New Book Looks at Influence of ‘Patronal Politics’ in Post-Revolutionary Government

book cover: Patronal Politics
December 11, 2014

The “color” revolutions that swept across Eurasia during the 2000s gave many observers, including regional scholars, reason to believe that democratization was on the rise. Popular uprisings like Kyrgyzstan's "Tulip revolution" and Georgia's "Rose revolution" resulted in power transfers in the region. But once in place, most of the new leaders quickly reverted to old authoritarian policies.

In his new book, Patronal Politics: Eurasian Regime Dynamics in Comparative Perspective (Cambridge University Press, 2014), GW’s Henry Hale examines the forces behind these kinds of cycles of democratization, rising authoritarianism, and revolution in the post-Soviet space.

"In almost all of these [revolutions], what we also saw was that it wasn’t actual civil society leaders taking power, even when you had mass protests, as in [Ukraine's] Orange Revolution," said Dr. Hale. "Instead, it tended to be members of the old elite that wound up as the next presidents."

This pattern, contends Dr. Hale, reflects "patronal politics," a system of politics based on personal connections rather than ideological belief.

"When you get a society like that, my argument is, you get these cycles of political dynamics where you see periods in which one patron tends to accumulate a lot of authority because they can work through these corrupt practices in order to build pyramids of power—large political machines," said Dr. Hale, an associate professor of political science and international affairs.

But these systems tend to be vulnerable to succession crises, says Dr. Hale. When there is uncertainty surrounding succession, the perceived power gap leaves room for dissatisfaction among other power leaders.

According to Dr. Hale, patronal politics was at play in many of the Arab Spring countries, though some rulers were protected by existing power structures.

"One interesting fact is that the monarchies all generally survived the Arab Spring, even where they had major protests," he said. "I think one reason for that is that monarchy provides a mechanism for succession that helps these regimes weather succession."

While the book challenges conventional wisdom about how we understand democratization and authoritarianism, it also provides policymakers with some tangible recommendations. For instance, Dr. Hale calls for governments to focus on creating divisions of power during the constitution-design process.

"I think for policymakers, one of the takeaways is to have a more realistic look at these regimes, which suggests popular uprisings don’t necessarily lead to democratization unless something else changes along with the leadership," said Dr. Hale. "Democratization might not be as forthcoming as we often think, but at the same time authoritarianism often isn’t as enduring as we think."