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Authoritarianism and Democracy in Muslim-majority Countries: Rentier States and Regional Diffusion
Paper Proposal Text :
This paper uses rentier state model to explain the exceptionally high rate of autocracies among Muslim-majority countries. It responds some recent critiques of the rentier state model, and argues that merging the rentier state model with the regional diffusion model fixes some problems of both models and is an effective way of responding their critics.
According to Freedom House (2012), among countries with populations higher than 200,000, the rate of electoral democracies is 56 percent (98/174) worldwide, whereas it is only 22 percent (11/49) in Muslim-majority countries. Why is the rate of democracy disproportionately low among Muslim-majority countries? I argue that the combined effects of rentier states and regional diffusion provide the best explanation.
The rentier state model explains the links between the rent revenue, limited taxation, and authoritarianism. The state control over extensive recourse rents maintains the rulers with both incentive and power to reject people’s participation in governance. Some scholars argue that in a rentier state, citizens may not demand governmental accountability or political participation because they do not substantially pay taxes. This is not convincing because the people can ask for accountability and claim representation based on their share in the national treasury (i.e., the rents) even if they are not taxed at all. Moreover, beyond taxation, the modern state intervenes in various aspects of people’s lives, from family law to public education, which makes representation increasingly important. The impact of limited taxation, therefore, is not on people’s lack of will to participate in politics, but on their power to do so. In a rentier state, limited taxation minimizes the people’s leverage to keep the rulers accountable. In this regard, it is the rulers, not the people, who would assert, “no representation without taxation.”
The rentier state model explains authoritarianism in Muslim-majority rentier states, but not in their non-rentier counterparts. The regional diffusion approach addresses this shortcoming. This approach takes democratization and authoritarianism as region-wide phenomena rather than isolated events in separate countries. Analyzing the interactions within a region reveals how rentier states promote authoritarianism in their non-rentier neighbors, especially if the former are numerically, economically, and politically dominant over the latter.
Although geographical proximity and common borders are crucial in determining a “region,” non-geographical factors such as military and political alliances, economic and sportive organizations, and shared languages and religions also play a part. Political regimes in the same region affect each other through diplomatic relations, cross-border media broadcasting, and socio-cultural exchanges. Given these effects, the transition to and consolidation of authoritarianism or democracy are largely regional processes.
Muslim-majority countries should be analyzed as multiple regions, rather than a single entity, particularly on the issue of authoritarianism and democracy. There are two regions that include almost exclusively authoritarian Muslim-majority countries: the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and Former Soviet Republics—or, more specifically, Central Asia. As a result of the recent “Arab Spring,” Tunisia has become the only democracy in MENA and Central Asia. Muslim-majority countries in three other regions include democracies, mostly following regional trends. Thus, the gap between the average rate of democracies worldwide and that among Muslim-majority countries is mainly a result of authoritarianism in MENA and Central Asia.
The rentier state model helps us understand why MENA and Central Asia are almost exclusively authoritarian. About two thirds of the states in MENA and half of them in Central Asia are rentier states, and non-rentier states in these two regions have been under the influence of their rentier and authoritarian neighbors. Additionally, Central Asia is a sub-region of Former Soviet Republics, where the rate of authoritarianism is second only to MENA. The Soviet legacy, inter-state and intra-state conflicts, and rentierism seem to be complementary factors in this situation. The leading country of the region, Russia, is a semi-rentier state as explained later.
Muslim-majority countries have higher percentages of rentier states in Former Soviet Republics (50%), the Asia-Pacific (29%), and Sub-Saharan Africa (25%), in comparison to the regional percentages of rentier states in these regions (25%, 10%, and 18%, respectively). This also helps explain why rates of Muslim-majority democracies are relatively lower than the regional averages.
I calculated the percentages of hydrocarbon and mineral rents, non-rentier taxes, and other revenues (e.g., foreign aid) in 170 government’s total revenue. I primarily used International Monetary Fund’s “Article IV Staff Reports” for each country and completed the data by various other sources, including country reports of the Economist Intelligence Unit, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, and the U.S. Geological Survey. Following Giacomo Luciani, I defined a state as rentier if hydrocarbon and mineral rents constituted over 40 percent of its total revenue.
My data indicates that 25 out of 28 rentier states are authoritarian. Muslim-majority countries (in bold letters) constitute about three quarters (20/28) of all rentier states, although they are only over a quarter (49/174) of all countries in the world. More specifically, 14 of 20 Muslim-majority rentier states are in MENA and Central Asia, which is crucial to assess extremely high rates of autocracies in these regions.
My explanation, based on rentierism and regionalism, is neither economically nor geographically deterministic. Although structural factors are important, human agency can still play a significant role in regime change by redesigning the relationship between the state and its citizens. Some countries have relatively higher democracy scores despite being rentier states (e.g., Malaysia, Nigeria, and Kuwait). Non-rentier states in MENA (e.g., Lebanon) and Central Asia (e.g., Kyrgyzstan) are likely to democratize in the near future. Region-wide transformations are also possible. Democratic transformations may take time among Muslim-majority countries, many of which are young states. In general, the breaking of the vicious circle of authoritarianism requires an initiative by a pioneering country. Japan played such a role, leading the “progressive diffusion of export-oriented models” in East Asia. Democratization in influential countries, such as Egypt in MENA and Kazakhstan in Central Asia, may trigger a chain reaction in these regions.