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Self-Enforcing Democracy


  • 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.

Suggested Citation

  • James D. Fearon, 2011. "Self-Enforcing Democracy," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 126(4), pages 1661-1708.
  • Handle: RePEc:oup:qjecon:v:126:y:2011:i:4:p:1661-1708

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