The Politics of Local Control in Electoral Autocracies

My dissertation examines whether local state capacity empowers or constrains electoral autocrats and opposition parties as they compete for votes.  I argue that ‘local control’ – who wins local elections – determines how incumbents and opposition parties compete for votes. The prevailing consensus characterizes autocrats as hegemonic given their control of state resources and rules of the game. Opposition parties are not thought to be a threat. Using evidence from Tanzania, I challenge these stylized facts. I show that opposition local control gives  these marginalized parties the tools they need to govern their way out of the margins, increasing political competition and changing how autocrats manage it.   

Incumbents are only hegemonic if they retain local control. If incumbents lose local elections, they can no longer use local capacity as a ‘stick’ against opposition voters. I find that local resources are only used to sanction opposition voters in incumbent-controlled areas. Instead opposition parties use local capacity as a ‘carrot’ to win over voters. I show that opposition parties improve local service delivery. They invest in local capacity to maintain their autonomy from the center. Local control gives opposition parties tools to win support and outmaneuver attempts to suppress them. This allows them to build stable bases of support and emerge as a real threat. My job market paper explores distributive strategies by local control and how these influence opposition support.

Loss of local control is therefore dangerous for electoral autocrats. I argue that this loss of local control makes it more likely that incumbents use violence and legalistic manipulation to suppress opposition parties. I show that state violence leads to increased polarization and communal violence in affected areas. By both pathways, local capacity under opposition control weakens and destabilizes an incumbent’s hold on power. 

My dissertation challenges the functionalist view which dominates the study of authoritarian institutions by demonstrating that autocrats are indeed constrained by local institutions and opposition parties. I show that, rather than being purely tools that the autocrat uses to control rival elites, these institutions threaten regime durability by allowing opposition parties to win support and challenge electoral autocrats’ hold on power. This has important implications for how we understand the likelihood of democratic transition in these regimes. Furthermore, it suggests a democratic dividend of the wave of decentralization which created this local state capacity.

My dissertation relies on rigorous analysis of qualitative and quantitative data collected during 14 months of fieldwork. I draw on over 200 interviews, administrative data collected from ministries and subnational governments, and an original survey with experimental components. I exploit as-if random variation in the phasing of decentralization and geo-coded data on local public goods to demonstrate the importance of local capacity to autocrats’ electoral toolkit. I use in-depth interviews to trace the strategic ways politicians and bureaucrats exploit local capacity to win support. I exploit administrative data and interviews, leveraging within-unit variation and close elections where possible, to show the strategies available to ruling and opposition parties are determined by local control. Finally, I bring together surveys, election results and interviews to show how local control affects political competition and subnational regime type. 

I summarize and link to chapters of my dissertation below. You can read an annotated table of contents for the dissertation here. Chapters available upon request. 

  • Chapter 1 -  Introduction and Theory

    • This chapter introduces the central questions of the dissertation. I review existing literature on authoritarian politics and outline the argument of my dissertation. 

  • Chapter 2 - Case 

    • This chapter reviews the history of political competition and decentralization in Tanzania. I outline my case selection logic and qualitative methodology in this chapter.​ I introduce my subnational case studies. 

  • Chapter 3- Electoral Strategies under Incumbent Control  

    • This chapter characterizes the electoral strategies that the incumbent CCM and opposition parties employ in areas under incumbent control. 

  • Chapter 4 - Electoral Strategies under Opposition Control 

    • ​This chapter characterizes the electoral strategies that the CCM and opposition parties employ in areas under opposition control.

  • Chapter 5 - Local Control and Voter Calculus

    • This chapter explores how local control influences political competition.

      • My job market paper uses evidence from chapters 3, 4 and 5 and can be found here

  • Chapter 6 - Death & Taxes: Strategic Responses to Opposition Control 

    • ​In this chapter, I trace how incumbents respond to loss of control and how opposition parties resist. 

  • Chapter 7 - Local Democracy? Local Autocracy? 

    • ​In the final empirical chapter, I show how differences in local control and strategic responses thereto create substantial differences in ‘subnational regime type’, which has important implications for support for the ruling and opposition parties.

  • Chapter 8 - Conclusion 

    • The final chapter of the dissertation reiterates the theoretical argument and summarizes the
      evidence presented in the dissertation. This chapter considers the generalizability of the argument with reference to crossnational data on decentralization and opposition support. I conclude by considering the implications of the research project for existing literature and policymakers interested in promoting democracy.

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