Why do dictatorships use democratic institutions?

Most dictatorships today maintain some kind of institution traditionally thought of as democratic, including parliaments and political parties.  Most importantly, more than 80% of all countries considered dictatorships hold elections and allow more than one political party to compete in them.  So why do dictatorships use democratic institutions to maintain their rule?

Scholars have identified four general functions that democratic institutions serve under autocracy:

  • Signaling: The most common reason why institutions are created in general is to make commitments credible.  In a dictatorship, rulers have the ability to act arbitrarily – they can nationalize companies and arrest citizens at will.  Excess tends to generate opposition, and so dictators often establish legislatures to allow key allies and other politicians a role in decision-making.  Creating a formal institution to do this is one way to demonstrate that a leader will not act against their interests.
  • Monitoring: Legislatures and elections also provide essential information to dictators.  By allowing some amount of freedom of speech and not completely rigging elections, leaders can identify which politicians and regions of a country are unhappy with his rule (because fewer voters are choosing the ruling party, for example).  He can then either act to address their concerns or target them for repression.
  • Incorporation: Political parties provide an organized way to identify skilled politicians to bring into an administration and to distribute benefits to supportive citizens. 
  • Legitimacy (domestic and international): Finally, elections and other democratic institutions provide leaders a veneer of legitimacy, to both their publics and the international community. 

There are two main theories about why dictators allow multiparty elections in particular. 

  1. Ellen Lust – specialist in the Middle East who looks at the cases of Morocco and Jordan in particular – describes multiparty elections as a strategy of divide and conquer.  By providing incentives for some opposition politicians to enter the formal political system, a dictator can split them from the rest of the opposition.  Leaders provide financial incentives and policy concessions to favored politicians, while banning more extreme oppositionists.  By dividing the opposition into “loyal” and “disloyal” factions, they cannot organize as effectively as when they are unified. 
  2. Beatriz Magaloni – who examines Mexico before the year 2000 – argues that legislatures alone are not enough for leaders to establish credible commitments.  Just because a politician is elected to parliament one year doesn’t mean she won’t be arrested the next year.  Magaloni argues that the only way these institutions can be self-enforcing (in other words, stable and useful) is if they are accompanied by multiparty elections.  Giving politicians a choice of parties to join gives them options to express their opinion – they can express disagreement with a leader by forming a separate party rather than supporting a coup, making the regime more stable in the long run and making parliament an effective way to manage disagreements among the elite.

Both theories make two assumptions – first, that no dictator can truly rule alone – there are always other people who matter, whether they are business leaders or military officers, and that those people don’t automatically support the ruler. 

These theories also assume that cooptation is cheaper than repression – that sending tanks into the streets or having mass arrests is only a short-term solution to a dictatorship’s problems, not an effective long-term strategy for rule.

In either event, one of the most striking things about Iran is that it does not use many of these institutions – it does not have political parties in particular.  In class, we will discuss whether this matters for the longevity of the regime.