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Self-Enforcing Democracy


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  • James D. Fearon


If democracy is to have the good effects said to justify it, it must be self-enforcing in that incumbents choose to hold regular, competitive elections and comply with the results. I consider models of electoral accountability that allow rulers a choice of whether to hold elections and citizens whether to rebel. When individuals observe diverse signals of government performance, coordination to pose a credible threat of protest if the ruler "shirks" is problematic. The convention of an electoral calendar and known rules can provide a public signal for coordinating rebellion if elections are suspended or blatantly rigged, while the elections themselves aggregate private observations of performance. Two threats to this solution to political moral hazard are considered. First, a ruling faction that controls the army may prefer to fight after losing an election, and ex post transfers may not be credible. A party system in which today's losers may win in the future can restore self-enforcing democracy, though at the cost of weaker electoral control. Second, subtle electoral fraud can undermine the threat of coordinated opposition that maintains elections. I show that when there are organizations in society that can observe and announce a signal of the extent of popular discontent, the incumbent may prefer to commit to fair elections over an "accountable autocratic" equilibrium in which public goods are provided but costly rebellions periodically occur. Copyright 2011, Oxford University Press.

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Article provided by Oxford University Press in its journal The Quarterly Journal of Economics.

Volume (Year): 126 (2011)
Issue (Month): 4 ()
Pages: 1661-1708

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Handle: RePEc:oup:qjecon:v:126:y:2011:i:4:p:1661-1708

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Cited by:
  1. Pierre Salmon, 2013. "Horizontal competition in multilevel governmental settings," Working Papers, HAL hal-00830876, HAL.
  2. Aditya Bhave & Christopher Kingston, 2010. "Military coups and the consequences of durable de facto power: the case of Pakistan," Economics of Governance, Springer, Springer, vol. 11(1), pages 51-76, February.
  3. Kawanaka, Takeshi & Asaba, Yuki, 2011. "Establishing electoral administration systems in new democracies," IDE Discussion Papers, Institute of Developing Economies, Japan External Trade Organization(JETRO) 305, Institute of Developing Economies, Japan External Trade Organization(JETRO).
  4. Gehlbach, Scott & Keefer, Philip, 2011. "Investment without democracy: Ruling-party institutionalization and credible commitment in autocracies," Journal of Comparative Economics, Elsevier, vol. 39(2), pages 123-139, June.
  5. Londregan, John & Vindigni, Andrea, 2006. "Voting as a Credible Threat," Papers, Princeton University, Research Program in Political Economy 10-04-2006, Princeton University, Research Program in Political Economy.
  6. Shaun Larcom & Mare Sarr & Tim Willems, 2014. "Dictators Walking the Mogadishu Line: How Men Become Monsters and Monsters Become Men," HiCN Working Papers, Households in Conflict Network 176, Households in Conflict Network.
  7. Sang-Hyun Kim, 2014. "On the Optimal Social Contract: Agency Costs of Self-Government," University of East Anglia Applied and Financial Economics Working Paper Series, School of Economics, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK. 059, School of Economics, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK..
  8. Carlos Scartascini & Mariano Tommasi & Ernesto Stein, 2010. "Veto Players and Policy Trade-Offs- An Intertemporal Approach to Study the Effects of Political Institutions on Policy," Research Department Publications, Inter-American Development Bank, Research Department 4660, Inter-American Development Bank, Research Department.
  9. John Londregan & Andrea Vindigni, 2006. "Voting as a Credible Threat," Carlo Alberto Notebooks, Collegio Carlo Alberto 18, Collegio Carlo Alberto.
  10. Apolte, Thomas, 2013. "The supply of democracy explaining voluntary democratic transition," CIW Discussion Papers, University of Münster, Center for Interdisciplinary Economics (CIW) 6/2013, University of Münster, Center for Interdisciplinary Economics (CIW).
  11. Nakao, Keisuke, 2013. "How Rebellion Expands? From Periphery to Heartland," MPRA Paper 50546, University Library of Munich, Germany.


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