Hybrid authoritarian regimes: Is it a transition to democracy?

Kristina Sumarokova, second year master’s student,
School of Governance and Politics, MGIMO University

After the end of the Cold war hybrid regime is a quite frequent phenomenon in a world of real politics, as many states were to face the challenges caused by dramatic transformations from the ground up on international arena. The shift towards multipolar world influenced the overarching process of democratization which, unfortunately, were partly adopted by a range of developing states. Thus the educationalists account hybrid regimes to such countries which are applying the attributes of democratic traits but still involve in their practice -  autocratic ones. But there a heated debate about how to classify and identify such regimes, what criteria should be implied.

All countries are unique and they differ in a scale of the usage of democratic and autocratic instruments. Therefore, some scholars and practitioners call such regimes illiberal democracy, competitive autocratic regime, liberal autocracy and so on, without coming to a mutual agreement.

Moreover, there is an issue that can be deemed as the most important concern for the modern politics: how to encourage a hybrid regime state to absorb more democratic values and squeeze out the tools attributed to dictatorship regimes? This process largely depends on internal and external posture of a state, its traditions, history and balance-and-expenses system.

Key words: democratic transition, hybrid regime, political stability, wave of democratization, dictatorship.

The notion ‘Hybrid authoritarian regimes’ is very convenient conception that allows to describe a country as an authoritarian state which is implementing democratic mechanisms without having true democratic institute inside [1].

The end of the Cold War posed a fundamental challenge to authoritarianism. Single-party and military dictatorships collapsed throughout post-communist Eurasia, Africa, and much of Asia and Latin America during the late 1980s and early 1990s [2]. At the same time, the formal architecture of democracy—particularly multiparty elections— diffused widely across the globe. Transitions did not always lead to democracy, however. Thus The theory of Hybrid authoritarian states has appeared.

Such new regimes combined electoral competition with varying degrees of authoritarianism. Unlike the single-party or military autocracies that predominated during the Cold War era, regimes in Mexico, Peru, Russia, Serbia, and elsewhere were competitive, in that opposition forces used democratic institutions to contest vigorously—and at times successfully—for power [3]. Nevertheless, these regimes were not democratic. Government critics suffered harassment, arrest, and in some cases, violent attacks, and electoral fraud, unfair media access, and abuse of state resources skewed the playing field heavily in favour of incumbents. In other words, competition was real, but unfair.

What they need democratic institutes for? The main target is to preserve the power as democratic ‘decorations’ let the elite to imitate an ideal state for international community thus avoiding foreign interference in domestic policy by obeying all formal rules of democratic state. All conceptualizations of hybrid regime rely on the following core set of institutional attributes:

(1) periodic multiparty elections for the selection of the executive;

(2) an elected legislature in which the opposition is poorly represented;

(3) few limits to the arbitrary power of the chief executive, and

(4) frequent violations of the citizens’ political and/or civil right [4].

In such a way authoritarian regime, in comparison with totalitarian one, encourages its citizens to carry on passive tactic with respect to internal policy, while totalitarian regime calls for mobilization (it requires its citizens to participate actively in political life of its country). To sum up, Hybrid regimes are defined as a specific subtype of autocracy characterized by the presence of formally democratic institutions.

Furthermore, we can outline that Hybrid regimes mostly feature resourceful countries, so-called petro states. In other words, such regimes are benefiting from ‘God-given natural resources’, and not for the labour of the population. Government of such regime seeks to destroy all possibilities to establish institutes of real citizens' activity and participation cause its main target is to take over the power and remain ‘unchangeable’[5].

Authoritarian regime can only deepen the passivity of its population in order to realize the authoritarian maximum: “the only opinion that matters it's an opinion of the active minority-the elites”. Hybrid regimes are steady enough and enduring because they are profiting from the mechanism of market, from partially free society. That’s a reason why such regimes are hard to destroy and transform rapidly. Nevertheless, there is no the heart of hearts of hybrid regimes that's why real stability in it hungers for it. The reason of all above mentioned lies in a mechanism of decision taking fully described and examined by David Easton.

We’d like to cover the process of decision-making in such regime which in Political Science is entitled by the term ‘black box’ which has been coined by David Easton. He conceives of the political decision-making process, ‘that system of interactions [...] through which [...] authoritative allocations are made and implemented’ [6], as a conversion mechanism wherein political inputs (demand and support) are transformed into outputs (policy). The inner workings of this mechanism are not visible. As a result, one does not know by which precise rules it operates other than by systematically comparing variation in input with variation in output. The inputs and the outputs are known but the workings of the conversion mechanism that turns the inputs into policy decisions remains largely invisible [7].

So, in hybrid authoritarian regimes the elite is not taking decision after analysing all inputs, it's guessing what action that benefits to itself will be accepted by the society which contributes these “inputs”. In case of the failure, hybrid regime has no tools to fix he already taken decision in order to change the output. Here it can only use the mass media in order to minimalize the risk of disagreement.  However, what is the motive of such logic is to remove responsibility from the leader of such country.

Despite all claims to the contrary there are different tools which could erode the ‘hybridity’ from an apparatus. Armed conflict could be more dangerous for imitative democracies than for democratic states as if it loses during such conflict the country will be destabilized. Also that's true for the regimes led by revolutionary leaders. Personalist regimes are more unlikely to delegate power peacefully. Thus, the most peaceful type of nondemocratic regime is military junta as it lasts not so long as personalist regime and it agrees to delegate power after negotiations or elections.

There is 3 ways how to make hybrid regime more stable and transform it to another type of a state [8].

1. If a country is interacting with western countries, it's more likely to become democratic

2. If it is not integrated enough in international community, there will be more possibility of the regime to implement violence, consolidate elites and to control the market.

3. such countries where there is no internal structure, where elites are disunited, parties are fictitious and economy dispersed, depend a lot from neighbour powerful state.

a) If such neighbour respects the democratic values, democracy will develop in such country,

b) if it is neighbouring an authoritarian state, the mechanisms of authoritarian regime will integrate in its internal policy [9].

From these perspective a country which is imitating democratic mechanisms in its institutes is more likely to become true democratic.


  1. N. Forrat, PhD candidate, “The Authoritarian Welfare State: a Marginalized Concept”, Sociology, Northwestern University, Working Paper No. 12-005, September 2016
  2. J. Loxton, S. Mainwaring, “Life after Dictatorship: Authoritarian Successor Parties Worldwide” //
  3. S. Levitsky, L. A. Way, “COMPETITIVE AUTHORITARIANISM: The Origins and Dynamics of Hybrid Regimes in the Post-Cold War Era” //
  4. S. Levitsky, L. A. Way, “COMPETITIVE AUTHORITARIANISM: The Origins and Dynamics of Hybrid Regimes in the Post-Cold War Era” //
  5. J. Loxton, S. Mainwaring, “Life after Dictatorship: Authoritarian Successor Parties Worldwide” //
  6. D.Easton “Political system”, San-Francisco State University, 1965, p. 50
  7. D.Easton “Political system”, San-Francisco State University, 1965, p. 54
  8. N. Forrat, PhD candidate, “The Authoritarian Welfare State: a Marginalized Concept”, Sociology, Northwestern University, Working Paper No. 12-005, September 2016
  9. J. Loxton, S. Mainwaring, “Life after Dictatorship: Authoritarian Successor Parties Worldwide” //