Book Summary Topic Analyses

Constraining Dictatorship: From Personalized Rule to Institutionalized Regimes

Constraining Dictatorship is a masterfully executed book that weaves in empirical analysis made to explain how executive constraints on autocratic leaders emerge, and the effects of institutionalization on a regime.

“Any regime- whether democratic or authoritarian- can have institutions that constrain executive power. […] Institutional constraints are most effective when they empower specific political actors who can check the authority of the president.”

Incredibly thorough with strong methodological procedures such as viewing regime institutionalization as a dependent or independent variable, or with even theoretical approaches, Anne Meng, an assistant professor in the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia, compares exemplary cases to promote the question of whether executive constraints foster stability and leadership. 

As she examines all 46 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa she asks: Does constrained power last longer than that of regimes of unconstrained authority? 

Before we explore the five main ideas Meng tackles, here is how Meng defines some terms for her analysis: 

  • A regime is “ the set of rules, norms, and institutions that govern how the government is run [that] determine [how] leaders enter and exit the office”
  • Regime institutionalization is “the creation of rules and procedures that structure the distribution of power and resources within the ruling coalition”

To qualify an authoritarian regime:  

  • An authoritarian regime is “a country in which executives do not come to power through competitive national elections” 
  • An autocracy is a country that violates these criteria: 
  1. The executive is selected by either a popular vote or an election committee (ex. The Electoral College in the US)
  2. The legislative is elected either directly or indirectly by popular election
  3. Multiple political parties are legally allowed to exist in the regime and legislature 
  4. There has been alternation in the parties in power

Now let’s dive into her arguments and hypotheses!

1. Why do Leaders Institutionalize?

First, the problem of autocratic rule is commitment and being plagued by “a fundamental paradox: extremely powerful governments cannot credibly commit to share power with or distribute rents to elites, opposition groups, or larger segments of society”. As these problems arise, the biggest threat to the leader himself becomes his people in the government – like credibility issues affecting the ability to maintain support – hindering collective action in the government. 

To address this, leaders institutionalize, by creating a “nominally democratic institution that can serve as “forums” for elite coordination”, Meng claims, however, that if leaders provide elites with direct access to key government offices, then can commitments be sustained and self-enforcing.

Dictators institutionalize to stabilize their own rule. 

2. What are the causes of regime institutionalization?

Meng uses three strategies in her analysis: one, comparing founding presidents with their successors; two, by comparing leaders within the set of post-independence regimes; third, by comparing leaders who took power through coup d’etats versus ones that did not.

“Hypothesis 1: Initially strong autocratic leaders are less likely to institutionalize their regimes.”

Meng compares different leaders and how they rose to power. She compares founding presidents, strong nationalist leaders, coup leaders, and rebel group leaders- leaders that were initially strong at the start- to demonstrate that they were less likely to institutionalize. For example, founding presidents were less likely to create strict succession policies or term limits and rebel group leaders were only creating temporary independence goals that became replaced by challenges to how power gets distributed. 

3.  What are the consequences of institutionalization on autocratic stability?

This section focuses on estimating the effects of institutionalization on leader outcomes.

Meng’s approach here is important: she differentiates between initially strong and initially weak leaders when looking at the consequences of institutionalization because different leaders make different decisions. She measures leader stability depending on term length and the number of coup attempts faced during the term. 

“Hypothesis 1: Institutionalization has a positive effect on regime stability, conditional on leader weakness”

Certain leaders that are already quite strong going into office don’t require regime institutionalization; however, weak leaders must institutionalize to maintain their position in office. Therefore, institutionalization does indeed promote a more stable regime in that institutionalization helps promote more peaceful leadership transitions and that the government suffers fewer coup attempts. 

Figure 1. What is the effect of institutionalization on regime stability?

Note. Adapted from Constraining Dictatorship (p.191), by A. Meng, 2020, Cambridge University Press. Copyright 2020 by Cambridge University Press.

Regime institutionalization stabilizes an authoritarian government better than adopting an official democratic institution. 

4. What are the consequences of institutionalization on leadership succession? 

This section focuses on estimating the effects of institutionalization on regime outcomes (leadership succession and regime survival).

Meng reiterates that the way dictatorships are structured with the lack of election mechanisms inherently makes leadership succession difficult, and elections themselves are meant to sustain an incumbent regime. Therefore, peaceful succession to power is at times unpredictable. She argues that only certain types of rules are effective in promoting peaceful leadership succession. Policies that remove any uncertainty like constitutional amendments are the most effective because that means elites have a stake in maintaining the existing regime to “reap rewards from the succession order”. 

“Hypothesis 1: Regimes that have a constitutional succession rule are more likely to have peaceful transfers of power”

As mentioned previously, dictators institutionalize to stabilize their own rule, rather than succession politics. According to Meng, however, regimes with constitutional amendments that specify the leadership succession process undergo more peaceful transitions. She provides the three mechanisms of formal succession rules:

  1. Provides certainty and clarity
  2. Transforms conflict over succession into a dynamic process where elites can compete for power peacefully 
  3. Prevents incumbents from reneging on promises made to their designated successors 

Figure 2. What is the effect of regime institutionalization on leadership succession?

Note. Adapted from Constraining Dictatorship (p.215), by A. Meng, 2020, Cambridge University Press. Copyright 2020 by Cambridge University Press.

“Hypothesis 2: Regimes that have an appointed de facto successor are more likely to have peaceful transfers of power”

Meng explains that the stable appointment of a vice-president or prime minister can also contribute to peaceful transitions- appointing an heir empowers elites and incentivizes the successor to preserve the existing regime. 

“Hypothesis 3: Regimes that have term limits are not more likely to have peaceful transfers of power than those who do not.”

Again, policies that remove any uncertainty are the most effective. Term limits, however, don’t work because they do not identify an alternative leader nor help hold an incumbent accountable. 

” Constitutional rules matter, not because they exist on paper, but only when they reshape political power.”


While we consider the implications of institutionalization on regime stability, it becomes evident that adherence to formal rules and policies promote predictability and legitimacy of a regime, which results in a more durable government.

By Jennifer Wen

Staff Writer, Extemper's Bible.

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