December 13, 2017
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The future of competitive authoritarianism in Burma

  • Category: Life
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The end of the Cold War spelt the end of an era for many of the world’s unchallenged autocrats. Confronted by a wave of democratic euphoria, ...

(Book Review) – The end of the Cold War spelt the end of an era for many of the world’s unchallenged autocrats. Confronted by a wave of democratic euphoria, single-party states and their leaders felt an increasing compulsion to at least go through the motions of a multi-party electoral system, skewed as the playing field often was.

This is what Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way coin “competitive authoritarianism” – a system defined by competitive, but unfair, elections. It took Burma longer than most countries to reach this stage, but competitive authoritarianism has finally arrived.

Levitsky and Way’s study, Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War (Cambridge University Press, 2010), attempts to identify key trends and factors that either contribute toward an authoritarian system’s staying power or its eventual demise. However, owing to Burma’s previous absence of even the slimmest visages of competitiveness, it was not included in the study. This essay will apply Levitsky and Way’s modeling to Burma’s age of competitive authoritarianism and judge how likely is a transition to full democracy.

Theoretical findings

There are two dominant variables in the transition to democracy identified in the work of Levitsky and Way:

1) Linkage – ties to North America and the European Union

2) The strength of the governing party and associated state organizations. Regarding leverage, defined as a state’s vulnerability to Western, democratizing pressure, the authors find “leverage was sometimes sufficient to force transitions from closed to competitive authoritarianism but it was rarely sufficient to induce democratization.”

With linkage, the most important criteria identified is the geographical location of the state in question in relation to North America and Western Europe. In the case studies examined by Levitsky and Way, only two of 30 medium or high organizational power cases democratized, i.e. Nicaragua and Serbia. This finding demonstrates the intimate relationship between linkage and physical proximity. Nicaragua and Serbia each fall squarely under the watchful gaze of the United States and Western Europe, respectively.

As proximity wanes, as with cases in Africa, the former Soviet Union and Asia, the dominant factor in democratic design is most likely rooted in the domestic environment, and specifically that of state and ruling party strength.

Governing cohesion in turn is found to improve with shared ethnicity, ideology and/or history.
“Parties that combined patronage with nonmaterial ties – such as those rooted in violent conflict or struggle,” write the authors, “provided the most robust bases for authoritarian rule during the post-Cold War era.”

This observation compliments the research of others, such as Dan Slater, whose work deals with the concept of a protection pact, intimately linked with nonmaterial ties, across elites in several Southeast Asian countries.

Concerning the importance of elites in democratic transition, Levitsky and Way opt for a hedged position. On one hand, they find leadership is often overvalued, with structural realities more likely to drive leadership decisions. However, on the other hand, they find imposed, top-down transitions may be more likely to yield stable democracies. Clearly, in such a scenario – as was the case with Ghana under Jerry Rawlings – leadership plays a pivotal role.

Then, there are also the cases of elite defection, as seen in the run-up to Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. Though commonly billed as a victory engineered from below with strong external support, Levitsky and Way argue it is better understood as a case of limited organizational power within the authoritarian state and party structure – ultimately encouraging elite defection in the defense of elite interests.

Applying the model to Burma

First, it must be understood that this year’s by-elections, dominated by the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), are of little indication of the state’s ability to alter the playing field. In fact, the argument can be made that it was in the state’s interest to ensure an opposition victory, gaining international standing while forfeiting little power. In the by-elections, the state opted not to employ its full coercive force, as other priorities than winning the election predominated.

Not only does Burma’s geographic location portend low linkage and a reduced probability for democratization, but of the four critical indicators of linkage employed by Levitsky and Way, Burma stands exceptionally weak. These indicators are: 1) economic ties to North America and the European Union 2) social ties with the same 3) Internet and telephonic communication, and 4) membership within a North American or European economic and/or security pact.

Where Burma does enjoy high linkage is in the person of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. That linkage, however, is not shared by a large percentage of Burma’s governing class, mitigating any corresponding strength to be found in leverage exploiting strong linkage. It is a finding that calls into question past, and to a degree present, American and European policy trajectories regarding Burma.  

Nevertheless, with changes introduced by the Thein Sein government, providing possibility for more linkage through more channels, combined with at least a tepid response from Washington and European capitals, linkage can be expected to modestly increase. Any democratic benefit from this increase, though, will take time to manifest.   

Generally weak linkage across the board thus serves to further highlight the importance of domestic factors in Burmese politics. This should come as little surprise, as it was the domestic theatre that played the dominant role from authoritarianism to competitive authoritarianism.

Looking at organizational scope and cohesion of the state and ruling party, Levitsky and Way’s model equates to a ranking for Burma of medium to medium-high. However, this apparent strength of the ruling apparatus comes with major question marks surrounding party and state cohesion. Is the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) overly reliant on patronage? Will the state maintain the same level of cohesion as younger generations come to the fore in positions of both political and military leadership?

Fronted by Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD’s belated decision to join the government offers possibilities previously remote at best. For starters, to what extent will the main opposition party be deemed as challenging from within, as opposed to a previous posturing of looking to overthrow the state? It is a change in perspective that could assist in gaining elite defections, or even the formation of a new political bloc bringing together previously quarrelsome elites in common interest.

However, keeping in mind the findings of Levitsky and Way, it can be expected that the social, economic and physical violence experienced for decades in many peripheral regions of the state will prove problematic in pursuit of democracy.

This will in turn be compounded by investment from non-Western quarters (termed ‘black knights’ by Levitsky and Way), many of which do not place as much – or the same – emphasis on “full democracy.”  Despite initiatives from Naypyitaw to broaden its options, and the flurry of media coverage surrounding the suspension of the Myitsone Dam project, there is little reason to think that regional powers and groupings will not remain the dominant international players with respect to the Burmese state.

Finally, what can be assessed of the existing uneven playing field? The proliferation of media outlets – publication, radio, broadcast – is and can be expected to be dominated by individuals and companies with government ties. State resources are likely to be unevenly distributed and made available; while low levels of technology and infrastructure, especially outside of urban hubs, offer fertile ground for manipulation.

In the near term then, the dominant variable identified by Levitsky and Way in measuring the durability of competitive authoritarianism in Burma is the organizational and structural cohesion of the ruling government. If it erodes, large-scale political changes could come to the fore.

Core questions for 2015 and beyond

The following are some questions, derived from Levitsky and Way’s work, which will impact the future of competitive authoritarianism in Burma:

  • Can the USDP solidify as a disciplined and institutionalized party, somewhat akin to the birth and maneuverings of United Russia?

  • Will a USDP/military government opt to maximize available coercive power, or will priorities beyond immediate electoral results – as happened in such cases as Mexico and Taiwan – dominate?

  • Should the opposition come to power, will it be able to effectively control the security sector? If not, any accession to power may be more form than function.

  • Should the opposition come to power, how will a shared experience of struggle impact its ability to govern democratically? In short, how deep are the roots of suffering and shared ideology?

  • Will the opposition struggle to keep the wider international community’s interest beyond the formalities of an electoral process, especially as the early uni-polar years of the post-Cold War world recede ever further into history?

While Levitsky and Way’s study of post-Cold War regimes can be of benefit in identifying the potential for political evolution in Burma, as a forecasting mechanism it must continually be revisited. The authors stress that as a predictive tool their model is of cautious utility. This is simply because variables change. Civil societies wax and wane, parties strengthen and weaken, international policies alter and different generations and personages take center stage.

Yet, if we retroactively apply critical indicators identified by Levitsky and Way in the potential for democracy to take root in Burma, it can at least be said that whereas previously there was little to no reason to believe democracy would take root, there is now at least hope.

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