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  • Between Authoritarianism and Democracy
  • Nicolas van de Walle (bio)
Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War. By Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 536 pp.

A new type of regime emerged at the end of the Cold War and in the wake of the “third wave” of democratization—one that holds regular multiparty elections while remaining fundamentally authoritarian. Political scientists have for the past decade been exploring this paradoxical combination and attempting to classify such regimes, of which there are many examples around the world. In April 2002, the Journal of Democracy published a cluster of articles titled “Elections Without Democracy” that included contributions by Larry Diamond, Andreas Schedler, and myself, as well as Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way, who wrote about “The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism.” This impressive and much anticipated book expands on the ideas put forward in that essay.

The volume is comprehensive in its coverage both of the recent literature on democratization and of contemporary democratic practices in the non-Western world; and it is also an empirical tour de force featuring authoritative analyses of nearly three-dozen countries. The authors define competitive authoritarian regimes as political systems that remain essentially authoritarian despite allowing meaningful electoral competition. They occupy an ambiguous political space between full authoritarianism and democracy, with its respect for political and civil liberties. Levitsky and Way effectively distinguish their category from other similar classifications, such as Diamond’s “hybrid regimes” and Schedler’s “electoral [End Page 169] autocracies.” Competitive authoritarianism, the authors argue, is a more restrictive category. It is limited to authoritarian regimes that, despite their illiberalism, feature political competition meaningful enough for opposition forces to view elections as a possible path to power.

In their introduction, Levitsky and Way identify 35 competitive authoritarian regimes that existed in the early 1990s. The remainder of the volume traces the divergent trajectories of these countries over the last two decades: fifteen democratized, while nineteen remained competitive authoritarian. Only one—Russia—has regressed to full authoritarianism. In order to explain these divergent outcomes, the authors identify three key factors: 1) Where the West has high levels of leverage, democratization is more likely; 2) similarly, where ties or linkages with the West are denser, the probability of democratization rises; and 3) where the state apparatus and ruling party are cohesive and enjoy large amounts of organizational power, a competitive authoritarian regime has a better chance of staying in place. In terms of the respective effects of each factor, the authors’ analysis is precise and rigorous. With regard to explaining precisely how the three relate to one another, however, it is less so.

Having laid out their complex explanatory framework in the first quarter of the book, the authors devote the book’s last three-hundred pages to an impressively comprehensive empirical analysis in which they test their theory against all thirty-five cases. Country specialists will no doubt question the odd judgment call here and there in a book that is chock full of them; but the impressive accumulation of facts, examples, and insights in support of their thesis from such a diverse array of countries and situations is compelling.

Labeling this brand of authoritarianism a type of “regime” implies a degree of permanence in its political institutions, and Levitsky and Way argue accordingly that competitive authoritarian regimes can last a long time. They are skeptical that the regular convening of elections must inevitably bring democratic change. Despite the suggestion of permanence, however, the book’s main purpose is to study change in these systems. Moreover, the authors’ finding that more than a third of their cases democratized between 1990 and 2008 while only one regressed does not undermine the democratization-by-elections thesis that has been advanced by Staffan Lindberg and others.

Levitsky and Way are correct to suggest that a new type of political system—one that is neither entirely authoritarian nor fully democratic—emerged toward the end of the twentieth century. But have they defined that system correctly? Their categorization seems simultaneously too broad and quite narrow. For instance, it includes both Botswana, a country regularly rated Free by Freedom House over the last twenty years...


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pp. 169-173
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