December 12, 2012

What do legislatures in authoritarian regimes do?

Updated Dec 17, 2012

I’ve just finished a paper with Eddy Maleksy and Stephen Weymouth on the link between legislatures in authoritarian regimes and investment.  But this project has led to a bunch of follow-up questions.

I sent off emails to a few friends working in this area to ask them about their take on the role of legislatures in the country or region they study.  This led to an idea.  Why not get a bunch of cross-national, region and country specialists to weigh in on the importance of legislatures in authoritarian regimes? 

A bunch of people agreed to provide comments.  Others suggested faculty and grad students working in this area.  Below are their contributions. I didn’t give any real guidance and won’t provide any commentary.  This is their show.

If you have thoughts on this question feel free to provide comments on this blog post or email me and I’ll add your thoughts to an updated version of this post.

Contributors

1. Luai Allarakia (U of Houston): Kuwait

2. Courtenay Conrad (UNC at Charlotte): Cross-National

3. Scott Desposato (UCSD):  Legislative Politics in Authoritarian Brazil

4. Barbara Geddes (UCLA): The Role of Legislatures in Dictatorships

5. Michael Makara (Syracuse): Jordan

6. Victor Menaldo (University of Washington): Latin America and Cross-National

7. Thomas Pepinsky (Cornell): Indonesia and Malaysia

8. Thomas Remington  (Emory): Russia

9. Ora John Reuter (Emory): Russia

10. Paul Schuler (UCSD): Vietnam

11. Milan Svolik (UIUC): Cross-National

12. Rory Truex (Yale):  China

13. Joseph Wright (Penn State): Cross-National

1.  Luai Allarakia (University of Houston): Kuwait

The Kuwaiti Constitution of 1962 created an interesting hybrid political system, combining a hereditary executive and a freely elected national assembly. The powerful Emir exercises his authority through a prime minister and cabinet, which he appoints. He also has several important powers, including the ability to dissolve the national assembly at his own discretion and to issue emergency decrees when the assembly is not in session or has been dissolved. This is counterbalanced by several oversight powers which the national assembly has, such as the right to question and interpolate all the appointed ministers (including the prime minister). The interpolations can lead to a no-confidence vote against an individual minister or a no-cooperation vote against the prime minister. Not surprisingly, much of Kuwait's political history has been characterized by a game of power balancing between the executive and the national assembly. (See graph for structure for illustration of executive-legislative elections).

The post of the prime minister is important not only because it relieves the Emir from governance, but also because it tends to deflect criticism from him, rather emphasizing the prime minister as the subject of any criticism towards the government. Although the Kuwaiti National Assembly has certainly performed the important function of containing the opposition within the institutional framework of the state, the relationship between the executive and the legislature throughout Kuwaiti history cannot be described as amicable. Indeed, even though the opposition in the assembly has never questioned the legitimacy of the ruling family, it often confronts the executive, and these confrontations have in the past led to the unconstitutional dissolution of the assembly itself (ex. in 1976 and 1986). Interestingly, the interpolation of the prime minister, sanctioned by the constitution, has remained a taboo in Kuwaiti legislative politics until the period between 2003-2006 during the tenure of the 21st government in the history of Kuwait. During this period, the designation “crown prince” was separated from the post of the prime minister, leading to the first attempt in the history of Kuwait, in 2006, to interpolate the prime minster.   After this, the level of executive-legislative dead-lock reached new heights, leading to 5 constitutional dissolutions of the assembly in seven years (2006-2012) alone. 

The assembly in Kuwait has served several very important from the perspective of both the executive and legislative branch. For the former, it has meant containing and controlling dissent within a predictable framework, although it is becoming more difficult for the executive to control, contain and co-opt the opposition. For the opposition in the legislature, they are given the opportunity to question and interpolate the executive over the misappropriation of public funds, government corruption, and violation of constitutional rights given to the legislature as well as violations of civil liberties. However, there have been several criticisms that have been leveled at the manner in which executive-legislative relations in Kuwait proceed. Many argue that the constant power balance games between both branches have been a principal source of instability greatly affecting the efficiency of executing economic policies and the provision of social services. Finally, the Kuwaiti Assembly has been instrumental in containing the shock waves emanating from the uprisings in the rest of the Arab world, even though this perspective has now come under scrutiny given the recent events in Kuwait, where the opposition has been increasingly relying on extra-institutional means of expression.

2. Courtenay Conrad (UNC at Charlotte): Cross-National

Although there is robust evidence linking authoritarian legislatures to economic growth, the mechanism(s) by which these institutions lead to such outcomes is up for debate (e.g., it’s not due to increased property rights protections). I see at least two reasons why we’ve yet to get a handle on the mechanism linking these institutions to policy outcomes. First, most literature on the authoritarian legislatures and policy outcomes focuses on the government decision to create legislative institutions, generally as a cooptation strategy intended to divide the opposition, buy them off with spoils, or mitigate commitment problems.

Consequently, the literature often ignores the fact that the creation of a functioning legislature is in part dependent on the opposition; opposition groups get to decide whether or not they want to participate in these institutions. Powerful groups often refuse to participate, garnering more valuable concessions, generating more terrorism, experiencing more repression and a higher likelihood of democratization than their institutionalized counterparts. Unfortunately, we rarely investigate the effects of this strategic interaction on policy outcomes. Second, authoritarian legislatures don’t influence policy outcomes in a vacuum. They operate as part of a larger institutional context that can include elections, courts, etc. These institutions may provide leaders with conflicting incentives regarding policy decisions, necessitating more nuanced arguments about the conditions (e.g., natural resource wealth) under which autocratic institutions can be linked to positive policy outcomes. Taking account of other institutions is also helpful in eliminating alternative causal mechanisms (Leadership survival? Domestic judicial effectiveness?) that may be responsible for the empirical relationship between autocratic legislatures and economic growth.

3. Scott Desposato (UCSD):  Legislative Politics in Authoritarian Brazil

Several features define the role of the legislature during Brazil's 1964-1985 authoritarian period. First was the continuance of relatively free and fair legislative elections. Second was the military's desire to preserve a facade of democracy. Third was the graduate process of democratic opening that began after the elections of 1974. The period itself can be characterized as early legislative rebellion against the military president, subsequent repression and punishment by the military, and then a gradual process whereby repression was reduced and legislative autonomy (and rebellion) increased.

The legislative branch in Brazil remained opened for most of the authoritarian period, and had regularly scheduled elections every four years. This was true for the national congress as well as state and local legislatures. However, the rules of the game were manipulated to ensure pro-military majorities and outcomes. Even so, from time to time the legislative branch rebelled against the military-controlled executive branch, usually facing swift repercussions. Over time, as Brazil embarked on a gradual opening and transition to democracy, the rebellions became more frequent and the repercussions less severe.

After the military took the Presidency in 1964, they initially continued to operate within the existing Constitutional framework. Indeed, a retired military general once insisted to me that there had been no coup d'etat or authoritarian period. Instead, a constitutional crisis was created when the President left the country without permission, and Congress voted a military general to take his place. Of course, Goulart's fleeing the country might have had something to do with fear that he might be arrested by the military - or worse.

Regularly scheduled legislative elections were held in 1966. The military was not particularly happy with the outcome and decided to shake things up with a new party system and new constitution. The new rules were that parties needed to run nationwide and needed to elect at least 1/3 of the seats for legal recognition. This meant that there was a theoretical maximum of three parties (if each had exactly 1/3 of seats), but practically, there would be only two parties.

The military wanted two parties, where, as one general put it, the government party's job was to support the government and always win, and the opposition party's job was to oppose the government and always lose. So many politicians switched into the military party that some had to be nicely asked to join the opposition MDB, or Brazilian Democratic Movement.

As civil-military relations soured, Congress became a space for vocal opposition to the military. One legislator, Marcio Moreira Alves, made a speech suggesting that Brazilian women should avoid relationships with military personnel until democratization and suggesting a boycott of independence day celebrations. The military considered this an insult to their honor and demanded that his parliamentary immunity from prosecution be lifted. The conflict came to a head with a late night vote in December 1968, where congress refused to revoke his immunity. The session ended with a spontaneous singing of the national anthem. The next day, the hammer fell. Opposition and unloyal legislators were removed from office and jailed, the military institutionalized stronger powers to punish elected officials (removing them from office, cancelling their political rights, and worse). Congress was essentially closed for the next several years except for brief votes to approve a new president and new constitution.

The military's party was very successful in the 1970 elections, during the Brazilian economic miracle, after a World Cup victory, and under tight censorship. Hidden in the result was a very high abstention rate for voters. In 1974, with a world cup loss and less censorship, many formerly abstaining voters turned out and voted against the military party, leading to substantial gains for the opposition party. This election marked the beginning of a gradual transition to democracy, with gradually falling repercussions for errant legislators and gradually increasing boldness in confronting the military executive.

Most controversial legislative action during the military period was of two types. One was political, with executive-legislative conflict over political freedoms and the openness of the political process. The other pieces of legislation that generated conflict were resource bills that affected the distribution of revenue to subnational units. Both could prompt legislative rebellion against military positions, but the resource issues proved more mobilizing than did issues of political freedom.

4. Barbara Geddes (UCLA): The Role of Legislatures in Dictatorships

Autocratic legislatures play different roles and serve different functions in different dictatorships.  In some, they seem to have no policy or representational role at all, but nevertheless help to maintain the support network of the ruling group.  Lack of influence is especially likely where deputies face no competition in elections, the dictator vets nominations, and the legislature meets only briefly each year.  Regardless of whether they exercise any policy influence, however, legislatures serve as fora in which patronage and sometimes local public goods are distributed.   In all legislatures that I know of, the ruling group’s nominations for deputy serve as rewards for loyal supporters and carry with them substantial rewards.  Opposition deputies (in regimes where they are permitted) can also usually count on some rewards in return for their willingness to play by regime rules, as noted by Lust-Okar and Magaloni.   Competitive legislative elections create a network of midlevel elites with an interest in maintaining local offices in all parts of the country, gathering information about their constituents’ needs and responses to government policies, and delivering benefits to constituents.  In many dictatorships, deputies are one of the two main links between the center and ordinary citizens (the other is local administration or party office), and the deputy often has stronger incentives to deliver resources to constituents rather than steal them.  As many have observed, dictators have great difficulty gathering accurate information and limiting depredation and abuse of authority by their supporters.

At the other extreme of the influence continuum, some legislatures have forced dictators to compromise on important policy issues, including rules for upcoming elections (e.g., in Mexico during the last years of PRI rule), or influenced on economic policy.  Gandhi and Przeworski and Escriba-Folch have argued that legislatures constrain economic predation by autocrats, leading to more investment and growth in dictatorships with legislatures.  Wright has shown that foreign aid leads to faster growth in dominant-party and military regimes with legislatures but legislatures do not affect growth in monarchies or personalist regimes, suggesting that legislatures serve only as patronage distributors in regimes that lack additional institutions capable of constraining the dictator.  My casual observation has been that authoritarian legislatures able to influence key economic decisions are unusual.  My suspicion is that the relationships observed by these analysts are caused not by bargaining within legislatures per se, but rather by the need for money to fund election campaigns.  The two main sources of campaign finance in dictatorships are the state and alliances with private business people.  As in democracies, business people have little reason to support the election campaigns of dictators and their legislative allies unless they get something in return.  A lot of what they get involves sweetheart deals of various kinds, government contracts, local monopolies, exceptions, loopholes, and so on, but security of property, at least for rulers’ friends, is needed before any of the other favors mean much.  Both the special deals and property rights usually depend on the executive branch and often the dictator himself, not the legislature.  Thus the observed relationship between legislatures and economic performance may be caused by authoritarian politicians’ need for campaign funds, especially since economic liberalization has reduced available state resources in most of the world.  There is a high correlation between legislatures and elections in dictatorships.   Such an exchange or alliance between the dictator or ruling party and business interests could well contribute to growth, but not necessarily through legislative bargaining.

5. Michael Makara (Syracuse): Jordan

One of the most striking features of the research on authoritarian legislatures is how it stacks up against research on legislative politics in democratic countries.  While a growing number of scholars are making significant insights to how legislatures operate in authoritarian contexts, the vast majority of research on legislative politics (approximately 75 percent of all published articles by my count) still focuses on North America and Western Europe.  Of course, the barriers to studying any authoritarian institutions (language obstacles, security concerns, and suspicion of Western researchers are just a few) are often more imposing than those that exist in democracies, but the collective result is that there is still much that we do not know about how legislatures operate in non-democratic contexts.

Despite the fact that knowledge about authoritarian legislatures is still in its relative infancy, the research that does exist on this topic offers a number of answers to the “what do they do?” question.  The common assumption is that authoritarian legislatures do not actually do anything; rather, they primarily serve as mere “window dressing” or “rubber stamps” for important decisions made elsewhere.  These institutions rarely wield policy-making power, and they hold little influence over their countries’ executives.  The corrective to this position is that focusing on a legislature’s policy-making power or ability to act as a check on the executive risks overlooking the important role that these institutions play in sustaining authoritarianism.  By serving as a mechanism for patronage distribution and opposition co-optation, authoritarian legislatures can play an active role in weakening potential opposition voices and maintaining authoritarian rule.  Nonetheless, legislatures in non-democratic contexts can and do assert themselves in important ways.  Far from being pushovers, for instance, legislators often use their positions to advocate preferred policies, question and criticize government officials, and give voice to political trends that challenge the status quo.  Of course, whether or not these behaviors actually place pressure on authoritarian regimes is an open question.  However, understanding when legislators are likely to assert themselves in this manner and the mechanisms through which such behavior might hold government officials to account can allow us to better theorize the legislature’s role in authoritarian political systems.

Jordan illustrates how these three roles (rubber stamp, authoritarian stabilizer, and assertive institution) can exist within the same legislature.  In recent years the Jordanian parliament has fit the stereotype of a rubber stamp parliament quite closely, as it usually passes legislation enacted by the government rather than initiating bills of its own.  Moreover, the popular expectation that legislators will act as middlemen responsible for patronage distribution keeps them dependent (and thus subservient) to the regime.  As a result, “apathetic,” “docile,” and “apolitical” are just a number of the unflattering terms that scholars and analysts have used to describe the legislature’s disappointing performance. 

However, it would be a mistake to assume that such adjectives have always described the Jordanian legislature.  Despite never enjoying powers on par with the country’s executive, the Jordanian parliament has asserted itself against the government during various periods throughout the kingdom’s history.  In late 1989, for example, Prime Minister Mudar Budran came under heavy pressure from the legislature to advance political liberalization in Jordan and made a number of significant concessions in order to secure a vote of confidence in his government.  In the 1950s, moreover, the legislature pressured King Hussein to make concessions on a number of issues, including Jordan’s relationship with Great Britain and the budget.  Again, these examples should not suggest that authoritarian legislatures are equal partners with their countries’ executives, but they highlight a couple of the modest ways in which these institutions can assert themselves against authoritarian regimes.

The Jordan case highlights a number of useful lessons for those studying authoritarian legislatures.  First, cross case comparison—both temporal and cross-national—can provide interesting variation for researchers seeking theorize the role of legislatures in non-democracies.  In Jordan, for example, the legislature’s ability (or willingness) to exercise executive oversight is not constant over time, raising questions about the specific conditions that might embolden legislatures even in authoritarian contexts.  While this recommendation might seem obvious to political scientists, it is worth noting that much of the research on this topic has focused on single case studies and descriptive analysis. 

Second, while authoritarian legislatures are universally weaker than strong executives, leaders of authoritarian regimes cannot simply ignore them.  Legislators in non-democracies take their jobs seriously, and as a result they have to be taken seriously by regimes that might prefer to relegate them to a rubber stamp or window dressing role. 

Finally, greater attention should be paid to how we assess legislative performance or “strength” in authoritarian contexts.  Essentially, this involves greater theorization to how we understand what these institutions “do.”  For example, just because the Jordanian legislature can pass a vote of no confidence in a government, its dependence on the regime has prevented it from ever doing so.  And just because passing a no confidence vote would be difficult in practice, this did not prevent the legislature from making life difficult for the Prime Minister in the late 1980s.  The important point is that scholars should not overlook the disconnect that often exists between a legislature’s formal powers and its actual behavior.

6. Victor Menaldo (University of Washington): Latin America and Cross-National

I believe that across dictatorships legislatures serve similar functions. I will assume this much in my analysis below. However, these observations are informed by a few examples from the heyday of Latin American authoritarianism in the Cold War period. Specifically, what I have in mind is Mexico under single party rule (1929-2000), Brazil under military tutelage (1964-1988), as well as scattered episodes during the post-World War II history of Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Panama.

My intuition is that dictators turn to legislatures, among other tools, to consolidate their political authority once the regime has stabilized somewhat and reach a more mature stage. This is because legislatures, along with other seemingly “democratic” institutions, take a considerable amount of time to bear fruit. Parties and legislatures that are established at the outset of a regime remain unproven in their capacity to forward the interests of the political elites until they are tested, which requires considerable time. Regime insiders will therefore try to rely, first and foremost, on a constitution and most often take a big and direct role in crafting it; indeed, it is quite normal for political elites to push for a new constitution soon after a new dictator comes to power in order to codify their rights and interests and have at their disposal a focal point that they can use to coordinate against a dictator if need be. This pattern is now being repeated in Egypt by the Muslim Brotherhood to the considerable chagrin of opposition, liberal forces that have been excluded from the political game after Mubarak’s fall. In this sense, the power of legislatures is derivative: they are designed by constitutions and implemented according to a timetable outlined by the constitution.

Once established, however, legislatures, along with political parties and courts, allow a dictatorship to formally institutionalize their political power by defining who qualifies as a regime insider and who does not, what political insiders’ rights are, and what tools they can avail to defend their rights and pursue their interests. Along these lines, legislatures allow a dictator to do two important things. First, usher in a stable distributional arrangement, in terms of who will benefit from rents produced by the coercive power of the state and its politicized regulation of the economy. Second, help a dictator credibly commit to protecting the property rights and vital interests of regime insiders—not only in the immediate present but in the uncertain future, and even when the identity of key individuals who helped launched the regime into existence has changed.

A legislature helps achieve these functions because it provides a concrete and transparent set of rules and a predictable structure of political authority beyond the raw power possessed by regime insiders. A legislature provides a forum for political elites to come together and coordinate. This disciplines the dictator and deters opportunism against regime insiders. A legislature also allows for information to flow from the dictator to political elites and for feedback from the latter to the dictator.

Indeed, it may be the case that the law and who crafts the law matters as much or more in a dictatorship vis-à-vis a democracy. Membership in the legislature and its committees, or the ability to lobby legislators, allows political elites to have an opportunity to craft or at least modify the bills that define their rents. By having a direct input into the laws that are crafted, regime insiders have a say over monetary and financial policy, fiscal policy, trade policy and regulatory policy. It is through protectionist measures that create barriers to entry, and attendant monopoly rights, as well as tax breaks and subsidies. In many ways, therefore, autocratic legislatures might not be too different from legislatures in democracies if these are captured by special interests and end up doing the bidding of the politically powerful in ways that damage the interests of the median voter.

In the case of Mexico under the PRI dictatorship, for example, it was the legislature where the following economic pathologies were either created or refined: a highly regressive tax structure, transparent limits to competition in the banking system that led to severe credit rationing, and protectionist tariffs that propped up woefully inefficient industrial conglomerates that imposed very high prices on shoddy products--and many of which were eventually nationalized either de jure or defacto (through backdoor subsidies or forbearance on stranded balance sheets). Although these policies surely stimulated investment and rapid growth over decades, the so-called Mexican Miracle eventually came to a crashing end in 1982 when Mexico defaulted on its debt and devalued. That is to say, autocratic legislatures foster growth -- until they don't.

7. Thomas Pepinsky (Cornell): Indonesia and Malaysia

While legislatures under authoritarian rule in Malaysia (from 1971 until today) and Indonesia (from 1966 until 1998) are interesting objects of study, country experts rarely study their effects on national policymaking. The simple reason is that most actual policymaking in both countries is done outside of the authoritarian legislature, in ministries or in informal consultation with the executive. If these legislatures have any effect on policymaking or policy outputs, that effect must be indirect. This observation has implications for how we theorize authoritarian legislatures. If most of the consequential politics of authoritarian policymaking happens outside of the legislature, then any general theory of their structure or function will profit from theorizing how legislatures interact with non-legislative source of politics. These interactions with the rest of the authoritarian polity--with parties, militaries, elites, factions, civil society, economic actors, and so forth--are where the politics are. I am skeptical that there is a single coherent logic, structure, or function of authoritarian legislatures that is applicable across modern authoritarian regimes.

Malaysia's Dewan Rakyat was dominated by a supermajority of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition from 1971 until 2008. Since 2008 the BN has had a simple majority in the Dewan Rakyat. It is best to think of the BN faction in the DR as reflecting the policy priorities of the BN's component parties, in particular the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). It lends vocal support to policies that the UMNO's top leaders (who are also Malaysia's Prime Ministers) intend to implement. The BN's large majority and strong party discipline means that it does not, as a rule, need to form legislative coalitions with opposition parties. Most careful analysts of Malaysian politics look to intra-party factionalism within UMNO, and inter-party relations within the BN, to understand the regime's policy priorities and its legislative outputs alike. 

From the opposition's perspective, the DR is generally not a venue for shaping policy--although the opposition would like it to be, and if the opposition were ever to win a majority in the DR, that body would instantly become much more interesting. Rather, the opposition mainly uses the DR as a venue for (orderly) criticism of the BN. From the regime's perspective, this is wholly consistent with their view of the natural order of Malaysian politics. It is also probably useful as a way for the BN leadership to observe opposition policy priorities.

Indonesia's Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat under Soeharto's New Order regime (1966-1998) illustrates this more starkly. To be clear, this was a very different regime. But what the New Order's DPR shared with Malaysia's DR is that it was generally not the locus of policymaking. The New Order was much more hierarchical, and Soeharto as an individual wielded far more political power than did even the most powerful UMNO figures. As a consequence, informal access to Soeharto or the political networks surrounding him was the key for policy access, and the DPR simply passed whatever bills the government proposed. (Even these are a subset of all formal policy outputs, as Indonesian Presidents have the ability to issue instructions, decisions, and related directives that have force of law--see here for a list in Indonesian  One common saying is that the job of legislators under Soeharto was datang, duduk, diam, duit, which we might translate as "show up, sit down, shut up, get paid."

If the above description is correct, then what was the DPR "for"? I believe that it maintained what Bill Liddle once called the "useful fiction" of democratic legitimation under the New Order. Readers familiar with the early volume Elections without Choice will understand this as analogous to the "anesthetic function" of elections under authoritarianism.

Taken together, these two Southeast Asian cases offer a rather different picture of what authoritarian legislatures do than what has become a dominant narrative on authoritarian institutions in the past decade. Both perspectives may be useful: after all, Indonesia and Malaysia may just be exceptions, or their legislatures may have some other, more difficult to observe effect on the tenor of national policy. But for understanding actual policymaking, at least in these two cases, authoritarian legislatures are not the places to look.

8. Thomas Remington (Emory): Russia

In Russia the legislature has changed in fundamental ways since it was created in its present form by the 1993 Constitution.  Under Yeltsin it was dominated by anti-Yeltsin opposition forces and frequently blocked his legislative initiatives.  Sometimes he used decree power to bypass the legislature, other times he compromised, and in other areas of policy deadlock resulted.  The 90s was a period of state weakness and policy incoherence, but also of much greater political contestation and freedom.  Since 2000, when Putin took over as president, and especially since 2003, the legislature (both chambers) has been Putin's creature and readily enacts anything he proposes.  In his early years Putin pursued a markedly "liberal" (pro-market-led growth) policy and enacted a good deal of legislation toward that end (liberalizing markets, reducing administrative regulation).  Since mid-2003 Putin's course has been much more statist and of course authoritarian politically. In both phases the legislature has been a faithful instrument of his power and policy.  Domination of the legislature by the United Russia party allows Putin to manage a national political machine without restricting his own power.  In itself, therefore, the legislature neither helps nor hinders economic performance.  In a broad sense it contributes to his strategy of coopting opposition groups and thus serves at the margin to reinforce regime stability.  At the same time, as was the case under Brezhnev, regime stability comes at the expense of policy responsiveness to longer-term dilemmas, such as overreliance on natural resource exports, stifling state control over economic activity, high corruption, and other pathologies.  In Russia's case, the legislature was not used as a means to coopt opposition groups because it was a crucial arena for democratic party competition in the immediate aftermath of the end of the communist regime.  With time, it became a formal instrument for managing power through the dominant party system as independent centers of power were neutralized, marginalized or suppressed.

9. Ora John Reuter (Emory): Russia

The Arab Spring reminds us that mass protest is one of the great threats facing modern autocrats. One potential function of authoritarian legislatures is to reduce the potential for anti-regime mobilization. By providing regime opponents with policy influence and/or institutionalized access to rents, representation in legislatures reduces the incentives of opponents to challenge the regime on the streets.  

Events in Russia over the past several years appear to support this perspective.   Russia’s opposition parties can be divided into two groups:  the systemic opposition (i.e. the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Just Russia, and some others) is given some modicum of representation in the State Duma and in regional legislatures, while the ‘non-systemic’ opposition (i.e. Solidarnost, Other Russia, Yabloko, among others) is either explicitly prohibited from running in elections or denied the chance to win by the regime.

The behavior of these two ‘oppositions’ after the fraudulent December 2011 parliamentary elections illustrates the value of legislative cooptation for autocrats.  After the elections, the non-systemic opposition immediately rejected the results of the elections and took to the streets, organizing the largest anti-regime protests since the end of the Soviet Union.  The systemic opposition, meanwhile, adopted a different stance.  While the KPRF initially refused to accept the results, it only posed formal challenges to the results in four regions, and, weeks after the election, it  joined Just Russia and the LDPR in taking their Duma seats, thereby symbolically accepting the results.  In a public manifesto released two months after the election, Gennady Zyuganov, the KPRF’s leader, rejected street protests as a strategy and said that the ongoing protests “clearly showed that the ultra-liberal forces wanted to capitalized on popular indignation in order to see that those who destroyed the USSR and created the current system of electoral falsifications are returned to power” 

In exchange for their acquiescence, systemic opposition parties received just under half of all vice speakerships and committee chairmanships in the new Duma.  According to the standing rules of the Duma, leadership positions are determined by a simple majority, so United Russia, Russia’s ruling party, could easily have kept all these positions for itself. 

In a recent paper, Graeme Robertson and I collected some data to assess the extent to which such cooptation actually reduces protest in the Russian regions.  In the regions, cooptation is also accomplished via legislative leadership positions.  But luckily for social science, there is useful variation in the extent to which this type of cooptation is employed. The KPRF, for example, received a leadership position after 42 of the 105 regional elections (40%) that took place between 2007 and 2012.  Using data on 3900 KPRF protest events in the Russian regions, we find that when the KPRF holds a leadership position in a regional legislature the number of protests that it holds in a region is reduced by about 26% over the course of a year.[1]   Without the use of legislative cooptation, the systemic opposition would have intensified its street protest activity, and even might have coordinated with the non-systemic opposition.  This could have toppled the regime.

10.  Paul Schuler (UCSD): Vietnam

In looking at the Vietnamese National Assembly, my conclusion is that its current primary task is overseeing the state, which was untethered from the party in the early 1990s. Essentially, it acts as a fire alarm for the party by signaling excessive corruption in the bureaucracy. However, for me the most interesting question is not what the overall purpose of an authoritarian assembly is. Assemblies may have been initially created with a single purpose in mind, such as cooptation, oversight, power-sharing, information provision, or government oversight. However, once they are created they are likely to serve some or all of these functions at different times.  After all, democratic assemblies, in addition to lawmaking, are also supposed to represent constituents and oversee the bureaucracy. The more interesting questions is how dictators are able to generate any critical participation within an assembly. For any conceptualization of an assembly that sees it as a constraint, the dictator must overcome the “dictator’s dilemma,” which is how to generate honest, critical behavior from citizens when the dictator controls the means of repression.

The first answer, is that some parliaments do not overcome this problem. The Supreme Soviet under Stalin or Cuba’s National Assembly today do not appear to challenge the party leadership in any way. Vietnam’s National Assembly also was not a significant check on the regime’s power prior to the constitutional revision of 1992. However, since then the Vietnam Communist Party has done three things that may provide some clues as to how it overcomes this problem.

First, and most obviously, it manipulates selection so that a few vocal delegates are given seats, but not enough to ever win a majority for a vote. Second, as we have shown elsewhere, some downward accountability through competitive elections does appear to generate more participation.  Third, it can encourage participation by granting delegates a public forum for their comments. This is the key difference between party and legislative institutions. Party conclaves, unlike assembly meetings, all take place behind closed doors. The results of the meetings are announced, but the debates are held behind closed doors. Debates in the Vietnamese National Assembly, however, are made public. Therefore, citizens and the media are able to witness delegates directly voicing their concerns on a range of issues, even if they are contrary to the wishes of the regime. This transparency is likely to interact with selection. Some meeker, less talented delegates may be less likely to speak when their opinions are broadcast live. However, the bolder delegates will take advantage of this forum, knowing that the regime will incur steeper costs in repressing those individuals if they do so immediately following a critical comment made in public that generates support from the populace.

Certainly, transparency is a complicated issue. Through a randomized trial, we have found that it can inhibit participation when transparency is not initiated by the regime. However, we do not yet know what happens when the regime willingly shines the light on proceedings from its own assembly in order to encourage behavior.

This interaction of transparency and selection has been the story of the Vietnamese National Assembly. In the last session, from 2007-2011, while most of the assembly was silent (roughly 60%) several delegates, including Duong Trung Quoc and Nguyen Minh Thuyet, continued to raise hot-button issues, such as the government’s non-transparent approval of an environmentally destructive, Chinese-managed bauxite mine and the discovery of massive debt in the state run sector. Thuyet went so far as to propose an unprecedented vote of no-confidence in the Prime Minister. Several things are interesting from these experiences. First, one of these delegates, Duong Trung Quoc, not only was not punished, but was renominated for another term. Second, these challenges, included Thuyet’s proposal, were televised live. The fact that the regime allowed these delegates to win seats and gave them a televised forum for their views suggest two things. First, it values their participation. Second, it used these tools of selection and transparency as a way to generate this participation.

11. Milan Svolik (UIUC): Cross-National

One and a half century ago, David Hume wrote that "all absolute governments must very much depend on the administration, and this is one of the great inconveniences of that form of government." Indeed, some of the greatest economic disasters of the 20th century occurred when some of its iconic dictators implemented misguided policies that no one dared to oppose. During the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962), for instance, Mao’s attempts to lift rural China out of backwardness by forced collectivization and a shift from agriculture to backyard steel production resulted in a famine and repressive measures that killed more than 30 million people. Mao, like other autocrats of a similar caliber, was so powerful that neither broader social forces nor his inner circle had the capacity to stop his utopian experiments.

Democratic theory suggests that economic disasters like the Great Leap Forward may be prevented by legislatures that would restrain the arbitrariness of authoritarian governments. Unfortunately, the scientific evaluation of this hypothesis is complicated by several inference and measurement problems that are particularly pronounced in dictatorships. Under dictatorship, many seemingly democratic institutions – like legislatures and parties– function very differently than their democratic counterparts. Authoritarian legislatures rarely seat any political opposition and most of the time just rubber stamp political decisions made elsewhere.

Hence a more relevant issue than the existence of a formal legislature in a dictatorship is the presence of either an opposition or a competing faction that would represent a real check of the arbitrariness of the leadership. In dictatorships, such checks sometimes originate within legislatures but as frequently within other, possibly informal institutions. Because of their richer and longer pedigree, dictatorships often combine institutional models from multiple centuries and levels of development. Key checks on the Chinese leadership, for instance, appear to reside within the Standing Committee of the Politburo – a body within the Communist Party rather than the People’s Congress. Similarly, the Iranian Council of Guardians or the Chilean Junta de Gobierno may have represented more significant checks on the leadership of these dictatorships than their formal legislatures. The institutional richness of dictatorship and the only tentative binding power of any formal institutions under dictatorship thus complicate any straightforward assessment of whether legislatures contribute to the economic development of dictatorships.

12. Rory Truex (Yale):  China

To most observers, China's National People's Congress (NPC) is nothing more than a rubber stamp for the legislative initiatives of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). A recent TIME blog describes the NPC meeting as "a largely symbolic exercise in which some 3000 political deputies wave through legislation with little in the way of real debate," the deputies doing nothing more than "show[ing] off their bling and read[ying] their rubber stamps." The annual two week NPC sessions in March appear heavily scripted. Journalists describe a "tightly controlled event featuring much pageantry and precious little drama." To date, no single law or nomination before the full NPC plenary session has ever been voted down. 

The NPC does not appear to really constrain the authority of the Party in the legislative process, but this does not mean it is meaningless. I would argue that the primary purpose of the institution is informational, and it contributes to "authoritarian resilience" by revealing grievances of the population. Each year, NPC deputies propose thousands of opinions and motions on different policy issues, which are then referred to the relevant government ministries for consideration. For example, in 2010 deputies from the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region submitted a motion to address local water shortages. After consideration by the Ministry of Water Resources, the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Agriculture, and the State Council, the motion resulted in a massive public works project- a 1.13 billion yuan investment, to be precise- that gave 200,000 villagers an improved irrigation system. The NPC facilitates this type of responsive governance by providing information to the central government, which may be part of the reason why the CCP regime has proven stable in the face of rapid societal change.  

13. Joseph Wright (Penn State): Cross-National

Some of the first research in the most recent wave of studies on authoritarian legislatures (e.g. Gandhi's award winning 2008 book) established that these institutions are much more than simply “window-dressing”.  They are associated with better economic outcomes and more political stability. My own work suggests that they may not have the same influence in all types of dictatorships, particularly personalist (or sultanistic) regimes where these institutions appear to have little effect on outcomes such as growth and domestic investment.  However, these patterns rely on comparing dictatorships with legislative institutions to those that lack them.  As this figure illustrates, increasingly nearly all dictatorships have some form of legislative institution. [Data on legislatures are drawn from Cheibub, Gandhi, and Vreeland (2010) and data on autocracies is from Geddes, Wright, and Frantz (2012)].  This suggests that we need to dig deeper into workings of these institutions to understand whether features such as: how often they meet, the extent to which opposition parties and independents participate, and whether the executive can disband them influence important outcomes such as growth, investment, and stability. Further, there are a host of other potentially important political institutions – for instance, ruling parties, cabinets, even constitutions – that may influence autocratic behavior as well. We need to understand how these features of authoritarian rule stack up against legislatures as, for example, venues for cooptation and constraint.


[1] Reuter Ora  John and Graeme Robertson, “Cooptation and Legislatures in Contemporary Authoritarian Regimes”  Paper Presented at the 2012 Annual Meeting of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies.  These numbers from a working paper version of this paper and are, therefore, subject to revision.