Accessing the State: Executive Constraints and Credible Commitment in Dictatorships

Anne Meng (University of Virginia)

Abstract: A central finding from research on authoritarian regimes is that institutionalized forms of dictatorship tend to be the most stable. A key assumption underlying this argument is that institutions can always credibly constrain autocratic leaders. This article examines this assumption by examining how and when certain institutions can provide commitment power in dictatorships. I argue that institutions successfully constrain leaders only when they provide other elites with access to the state, thereby empowering potential challengers and limiting the amount of discretion the leader has over power and resources. I formalize this argument in a game theoretic model where the implementation of executive constraints functions to shift the future distribution of power in favor of elites, alleviating commitment problems by enhancing elites’ ability to overthrow the leader in future periods. I show that leaders are likely to place constraints on their own authority when they enter power weak and susceptible to being deposed. Even if the leader receives a particularly “bad” draw of weakness in the first period and is, on average, much stronger, the need to alleviate commitment problems in the first period swamp future considerations.

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