communist Party - making up the other 32. There is a limited amount of electoral competition, and the Ba'ath has at times fallen short of a majority, but that has historically mattered about as much as the East German Communist Party's lack of a majority in the Volkskammer...

The proposals that will go before the NPF committee later this year, however, will loosen the restrictions on political activity and allow party newspapers. In the short term, this isn't likely to change much, but as the example of Poland shows, the long-term ramifications might be profound...

I can't quite see the minor Syrian parties [having Poland-style success] anytime soon - they're too weak, none of them have the natural constituencies that the Polish satellite parties had, and the Ba'ath doesn't appear ready to give up its grip on political life. It's more likely that any opening that results from Syrian constitutional reform will resemble Malaysia or Egypt - in other words, it will transform Syria from a totalitarian state to a garden-variety authoritarian one and leave limited space for public debate. But even that could make a real difference. The Egyptian opposition parties, for instance, don't amount to much in parliament, but their newspapers and elected officials are capable of asking embarrassing questions, mobilizing public opinion against the government and occasionally forcing it to back down. If that is combined with the slow growth of an independent judiciary, then the opaque Syrian political process might become considerably less so.
As Edelstein indicates , political institutions matter even in autocracies, although clearly far less than they do in democracies. A deeper question is whether it's really the institutions per se that matter, or whether institutional changes take place to reflect underlying shifts in power across societal actors. Even within advanced democracies, it's pretty tough to see where the cause lies: the recent redistricting of Texas, for example, clearly reflected changes in partisan control of federal institutions, even though it was a state institution designing and enacting the rule changes. Or think about New Zealand's adoption of proportional representation: it's tough to make the case that there was any underlying power shift which made adoption of PR inevitable or even likely.

In Syria's case it's probably true that the likely reforms are possible because of a loss of control at the top. But Edelstein makes a pretty good case for thinking that a specific further decentralization of power would be less likely ceteris parabus, without the institutional shifts he mentions.

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