The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered widespread concern about democracy, with pundits like Larry Diamond claiming that democracy is now under imminent threat as authoritarian tendencies take over. The ability of authoritarian governments to control their populations and prevent the spread of the disease may appear like an upside for dictatorial regimes.

However, in a new report, which we helped author, on how authoritarian regimes fall, we point to a troubling prospect: Many countries with strong authoritarian governments are more susceptible to economic shocks, much more likely to experience a collapse in regime when a strong downturn occurs and more at risk of descending into violent conflict than are more conventional democracies. This research suggests that governments (and financial markets) should be worried about a rise in violence as the pandemic takes hold in these economies, given that those very governments have often failed to deal effectively with systemic inequalities.

A shock to the system

Authoritarian regimes are not alone in being susceptible to economic shocks; all systems become more fragile during downturns. Our study, however, found many of them to be especially sensitive to bad economic performance. Without the ballot box, authoritarian leaders under pressure tend to impose heavy-handed crackdowns on political freedoms, inflaming public resentment and higher chances of uprising. 

Nearly every overthrow of an authoritarian ruler over the past 30 years was preceded by a significant economic crisis. Recent examples include the popular protests that toppled Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia amidst an economic crisis; the large-scale popular uprising in Yemen in 2011 during a severe oil shortage; and the coup that ousted Zimbabwe’s President Mugabe during the long downward economic trajectory of the country. The 2019 coup against President Bashir in Sudan was also driven in large part by disastrous economic performance generating a popular uprising.

As the pandemic begins to drive global economies down, highly authoritarian regimes may appear to be in control of their populations in terms of enforcing social distancing. However, many of these measures result in reduced civil liberties and strengthened ruling party control, very often controlled by a single person and their family or immediate entourage. What may in the short term prevent the spread of the virus is likely to bring political and economic resentment to the boiling point in many fragile systems. In Brazil, for example, President Bolsonaro’s antagonistic approach to the press, combined with the country’s poor COVID-19 response, has some experts predicting his government might fall. As authoritarian regimes become more desperate to limit the socio-political fallout of the COVID-19 crisis, we can anticipate a higher risk of social uprisings in many parts of the world soon.

A greater risk of violence

This points to a worrying trend when authoritarian regimes fall: transitions out of authoritarian rule appear to be getting more violent. In the 1990s, one of the most common ways to depose of dictators was through military coups, particularly in Latin America — an efficient, often quite brutal, process that had a relatively low likelihood of sparking  widespread violence. Today, however, by far the most prevalent cause of collapse in authoritarian rule is popular uprising, which can, in turn,  provoke a coup (such as in Sudan) and historically has tended to be the most violent form of transition. Authoritarian rulers often respond to peaceful protests by repressive, violent crackdowns, which then risk escalating into broader conflict. 

This is in part because popular uprisings pose a direct threat to rulers: roughly 85 percent of successful uprisings against authoritarian systems result in the installation of a new leader. As opposition groups around the world develop strategies during the pandemic, they may be more inclined to mobilize directly against autocrats who have held power for long spells. And these men (they are all men) rarely relinquish power without a fight.

It’s about inequality

Counterintuitively, this research has found that poor governance does not necessarily impact the risks of violence when an authoritarian regime falls. Countries with extremely poor governance ratings often experience quite peaceful transitions, while some of the most violent transitions have occurred in countries with relatively good governance scores. What matters more are two related factors: how a regime falls (by coup, uprising, election or death), and the levels of inequality within that country. Countries with extremely high levels of inequality are not only more likely to experience popular uprisings, they are also more likely to relapse into authoritarian rule after the transition.  

Those interested in preventing violent conflict should pay more attention to the dangerous combination of authoritarianism and inequality that is only heightened by the pandemic. One implication: inter-governmental cooperation on the COVID-19 response should avoid tacitly endorsing coercive measures that have the effect of entrenching autocratic leaders. Public health authorities and international organizations will need to carefully weigh tradeoffs between contact-tracing measures designed to prevent the spread of the virus against the need to protect civil liberties in strongly authoritarian countries. Getting that balance wrong could lead to new wars.

Adam Day is head of Programmes at United Nations University Centre for Policy Research. Dirk Druet is a former official in the UN’s Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs and is a visiting researcher at McGill University’s Centre for International Peace and Security Studies. 





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