Local Control: How Opposition Support Constrains Electoral Autocrats

Studies conceptualize autocrats as central planners constrained in how much they can distribute but not where. Autocrats use punishment regimes to sanction disloyalty. In many electoral autocracies, local institutions are the infrastructure of reward and sanction, a legacy of decentralization in the 1980s and 1990s. I show that autocrats face subnational constraints on their ability to enforce punishment regimes. Using administrative and electoral data, interviews and a survey in Tanzania, I demonstrate that local control  -- who wins elected control of local institutions -- determines the autocrats’s ability to punish opposition support. I show incumbent local governments (LGs) punish opposition support while opposition LGs do not. As a result, survey respondents in opposition LGs fear community sanctions less. In these LGs, weakening the punishment regime increases opposition support. This suggests even small pockets of opposition constrain autocrats. This study demonstrates the importance of subnational politics in the study of autocracy.