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Journal of Democracy 13.2 (2002) 51-65

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Elections Without Democracy

The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism

Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way

The post-Cold War world has been marked by the proliferation of hybrid political regimes. In different ways, and to varying degrees, polities across much of Africa (Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe), postcommunist Eurasia (Albania, Croatia, Russia, Serbia, Ukraine), Asia (Malaysia, Taiwan), and Latin America (Haiti, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru) combined democratic rules with authoritarian governance during the 1990s. Scholars often treated these regimes as incomplete or transitional forms of democracy. Yet in many cases these expectations (or hopes) proved overly optimistic. Particularly in Africa and the former Soviet Union, many regimes have either remained hybrid or moved in an authoritarian direction. It may therefore be time to stop thinking of these cases in terms of transitions to democracy and to begin thinking about the specific types of regimes they actually are.

In recent years, many scholars have pointed to the importance of hybrid regimes. Indeed, recent academic writings have produced a variety of labels for mixed cases, including not only "hybrid regime" but also "semidemocracy," "virtual democracy," "electoral democracy," "pseudodemocracy," "illiberal democracy," "semi-authoritarianism," "soft authoritarianism," "electoral authoritarianism," and Freedom House's "Partly Free." 1 Yet much of this literature suffers from two important weaknesses. First, many studies are characterized by a democratizing bias. Analyses frequently treat mixed regimes as partial or "diminished" forms of democracy, 2 or as undergoing prolonged transitions [End Page 51] to democracy. Such characterizations imply that these cases are moving in a democratic direction. Yet as both Jeffrey Herbst and Thomas Carothers have recently argued, this is often not the case. 3 Although some hybrid regimes (Mexico, Senegal, Taiwan) underwent democratic transitions in the 1990s, others (Azerbaijan, Belarus) moved in a distinctly authoritarian direction. Still others either remained stable or moved in multiple directions (Malaysia, Russia, Ukraine, Zambia, Zimbabwe), making the unidirectional implications of the word "transitional" misleading.

Second, terms like "semidemocratic," "semi-authoritarian," and "Partly Free" are often used as residual categories and tend to gloss over important differences among regime types. For example, El Salvador, Latvia, and Ukraine were all hybrid regimes in the early 1990s, and each received a combined political rights and civil liberties score of six—or "Partly Free"—from Freedom House in 1992-93. Yet these regimes differed in fundamental ways. Whereas in Latvia the principal undemocratic feature was the absence of citizenship rights for people of Russian descent, in El Salvador the main undemocratic features included substantial human rights violations and the absence of civilian control over the military. Ukraine possessed both universal citizenship rights and a civilian-controlled military, but civil liberties were frequently violated and incumbents routinely abused or manipulated democratic procedures. Hence, although each of these cases could be categorized as "hybrid," "semidemocratic," or "partly free," such labels obscure crucial differences—differences that may have important causal implications. Different mixes of authoritarian and democratic features have distinct historical roots, and they may have different implications for economic performance, human rights, and the prospects for democracy.

Defining Competitive Authoritarianism

This article examines one particular type of "hybrid" regime: competitive authoritarianism. In competitive authoritarian regimes, formal democratic institutions are widely viewed as the principal means of obtaining and exercising political authority. Incumbents violate those rules so often and to such an extent, however, that the regime fails to meet conventional minimum standards for democracy. Examples include Croatia under Franjo Tudjman, Serbia under Slobodan Milosevic, Russia under Vladimir Putin, Ukraine under Leonid Kravchuk and Leonid Kuchma, Peru under Alberto Fujimori, and post-1995 Haiti, as well as Albania, Armenia, Ghana, Kenya, Malaysia, Mexico, and Zambia through much of the 1990s. Although scholars have characterized many of these regimes as partial or "diminished" forms of democracy, we agree with Juan Linz that they may be better described as a (diminished) form of authoritarianism. 4 [End Page 52]

Competitive authoritarianism must be distinguished from democracy on the one hand and full-scale authoritarianism on the other. Modern democratic regimes all meet four minimum criteria: 1) Executives and legislatures are...