CfP: Democracy and Authoritarianism: Rethinking the Boundary

Democracy and Authoritarianism: Rethinking the Boundary

16-17 November 2017, ENS de Lyon

Deadline: 31^st March 2017

The categories of democracy and authoritarianism have been constantly reassessed since the 1960s. Research by Juan J. Linz emphasised the multiplicity of forms of authoritarian regimes, considering variables such as limited pluralism and the lack of collective mobilisations (Linz, 2000). The end of the Cold War, the ‘Third Wave’ of democratisation and its successive disappointments have called into question the usefulness of prevailing typologies, as new studies examined the phenomenon of ‘electoral authoritarianism’ (Schedler 2006 ; 2013). Occupying a grey area between authoritarian and democratic regimes, drawing on forms of electoral legitimation, these ‘hybrid’ regimes are believed to be expanding (Diamond, 2002 ; Schedler, 2002). These observations have inspired new typologies and a wealth of terms such as ‘electoral democracy’, ‘semi-democracy’ or ‘competitive authoritarianism’ (Özbudun, 2011 ; 2015).

Although these studies have helpfully challenged the classical frameworks of comparative political analysis, their taxonomic approach suffers from limitations. Their typologies fail to explain regimes whose stabilisation is owed to their leaders’ skilfulness in navigating different registers of legitimation, or in highlighting select representative and participatory schemes to justify their authoritarian practices. Some researchers have therefore approached the incremental rapprochements – and the lingering distinctions – between authoritarian and democratic situations and ‘partial regimes’ through the lens of the changing relationships between politics and policies (Camau, Massardier, 2009).

This conference aims at rethinking the boundary between democracy and authoritarianism in light of their affinities and borrowings. We will not seek to classify regimes definitively, but explore the political uses of elements usually associated with democratic or authoritarian regimes as well as the transnational circulation of these apparatuses, with a particular attention to context.

Regarding the circulation of models, the transitology approach has yielded many books on international strategies of support to reforms and the ‘international dimension of democratisation’ (Whitehead, 1996). This considerable body of literature on ‘transition’ or ‘democratic consolidation’, which favours an evaluative, if not teleological approach, is marred by a number of blind spots and has been the target of severe criticism (Guilhot, Schmitter, 2000 ; Dobry, 2000 ; Wedel, 2001).

The rediscovery of the ‘promotion of authoritarianism’ has not necessarily resulted in a paradigm shift. Pro-democratic and pro-authoritarian strategies have been studied in parallel and thus considered as distinct and opposed (Vanderhill, 2014 ; Obydenkova, Libman, 2015). The relation between the two has been subject to little scrutiny, and so far essentially addressed in terms of circulation of knowledge between authoritarian governments (Heydemann, Leenders, 2011) or of the ‘unexpected effects’ of such policies (Börzel, 2015). Here we wish to move beyond the ideas that democratic regimes necessarily contribute to strengthening democracy abroad and that authoritarian regimes only draw inspiration from their peers, and adopt a more fine-grained view of the relation between the two strategies. This requires attention first to the dynamics of transnational circulation of government knowledge between different types of regimes, and second to the professionals that label regimes, defend or fight them, particularly on the international level. We will therefore analyse the actors, forms and contents of the promotion of democratic and authoritarian practices as well as the effects and blind spots of these efforts along several lines.

1. Identifying and labelling democratic and authoritarian regimes : competing classifications

While democracy promotion has become a major professional market since the Cold War (Guilhot, 2005), it peaked in the 1990s. This undertaking is embedded within broader, international-level dynamics of political and social engineering (regarding conflict management and resolution, State reform and human rights advocacy). It involves evaluations and rankings of regimes and practices by political ‘rating agencies’ (specialised NGOs, para-public organisations, think tanks). In this research area, we propose to study those who evaluate and promote democracy. This will require analysing the expansion and professionalisation of the market of indicators and rankings of degrees of democracy and the emergence of specialised expertise in election observation. Emphasis will be laid on the various professionals active in this labelling. Special attention will be devoted to symbolic and political struggles and to the fallout from these rankings.

2. Transnational circulations of ‘democratic’ and ‘authoritarian’ apparatuses

Another way to rethink the opposition between democracy and authoritarianism consists in investigating the transnational circulation of political regulation schemes and practices. Several scholars have shed light on the mechanisms underlying the propagation of peaceful and anti-authoritarian mobilisations, for instance during the wave of ‘colour revolutions’ (O’Beachàin & Polese, 2010 ; Petric, 2012). Western foundations have contributed to legitimating reformist elites (Dakowska, 2014 ; Guilhot, 2005), with the help of local NGOs and think tanks (Anguelova-Lavergne, 2012, Bigday, 2017). It is worth considering the ways in which this aid and its technical forms may be reproduced or subverted. Recent democracies can turn to international consulting, banking on their experience of ‘totalitarianism’ or their ‘post-authoritarian’ character to assert their competence (Pospieszna, 2014). Similarly, ‘electoral democracies’ and authoritarian regimes can develop self-promotion strategies by borrowing means of mobilisation, organisational forms or communication strategies from established democracies (Bank & Edel, 2015), drawing from what some experts have termed an ‘antidemocratic toolkit’ (Walker, 2016, p. 51). While the international dimension is clearly important, the transnational circulation of professionals and apparatuses and the contents of the practices being promoted deserve further investigation.

3. Registers of power legitimation
This research area will focus on the registers of legitimation used by the holders of power (underlining for instance the fight against foreign or domestic enemies, the defence of territorial integrity or people’s right to self-determination) (Schatz, 2009). Emphasis will be placed on discursive and ideological outputs and on the mobilisation of symbols and authoritarian pasts. These can be self-legitimating uses (for instance by rehabilitating a ‘father of the Nation’) but also de-legitimating ones (by denouncing all political opponents as heirs of the old regime). Contributors will offer comparative analyses of the ways in which those in power or with a claim to power use the concepts of nation, motherland, traditional values, denounce the ‘abuses’ of liberal democracy or even call for ‘non-liberal’ forms of democracy. Legitimation discourses and apparatuses should also be checked against their uses in practice. Hybrid attempts at legitimating the authorities in place by simultaneous recourse to democratic practices (elections, limited participatory mechanisms (see Allal, 2016) and authoritarian ideological constructs are found in various areas – North Africa, Turkey, Latin American and Central European countries.

These three research areas are in no way exclusive, and should serve as guidelines. We welcome proposals based on original and theoretically grounded empirical research, whose social science dimension must be explicit (political science, sociology, anthropology…). Proposals will be written in French and English and total 800 words max. They must include mentions of the empirical material used, the temporal and spatial framework of the research and state in which of the three research directions the paper is expected to fit.

Provisional schedule :

  • Deadline for submitting proposals : 31 March 2017
  • Selection of contributions : 15 May 2017
  • Deadline for submitting final papers : 15 October 2017

Proposals must be sent to the conference organisers at the following addresses :, dorota.dakowska[at], boris.gobille[at]


Allal A. (2016), « ‘‘Penser global, agir dans un bocal : Participation locale, régulation néo-libérale et situation autoritaire en Tunisie (2006-2010)’’ », Gouvernement et action publique, n°2, p. 153-181.
Anguelova-Lavergne D. (2012), « Think Tanks : Actors in the Transition to Global Politics. A Bulgarian Case Study », in : B. Petric (dir.), Democracy at Large : NGOs, Political Foundations, Think Tanks and International Organizations, Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan, p. 73‑96.
Bank A. & Edel M. (2015), « Authoritarian Regime Learning : Comparative Insights from the Arab Uprisings », GIGA Working Papers, 274.
Bigday M. (2017), Engagement intellectuel sous régime autoritaire. Les think-tankers biélorusses entre expertise et dissidence, Paris, Dalloz (à paraître).
Börzel Tanja A. (2015), « The noble west and the dirty rest ? Western democracy promoters and illiberal regional powers », Democratization, vol. 22, n°3, p. 519-535.
Camau M., Massardier G. (2009), « Introduction. Revisiter les régimes politiques », in : M. Camau, G., Massardier (dir.), Démocraties et autoritarismes. Fragmentation et hybridation des régimes, Paris : Karthala, p. 7-39.
Dakowska D. (2014), Le pouvoir des fondations : des acteurs de la politique étrangère allemande, Rennes : Presses universitaires de Rennes.
Diamond L. (2002), « Elections without democracy : Thinking about hybrid regimes », Journal of Democracy, 13(2), p. 21–35.
Dobry M. (2000), « Les voies incertaines de la transitologie : choix stratégiques, séquences historiques, bifurcations et processus de path dependence », Revue française de science politique, 50(4), p. 585‑614.
Guilhot N., Schmitter Ph. C. « De la transition à la consolidation. Une lecture rétrospective des democratization studies », Revue française de science politique, vol. 50, n°4-5, 2000, p. 615-632.
Guilhot N. (2005), The democracy makers, New York : Columbia University Press.
Heydeman S. et Leenders R. (2011), « Authoritarian Learning and Authoritarian Resilience : Regime Responses to the ‘Arab Awakening’ », Globalizations, 8 (5), p. 647-653.
Linz J. J. (2000), Totalitarian and authoritarian regimes (with a major new introduction). Boulder, CO : Lynne Rienner.
O’Beachàin D. et A. Polese (dir.) (2010), The Colour Revolutions in the Former Soviet Republics : Success and Failures, Abingdon & New York : Routledge.
Obydenkova A. et Libman A. (2015) (dir.), Autocratic and Democratic External Influences in Post-Soviet Eurasia, Farnham : Ashgate.
Özbudun E. (2011), « Authoritarian Regimes », in : B. Badie, D. Berg-Schlosser et L. Morlino, International Encyclopedia of Political Science, Los Angeles : SAGE.
Özbudun E. (2015), « Turkey’s Judiciary and the Drift Toward Competitive Authoritarianism », The International Spectator, 50(2), p. 42-55.
Petric B. (dir.) (2012), Democracy at Large : NGOs, Political Foundations, Think Tanks and International Organizations, Basingstoke, Hampshire : Palgrave Macmillan.
Pospieszna P., Democracy Assistance from the Third Wave : Polish Engagement in Belarus and Ukraine, University of Pittsburgh Press, 30 avril 2014.
Schatz E. (2009), « The Soft Authoritarian Tool Kit : Agenda-Setting Power in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan », Comparative Politics, 41(2), p. 203-222.
Schedler A. (2002), « Elections without democracy : The manu of manipulation », Journal of Democracy, 13(2), p. 36-50.
Schedler A. (2006), Electoral authoritarianism : The dynamics of unfree competition, Boulder, CO : Lynne Rienner.
Schedler A. (2013), The politics of uncertainty : sustaining and subverting electoral authoritarianism, Oxford : Oxford University Press.
Vanderhill R. (2014), « Promoting Democracy and Promoting Authoritarianism : Comparing the Cases of Belarus and Slovakia », Europe-Asia Studies, 66(2), p. 255-283.
Vanderhill R. (2013), Promoting authoritarianism abroad, Boulder, CO : Lynne Rienner.
Walker C. (2016), « The Hijacking of “Soft Power” », Journal of Democracy, vol. 27, n°1, p. 49-63.
Wedel J. (2001), Collision and Collusion : The Strange Case of Western Aid to Eastern Europe, 2e édition, New York, N.Y. : Palgrave.
Whitehead L. (dir.) (1996), The International Dimension of Democratization.

Author: Aisseco

Share This Post On