The Strength to Concede in Developmental Asia
Do autocrats cede power to democracy when in fear of the alternative, or is there an alternative hypothesis: that strength increases the likelihood of democratization? East Asian case studies give food for thought. In an article for the latest issue of Perspectives on Politics, professors Dan Slater (University of Chicago) and Joseph Wong (University of Toronto) explore three cases (Taiwan, South Korean, and Indonesia) wherein autocratic parties ceded democracy from positions of relative strength, and three candidate cases (China, Malaysia, and Singapore), where democracy has yet but may soon be conceded. These explorations and considerations are sure to stir up talk on the sequencing of democratization, modernization theory, and other theories related to authoritarianism and elite behavior. In this review, Managing Editor Steven Denney considers the theory of “strong-state democratization,” with a particular focus on the case of South Korea. He also brings in a forthcoming piece from Wong on the effects democratization had on Korea’s party system. — Christopher Green, Co-editor
The Strength to Concede in Developmental Asia
by Steven Denney
Despite its irreversible transition to democracy, authoritarianism still lingers over South Korea, and its consequences are only now being discovered. As one author writes, “The metaphysical ghosts of authoritarian politics [haunt] the corridors of South Korean power, limiting options and creating roadblocks.” But so too were these politics largely responsible for ushering in the era of democratic politics. Great is the irony that autocrats concede democracy, but so it is. Professors Dan Slater and Joseph Wong engage this paradox of “strong-state democratization” in “The Strength to Concede: Ruling Parties and Democratization in Developmental Asia” and, in so doing, generate a new means by which to understand democratic transition under authoritarian rule.
The Paradox of Strong-State Democratization | In her 1999 article on democratic transitions, Barbara Geddes put forth the argument that dominant parties in authoritarian regimes only concede democratic reform when a failure to do so would mean their certain demise. Geddes argued that ruling parties of authoritarian governments have an incentive to concede to democracy when faced with pending regime change, rather than risk “some other form of authoritarianism;” i.e., when evidence suggests that they are better off in a democratic system, where they might remain competitive political actors. Thus, she believed that in a position of relative weakness, ruling parties will initiate democratic reforms.
However, Slater and Wong challenge the contention that “ruling parties never ‘negotiate an extrication’” unless faced with a do-or-die situation. They find a paradox: that ruling parties also initiate democratic transitions when they perceive the chances of winning an election to be high; that is, “the very strength that helps dominant parties sustain authoritarianism can also help motivate them to end it.” From this paradox they derive their primary argument: “dominant parties can be incentivized to concede democratization from a position of exceptional strength and not only from a position of extreme weakness.” They posit that in such “conceding-to-thrive scenarios,” three generalizable prerequisites must be present: (i) “antecedent strengths,” (ii) “ominous signals,” and (iii) “legitimation strategies.” Three instances of ruling parties conceding democracy are used as case studies to test the theory: Taiwan’s KMT, South Korea’s DJP (described below), and Indonesia’s Golkar. They reveal three conditions under which ruling parties in authoritarian states concede from a position of strength.
The first condition requires that ruling parties see democratic politics as a viable alternative political system through which they can maintain their rule and avoid political instability. Among other traits, the authors relate favorable views of democratic politics to state capacity and the degree of state-directed industrialization and economic growth. “An impressive record of transformative accomplishments in the economic realm provides the kind of ‘usable past’ that aids a formerly authoritarian party seeking ‘regeneration’ under democracy.” When ruling parties have presided over periods of impressive, state-led economic development, they are less likely to fear the uncertainties of electoral politics. It’s politically beneficial, for example, to be part of the party that raised a country from backwater rice paddy to export powerhouse.
The second condition is straightforward, albeit easily overlooked by an overconfident or oblivious political elite. It is captured by a pithy phrase the authors coin to describe a ruling party’s “slowly declining capacity but rapidly increasing propensity to concede-and-thrive:” the “bittersweet spot.” “Bittersweet” because “a party enters this zone upon receiving worrisome signals of declining popularity and lapsing legitimacy…” This is when the time is ripe to make a move—towards democracy.
The third condition is related to the “historical legitimacy formula,” when certain structural changes precipitate a change in the way those in power “talk” and “think,” which may—or may not—indicate that those of the ruling party “explicitly embrace the idea of a new political era and commence a decisive rhetorical break from the authoritarian past.” This relates closely to the “domain consensus” thesis that Sino-NK co-editor Christopher Green posits in the contemporary North Korean case. In such situations, structural change reveals the need for different approaches to “the political;” a ruling elite is obliged to seek a new consensus on the role of the state vis-à-vis the citizenry, since the old ways won’t work in a new task environment.
The Strength to Concede in South Korea: Democratization and Its Effects | Of course, in modern North Korea only one of the conditions obtains. In the South, however, Slater and Wong argue that Roh Tae-woo’s authoritarian-cum democratic conservative party, the Democratic Justice Party (DJP; 민주정의당), met all three conditions sufficiently. The growth of the minjung (민중; the people, the masses), “a broad-based coalition” of people from all walks of life, had begun to challenge the basis of the regime’s legitimacy; this, together with international pressure (intensified by the approach of the 1988 Olympics in Seoul), especially from the United States, signaled to Roh’s regime that they had indeed reached the bittersweet spot. But, even so, a solid post-war economic track record, economic interests that aligned with those of the middle class, and a fragmented opposition indicated to Roh and the ruling elite that they would likely come out on top if they willingly enter the ring of democratic politics.
Thus, Roh shifted strategies. The legitimacy formula (or, as Green would have it, domain consensus) “shifted… from one of authoritarian development toward democratic development.” Citing from the Declaration of Democratic Reform (the June 29 Declaration), the authors underscore how, along with thinking democracy, Roh also talked the same: “[t]he new administration that I shall lead will completely repudiate any authoritarian attitude towards the people.” Similarly, in his inaugural Presidential Address, he declared: “there is a strong wind of change blowing over the country,” and added: the “day when freedoms and human rights could be slighted in the name of economic growth and national security has ended….” After winning the 1988 election, the conservatives and their allies (especially Kim Young-sam) would continue to rule democratically until the historic election of long-time opposition leader, Kim Dae-jung, in 1997.
In addition to the new authoritarian-democratic transition theory, another engaging and provocative argument has been put forward by one of the authors. In a forthcoming piece on South Korea’s weakly institutionalized party system, Wong expounds on the contention (made in “Strength to Concede”) that “Decades of state-led industrialization and poverty reduction also tend to incubate a vibrant middle class with moderate and even conservative political leanings.” He flushes this argument out to its logical end when he argues: “By having initiated political reform, the DJP neutralized the authoritarian-democracy cleavage which had unified the minjung opposition, if fleetingly, during the mid 1980s.” That the minjung movement’s legitimacy depended in large part on the existence of a repressive authoritarian apparatus; the DPJ’s decision to concede democratic reforms had the effect of co-opting the minjung movement.
Furthermore, and with plenty of implications for those researching the history and structure of Korea’s party system, Wong adds: “Initiating democratic reform also allowed the DJP to undermine any potential ideological or programmatic coherence within the opposition and opposition parties.” The transition “left [opposition parties] scrambling for salient cleavages with which to appeal to voters; meanwhile, the incumbent ruling party postured as a non-ideological, non-programmatic, catch-all party.” In other words: the DPJ molded itself as the equivalent to Japan’s postwar Liberal Democratic Party (LDP; the “catch all” party).
For the Koreanists at Sino-NK currently doing work on party systems, authoritarian legacies, and Korean domestic politics more generally, the two pieces offer plenty to ponder.
 Joseph Wong, “South Korea’s Weakly Institutionalized Party System,” (forthcoming). Cited with permission.