Designing Constitutions to Prevent Dictatorship

27th September 2013

I had the privilege to hear President Marzouki of Tunisia and former President Otunbayeva of the Kyrgyz Republic speak during the launch event for Constitute on Monday.  The remarks by both Presidents were excellent and, remarkably, sincere.  They spoke very optimistically about their respective countries’ futures, while recognizing that both countries faced many challenges on their path towards development.

What struck me about both President Marzouki and former President Otunbayeva’s remarks was their focus on preventing a return to dictatorship.  Although I have no doubt that both Presidents have aspirations of democracy, their remarks were far more focused on creating constitutions that prevent a return to dictatorship than on designing constitutions that will usher in democracy.  Such an aim is certainly reasonable.  After all, both countries have recently exited long periods of repressive dictatorship and want to avoid something similar in the future.  Moreover, the goal of preventing a return to dictatorship is very pragmatic.  Consolidated, liberal democracy is not something that is achieved in a few weeks or even a few years.  Both Tunisia and the Kyrgyz Republic will be in their current transitional state for some time and, as long as they are in that state, the danger of backsliding into a repressive dictatorship is very real.  Most countries that experience a breakdown of dictatorship will transition into another dictatorship, not a consolidated, liberal democracy.  Both Presidents were very cognizant of this risk.  They both mentioned, numerous times, that many individuals within their respective countries would prefer dictatorship to the transitional state currently present in both countries.  Not only are there the elites from the old regime who long for a return to power, but many ordinary citizens prefer the stability brought by dictatorship to the uncertainty and disorder that is associated with democratisation.

The focus of the two President’s on preventing a return to dictatorship was striking because there is little scholarly literature that helps leaders to understand how to prevent backsliding towards dictatorship.  There are some studies that attempt to identify the determinants of backsliding (I was recently the discussant on a panel at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association on this very topic).  However, the vast majority of social scientists who study these topics are focused squarely and exclusively on understanding the determinants of consolidated, liberal democracy.

Of course, one could say that I am splitting hairs because any variable negatively associated with democracy is a variable that promotes backsliding, right?  Perhaps, but personally, I think things are a bit more complicated than that in countries transitioning out of dictatorship.  Given their remarks, I think that President Marzouki and former President Otunbayeva would probably agree with me.  It might be unfair to suggest that they were more worried about preventing a return to dictatorship than transitioning to democracy, but it was clear from their remarks that the former was a key concern for both of them.  Their concern should be our concern.

This means asking research questions about how transitioning countries can maintain their path towards democracy, rather than slipping back into some form of dictatorship.  Such research would imply a trichotomous measure of democracy, where the groups are dictatorships, transitional countries, and democracies – e.g. as that used by (Epstein et al. 2006).  Rather than focusing solely on the institutions operating in transitioning countries, as President Marzouki of Tunisia and former President Otunbayeva did in their remarks, there are a range of factors that one could study.  Some that seem particularly promising include things like the number and type of groups involved in the transition, the constitution-making process used and how long that process lasts, involvement from the international community, etc.  Only by studying these critical moments in countries’ histories can we provide any insights for leaders and members of the development community about how they can minimise the risk that a transitioning country will slip back into dictatorship.

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