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Moral hazard of repression

I HAVE lost count of the number of times I have made references to Milan W Svolik’s seminal book, The Politics of Authoritarian Rule. It is difficult to ignore it in a country like Zimbabwe as it provides a useful framework of analysis and great insight into the unfolding political events and processes.

Editor’s Memo,Dumisani Muleya

In fact, it is now even more relevant after this week’s dramatic military takeover which has thrown the country into uncharted territory and a vortex of political uncertainty. The maelstrom could either lead to a successful or botched transition. That is why cool heads and strategic thinkers are required now more than ever before to take the country out of this dangerous turmoil towards recovery and prosperity.

What drives politics in dictatorships? Svolik says authoritarian regimes must resolve two fundamental conflicts.
Dictators face threats from the masses over which they rule — the problem of authoritarian control.

Secondly, they face a threat from the elites with whom dictators rule — the problem of authoritarian power-sharing.

Using the tools of game theory, Svolik explains why some dictators establish personal autocracy and stay in power for decades; why elsewhere leadership changes are regular and institutionalised; why some dictatorships are ruled by soldiers and indeed why many authoritarian regimes maintain regime-sanctioned political parties; and why a country’s authoritarian past casts a long shadow over its prospects for democracy.

Svolik complements these and other historical case studies with the statistical analysis on institutions, leaders and ruling coalitions across dictatorships from 1946 to 2008. The use of repression by dictators to maintain control and influence is usually effective, but potentially damning. Repressing elite dissent or pressure from the masses below does not come without a cost, what Svolik describes as the “moral hazard in authoritarian repression”.

Empowering repressive agents, that is the military and other security forces, equips them with the resources to both suppress opposition and overthrow the regime itself if necessary — something that has happened regularly down through history.

That is what is currently happening in Zimbabwe. Mugabe gave the military all the wherewithal to suppress the opposition since 1980, starting with Zapu, then Zum and across the MDC after 2000. Now the same military is using those means to try to topple him.

Svolik says there is an inherent trade-off to the use of repressive agents to maintain power and control. As reliance on repression increases, the possibility that the military will gain a preponderance of power over the system of government rises.

In the constant struggle for power and control, Svolik says three regimes of interaction between the government and the military may emerge: “Perfect political control”, where the party or political leader is in firm charge of events, “military tutelage”, in which the military has the dominant guiding hand, and “brinkmanship”, a highly contentious stage where the government’s control is contested by the military.

So Zimbabwe has moved from perfect political control to tutelage and now brinkmanship. It is during such times of brinksmanship when the relationship between the ruling elite and the top military brass is particularly contentious, that the moral hazard of authoritarian politics becomes a serious issue as the probability of commanders opting to undertake a coup increases dramatically.

In the past two years, I have repeatedly warned in this column that brinkmanship was inevitably coming to Zimbabwe. Now we have arrived there.

In this context, it means that during uncertain times there is inevitably a move toward brinkmanship as power struggles intensify and leadership positions shuffle. In the current eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation over succession, Mugabe this week blinked first as Zimbabwe Defence Forces commander General Constantino Chiwenga remained stone-faced.

Chiwenga has taken a daring move and now has the upper hand, but it remains to be seen who will eventually prevail as negotiations to end this week’s military intervention crisis continue.

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