The post-cold war world has seen the rise of an increasing number of regimes that cannot be easily classified as either authoritarian or democratic, but display some characteristics of each—in short, they are semi-authoritarian regimes. These regimes have adopted some of the formal traits of democracy, such as constitutions providing for the separation of powers and contested presidential and parliamentary elections, and they allow some degree of political freedom to their citizens; nevertheless, they are able to protect themselves from open competition that might threaten the tenure of the incumbents. Such regimes abound in the former Soviet Union: in countries like Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan, for example, former communist bosses have transformed themselves into elected presidents, but in reality they remain strongmen whose power is barely checked by weak democratic institutions. Semi-authoritarian regimes are also numerous in Sub-Saharan Africa, where most of the multi-party elections of the 1990s have failed to produce working parliaments or other institutions capable of holding the executive accountable. In the Middle East, tentative political openings in Algeria, Morocco and Yemen appear to be leading to the consolidation of semi-authoritarian regimes rather than to democracy, following a pattern first established by Egypt. In the Balkans, the communist regimes have disappeared, but democracy remains a distant hope even in countries that are at peace. Even more worrisome is the example of Latin America, where steady progress toward democracy has been interrupted by the new semi-authoritarianism of Peru and Venezuela.

Several factors explain why a growing number of regimes are adopting outwardly more democratic political systems: the loss of appeal of socialist systems during the 1990s, the creation of newly independent states, and the corresponding need felt by an increasing number of governments to legitimize themselves in the eyes of their citizens and of the international community; the pressure by donor countries, which have launched democracy promotion programs and in some cases even make economic aid contingent on the implementation of democratic reforms; and the demonstration effect of democratization in the neighboring countries.

A combination of external pressures and countervailing forces created by domestic opposition has limited the capacity of most governments to impose their policies unilaterally and to continue governing in an authoritarian fashion. But these pressures have not been sufficient to bring about a new distribution of power in most countries. As a result, reforms have remained incomplete and the new regimes have been able to prevent further change through their successful manipulation of the new institutions and often of the opposition as well. The new semi-authoritarian regimes continue to go through the motions of a democratic process, but they have become masters at stifling electoral competition or at keeping parliaments powerless and judiciary systems cowed. They have also learned to manipulate public opinion: on the one hand, they claim that that they are committed to popular empowerment and the redistribution of power; on the other, they emphasize that the risks of instability they claim are inherent in untrammeled competition and by so doing succeed in deflecting criticisms and reducing internal pressure for democratization.

The existence of regimes that combine formal democracy, a modicum of political openness, and fundamental authoritarian tendencies has been noted by other analysts. Such regimes, however, are often classified as either transitional or imperfectly democratic ones. We believe that the concept of semi-authoritarianism captures their nature better. The concept of transitional regime is too broad and doesn’t allow us to distinguish between regimes that have not yet fully consolidated their democratic institutions and those which have no intention of allowing that to happen. For example, both Kazakhstan and the Czech Republic can be considered countries in transition, but in the former a democratic outcome is highly unlikely, while in the latter it is probable. Furthermore, semi-authoritarian regimes may be transitional, but they need not be. Egypt, for example, has consistently displayed the same semi-authoritarian characteristics for two decades.

Similarly, the concept of imperfect or limited democracies—literally dozen adjectives have been used to qualify such regimes, including illiberal, electoral, or virtual—is also misleading when applied to countries where, despite all the formal trappings, power remains concentrated in the hands of an unaccountable government that cannot be removed by democratic means.

In choosing the term semi-authoritarian, we are not seeking to engage in a semantic discussion, but to highlight what we view as the defining characteristic of these regimes: the existence and persistence of mechanisms that effectively prevent the transfer of power through elections from the hands of the incumbent leaders or party to a new political elite or political organization. These mechanisms function despite the adoption of formal democratic institutions and despite a degree of political freedom granted to the citizens of the country. Semi-authoritarian countries may have a reasonably free press, for example; the regime may leave space for autonomous organizations of civil society to operate, for private business to grow, and thus for new economic elites to rise. The regime may hold fairly open elections for local or regional governments or even allow backbenchers to be defeated in a parliamentary election. But there is no room for debate over the nature of political power in society, where it resides, and who should hold it. Above all, membership in the core power group is not determined by election. At the center, competition is a fiction; even if elections are held, outsiders are not allowed to truly challenge the power of the incumbents. These regimes cannot be considered democratic because they lack the essential characteristic of democratic systems: elections are not the source of the government’s power and thus voters cannot transfer power to a new leadership. If elections do not provide an opportunity for the alternation of elites, the country is not a democracy, not even an imperfect one. But such regimes cannot be considered purely authoritarian, either, because of the degree of openness of the political process and because of the fact that they tolerate at least partial challenges and allow a degree of freedom for competing organizations.

The issue of what is the source of the government’s power is central to any discussion of semi-authoritarian countries. There are conceptual difficulties in confronting this, but the problem cannot be avoided. A definition of democracy, and consequently of semi-authoritarianism, that hinges on determining what are the sources of the government’s power is admittedly inconvenient, because the source of power is not easy to ascertain in practice. Despite common expressions such as "seizing power" or "assuming power," power is not something concrete, that can be easily detected or seized, as Samuel Huntington pointed out long ago. Power is something that is defined and redefined through protracted engagement of the governors and the governed in society. In democratic systems, it is relatively easy to see how power is generated and how it is exercised. Access to positions of power is consistently determined by election results, although other factors enhance or decrease the ability of an elected leader to shape policy. Decisions are made by elected leaders operating within institutions, and while many pressures are brought to bear on those institutions, the process is relatively transparent and the outcome clearly visible. Furthermore, independent media help ferret out information about the pressures and influences to which decision-makers are exposed. Non-democratic systems are more opaque. Power is the result of relationships established among individuals and these relations are not institutionalized, thus they are difficult to map out and explain. The fact that the press is often intimidated into self-censorship makes the task more difficult.

The allocation of power in many semi-authoritarian regimes is remarkably stable over time. These are systems in equilibrium. In general individuals and groups do not encounter much government interference, and if they do the impetus for government intervention is usually quite predicable. Thus from the point of view of those seeking a democratic transformation, these systems are seen as stalemated. One of the mechanisms that the rulers of these countries use to compensate for this stalemate is to allow some areas of openness, but to limit the potential impact of this openness through the state’s monopoly over, and periodic use of, instruments of repression.


Semi-authoritarian regimes pose a number of challenges for those interested in advancing the cause of democracy. The first challenge is analytical. These regimes are not following the three stage process in which analysts have broken down the process of democratization: a period of liberalization; a democratic transition by means of multi-party elections and the development of formally democratic institutions; a period of democratic consolidation. In semi-authoritarian countries the old order has been undermined by new political and economic challenges, but the government’s responses to these challenges do not necessarily lay the basis for a liberal regime. The new processes and institutions do not penetrate deeply enough or function well enough to sustain a democratic reallocation of power. Thus no democratic transition has taken place, and consequently the process of democratic consolidation has not begun. These regimes, thus, cannot be considered to be either in the phase of liberalization or in the phase of democratic transition. Least of all can they thought to be undergoing democratic consolidation, and so we clearly need a new analytical model to understand these countries.

The second challenge is political. The United States government is committed to democracy promotion, but obviously it is also committed to safeguarding its security and economic interests. In many semi-authoritarian countries, these interests clash, at least in the short term. If a regime is friendly to the United States and appears reasonably stable, it fosters an open market and economic growth, and it maintains a favorable business climate for US companies, why should it be pressed for more change? The choice is particularly difficult when the regime is not guilty of terrible human rights violations, is reasonably open politically, and is clearly preferable to a traditional authoritarian state. Should the United States accept a glass that is only half full? Or should it insist that it be filled completely, even if there is a risk that all the water will be spilled in the attempt? US policy toward semi-authoritarian countries shows a lot of wavering on this question.

The third challenge concerns policy instruments. If we decide to put more pressure for change on these regimes, what sort of intervention is required to break the mechanisms that prevent a reallocation of power despite the existence of areas of openness and of formal democratic mechanisms? The normal devices suggested by donors to consolidate democracy do not appear to have much effect. Projects to strengthen democratic institutions have little impact, because power is not channeled through those institutions. Assistance geared to stimulate the strengthening of civil society may summon new organizations into existence, but again this has no decisive effect. In some cases this is because the society is already quite pluralistic, but the government has learned to handle pluralism. In others it is because the new non-governmental organizations have little leverage to use in forcing the hand of the government. Elections have the least impact of all; they are regularly used to return the incumbents to office and often with little outward sign of ballot box stuffing or gross cheating.


The challenges posed by semi-authoritarian regimes are likely to acquire greater importance in the coming years. After a decade of change in most authoritarian countries, we are beginning to be able to measure the real gains of the democratization drive of the 1990s. We are discovering some great successes, but many more cases of incomplete transformation. If we want to meet the growing challenge posed by semi-authoritarian regimes, we must understand the phenomenon better.

The Democracy and Rule of Law Project of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is seeking to contribute to the understanding of semi-authoritarian countries and to help meet the challenge of dealing with them through a three part undertaking, comprising a study group, the present working paper, and a more extensive, two-year research project.

A study group organized by Tom Carothers, Martha Olcott and Marina Ottaway met five times between October 1998 and February 1999. It devoted three sessions to analyzing semi-authoritarian countries and two to discussing how democracy might be promoted in these countries. Its goal was to help the participants sharpen their thinking about these issues, rather than to produce a final report which distilled the group’s conclusions.

To facilitate the discussion, the study group selected eight countries that could be considered broadly to fall into the "semi-authoritarian" category. Since this was an exploratory undertaking, we did not try to develop strict criteria to guide the choice of the countries. Rather we decided that it was more useful to start with a group of interesting countries that displayed many authoritarian characteristics but simultaneously had also arenas for political competition, to learn from the comparative examination of these countries, and in the end to arrive at a better understanding and a more rigorous definition of semi-authoritarianism. As a result, we chose a very varied array of countries. The sample included China, a country with limited political space but which is in the midst of a very dynamic period of change, as well as Indonesia, a country in the throes of a transition from decades of authoritarianism with still unpredictable outcome. The group also discussed Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Iran, Uganda and Zambia.

The present working paper grows out of the work of the study group, but it is not a report on its discussions. It does not seek to represent the ideas of the group as a whole, but primarily those of two of the study group convenors, Martha Olcott and Marina Ottaway, with inputs from the third, Tom Carothers. But the paper is inspired by the study group’s discussions and owes much to the ideas expressed by the participants. Ultimately, however, this is the authors’ own attempt to set forth a coherent analysis of the phenomenon we call semi-authoritarianism.

The paper draws on the authors’ knowledge about many semi-authoritarian countries, their prior field work in some of them, and on the contributions made by members of the study group. The goal of the paper is to raise questions rather than to provide answers. It suggests what we need to understand about semi-authoritarian countries in order to deal with them effectively, but it does not try to provide policy guidelines. This is a working paper in the true sense of the term, a step leading to further research.

The last component of the Carnegie project is a research project building on the ideas developed here that is being launched by one of the authors, Marina Ottaway. The study will look systematically at the problem of semi-authoritarianism in five countries in different regions of the world. On the basis of the research findings, it will then discuss how further democratization can be encouraged in semi-authoritarian countries.


From the definition and sketchy discussion of semi-authoritarian regimes provided earlier, three issues appear crucial to understanding the phenomenon : the sources of power, the extent of openness and the persistence of closure.


The status of democracy in a country is often assessed in procedural terms. A procedural approach has the advantage of simplicity, in that it is based on clearly visible indicators. Unfortunately, such approach does not help in the case of the numerous countries where democratic procedures appear to be in place, but have little or no discernible impact on the distribution of power. This is particularly clear in those countries where multi-party elections return to power the old authoritarian leadership. No matter how good the procedure, and seemingly free and fair the election, the question about the real source of the elected officials’ power remains. If communist party secretaries are re-elected as presidents, or military rulers are transformed by an election into democratic presidents, what are the sources of their power? Is it the elections? Is it control over the military or the remnants of the old party apparatus? The question becomes even more poignant when the same leadership is re-elected repeatedly and thus proves as entrenched as it was before the democratic procedures were introduced.

The study group found several different patterns of power generation at the central level. In addition, there are other sources of power at the local level and in the economy, which complicate the task of understanding how power is generated and allocated.

One pattern of power generation we found was the anointing by election of leaders of the old regime to head the new so-called democratic system. Examples abound in countries where the transition appears to owe more to external factors than to the growth of a strong demand for democracy and of strong organizations capable of carrying forth such demand. Among the countries discussed by the study group, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan provided examples of this pattern. In Azerbaijan, the wane of communism saw the rise of a large and powerful pro-democracy movement, the Popular Front, whose leader Abulfaz Elchibey held power in 1992-1993 but was then ousted by Brezhnev-era communist boss Heydar Aliev. Aliev has twice won election as president, but done so without facing the major political figures of the opposition movement. The continuity in Kazakhstan is even more striking. Successful public movements in that country always had at least a partly orchestrated character. Olzhas Suleimenov, the leader of the country’s largest political movement, the Anti-Nuclear Nevada-Semipalatinsk, has never tried to run for president or openly oppose the government. Instead, he has chosen the role of "in-house critic" and has been well rewarded for it. Kazakhstan is a good example of a state which has held hastily organized elections designed to please a western political audience that seemed to tolerate no other mechanism. Here, as in so many other places, a former party secretary-general with a finger on the levers of power and access to resources dutifully became elected president. In Kazakhstan the abuses were particularly glaring during January 1999 presidential elections, in preparation for which the existing constitution was suspended in order to allow the incumbent, Nursultan Nazarbayev, to compete under more favorable political and economic conditions.

An interesting variant of this pattern where elections only serve to reconfirm the position of officials that derive power from other sources is provided by Egypt. Despite the considerable degree of political space that opened in the 1970s, power continues to be transferred only at the death of the incumbent president and even then to his handpicked vice-president. It happened at the death of Gamal Abd El Nasser’s in 1971, when power was transferred to Anwar Sadat under the aegis of the then existing single-party system. It happened again in 1981 at Sadat’s death when power was automatically transferred to Vice-president Hosni Mubarak, with whom it has resided for eighteen years despite the regular holding of elections.

Zambia provides an example of a different pattern. In 1991, Zambian citizens, disgusted with a president and single party that had brought nothing but economic decline and maladministration to the country for twenty years, voted in a new president and party by an overwhelming majority. The 1991 elections thus truly transferred power to a new leadership. The victory of the new party, however, was so complete that the country was left without a viable opposition. As a result, power was soon captured anew by a political machine that made further transfer impossible. Power thus did not retain the democratic base acquired in the first elections. Five years later, the elections returned to office the same party and president with a similar overwhelming majority. This second victory, however, was not due to popular enthusiasm, which had waned rapidly, but to maneuvering by the president that excluded the only serious contender and by the subsequent refusal of opposition parties to participate in the elections. Furthermore, the incumbent party was further strengthening its hold on power by organizing the population into a dense network of party cells in the best tradition of single-party regimes—one for each ten households was the stated goal. It is difficult to conclude from this picture that power in Zambia today is still derived from an electoral mandate and thus transferable by elections.

In Iran, on the other hand, elections led to a bifurcation of power. The Iranian presidential elections of 1997 were considered to be among the most democratic held in the Middle East, and they did give the president a genuine mandate. On the other hand, the religious establishment that has controlled the Iranian society and polity since the deposition of the shah allowed the elections to take place but was unaffected by the elections and showed no intention of relinquishing its own hold. The end result is a divided political system in which power is contested by elected officials and by the religious elite.

Not all countries discussed by the study group submitted their leaders to the test of a multi-party election, whether genuine or manipulated. In China, power rests firmly in the hands of the party apparatus; in Uganda it resided originally in a victorious guerrilla movement that subsequently transformed itself into a de facto single party, willing to allow some competition among individual candidates but not among organized political parties. Yet, these two countries that openly refuse electoral competition at the center do not differ radically from those discussed previously that pay lip service to such competition. Whether or not elections are held, in all these countries power is largely based on a mixture of control over a party machine and an entrenched bureaucracy, the efficiency of a repressive security apparatus, the acceptance of the regime by the military, and in some cases the alliance with an increasingly important private sector. In Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, open political competition is severely curtailed and it is thus the opaque internal politics of the apparatus that allocates power; in both these cases the presidential apparatus was built at least in part on the old communist party structures and personalities. In Zambia, where the disintegration of the old party apparatus in 1991 allowed a turnover of leadership, the new president wasted no time in developing a new machine. In Uganda, power was purely rooted in military control originally, but while the military retains its importance a reorganized bureaucracy and a new party machine have become equally important. Patronage is an additional source of power in all these countries.

We have so far only considered the patterns of power that are found at the center of semi-authoritarian political systems. A comprehensive assessment would also require a discussion of how power is generated and exercised at the local level as well as of the importance of economic power. The study group did not discuss the issue of power at the local level in any detail, so we will only raise a few points here. First, semi-authoritarian regimes are not as concerned about controlling power tightly at the local level as they are at the center. The result is that local patterns of power vary widely. In China, for example, the government is deliberately allowing some experimentation at the local levels, with the elections of village committees—it is too early to tell where this experiment will lead. In many other countries, including Uganda, Zambia, and Indonesia, the government has very little reach in remote rural areas, and as a result party officials and bureaucrats share much power with traditional authorities or other local notables. Even in countries with stronger bureaucracies such as Egypt, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, local government is affected by informal or traditional processes. Elites that are rooted in social, ethnic or religious structures compete for influence with government authorities for control of the population.

The greater competition for power at the local level can be mechanisms of semi-authoritarian control rather than steps toward democracy. In semi-authoritarian African countries, including Uganda, local and district councilors are voted in and out of office in surprisingly open elections, even when power at the center is not allowed to be challenged. Local officials, who have very little power in the formal system, can be sacrificed in the name of democracy with no loss of control by the central government, and if they perform their tasks well they also help take pressure off the regime. Thus, decentralization and democratic openness at the local level may in fact help the perpetuation of semi-authoritarianism by providing a safety valve that allows the populace to express its discontent without affecting the government.

The issue of economic power is also quite complex. The relationship between economic and political elites undoubtedly affects the allocation of power in semi-authoritarian countries. Much of the writing on democracy treats as axiomatic that economic liberalization facilitates democratization by creating more interest groups and thus greater pluralism and democracy. But this positive relationship between economic liberalization and democracy does not necessarily hold true in semi-authoritarian countries, particularly those that have seen the rapid emergence of new economic elites as a result of structural economic reforms.

In Indonesia, political and economic elites were part of the same system of crony capitalism, with the president’s family and close associates controlling shares of corporations which in turn received favorable treatment and protection. Crony capitalism is also a problem in the countries that were part of the former Soviet Union, where the new economic elites are generally being drawn from the nomenclature of the communist party or were closely associated with them. Azerbaijan’s oil sector is dominated by the family of President Heyday Aliev. His son Ilkham is first deputy president of SOCAR, the state oil company, and Aliev himself has decades-old ties to the Soviet oil industry. In Kazakhstan, President Nazarbayev’s daughter was awarded the license to run the one independent television station, while his son-in-law is one of the country’s major anti-corruption figures, as he heads the country’s tax police. If reform inadvertently empowers the wrong people, then the government also has the capacity to coopt potentially inconvenient new economic elites. We see this in Kazakhstan in the person of former Minister of Energy, Industry, and Trade Mukhtar Ablyazov, a young entrepreneur who managed to amass a fortune despite the lack of political contacts.

There are exceptions to the pattern of crony capitalism, as in Uganda, where the fact that the core of the business community is Asian while the political elite is African initially produced a degree of separation between economic and political power. But even here there are signs that crony capitalism is becoming a growing problem, as more Africans seize the economic opportunities provided by high positions in the government or the military, or by personal ties to those occupying such position. Uganda’s intervention in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in particular has opened the way for the formation of such political-economic networks through the trading of Congolese diamonds. Indeed, the common trend, particularly in countries emerging from some form of socialist control over the economy, is toward collusion rather than antagonism between economic and political elites. Although leaders of semi-authoritarian countries are often suspicious of liberalization, precisely because they fear that it will cause them to lose control, in reality economic reform may reinforce the power allocation in semi-authoritarian countries rather than challenge it. Twenty years of private sector growth in Egypt have not altered significantly the character of the political regime.

It is clear from the above discussion that power in semi-authoritarian countries is not monolithic, but that there are no organized centers of power that challenge the control at the center of the system. Governments recognize the legitimacy of some political activities, the desirability of some power-sharing between the central and local governments, and the need for a private sector. Yet, they do not accept true political competition and they succeed in controlling the process so that their power is not really threatened.