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A great volume of knowledge about authoritarian regimes and revolutions has been amassed. Using that scientific knowledge, what is the best algorithm to bring down such a regime without much (any, if possible) bloodshed? Is there a recipe, to begin with? Or is the best strategy just to sit and do nothing hoping it will go away by itself (for example, Karimov died and the power in Uzbekistan was transferred to the relatively reformist successor Shavkat Mirziyoyev, no bloody revolutions; Egypt underwent a violent revolution, nothing changed)?

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    Scientific knowledge in political science tends to be more aspirational than actual. – agc Apr 15 at 9:04
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    It wouldn't surprise me if it turns out to be the least bloodiest "revolutions" are palace coups by a future dictator. But there are exceptions both ways. – Sjoerd Apr 17 at 19:42
  • The answers will be correlational, and the correlations probably vary with time too. – Fizz Apr 18 at 3:14
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    Please clarify if you mean "topple an authoritarian regime and replace it with another one" or "change the entire society such that authoritarian regimes can no longer be an emergent property of them". Further, if the authoritarian regime is a good one, where society is happy and the monarch or whoever is highly regarded , do you accept "do not topple" as a possible "most bloodless" answer? – Frank Apr 21 at 6:11
  • @Frank "Emergent property"? – Sergey Zolotarev Apr 21 at 6:29
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+100

It should be obvious, that there will be no conclusive answers here, only some options, because if there was an effective way to do that, the last century would have looked quite different. The main problem is the word "bloodless", which kind of narrows it down to two options:

1.

You convince the dictator's power base that democratic transition would be better for all (or them...).

Although it might appear different on a superficial level, there are no "true autocrats", or to put it differently: Nobody rules alone.
Dictators have a power base that usually consists of a number of key figures which they have to keep happy for the exact purpose of not being toppled by them. A great number of these key figures will for obvious reasons be military.
If you want to topple the dictator without bloodshed or at least no blood spilled other than his, there is no other way than doing what Philipp suggested in his answer: Talk to the generals. As long as the military is loyal, there will for sure be no bloodless transition of power.

There are countless modern examples, but I prefer the old ones: The Praetorian Guard was maybe the most infamous "organisation" that can be held as an example for the necessity to involve those key figures in your plans.
The amount of meddling in political affairs done by them is quite ridiculous and includes the toppling and assassination of several roman emperors. If you wanted to restore the Roman Republic without starting another civil war, you'd better get them on your side.

The big problem with this approach is: Why would those people want a transition to democracy instead of taking the dictators place (which tends to be what happens most of the time in reality...)?

2.

You convince the dictator or his successor.

Not all autocrats are crazy maniacs who want to establish a dynasty of successors. Not all of their successors are crazy maniacs who want to continue their predecessors legacy.

Before Franco, the dictator of Spain, died he had designated Prince Juan Carlos as his successor to rule as a monarch. After Franco's death, Juan Carlos facilitated a transition to a constitutional monarchy.

Depending on whom you ask, you will hear Atatürk, the father of the modern Turkish Republic, being described either as a great hero or a vile dictator. This depends on whether the person you ask likes the vast reforms he managed to enact by maintaining a rather firm grip on power.
In the end however he did not leave behind a dictatorship but a sometimes more and sometimes less stable republic.

Therefore you could try to convince the dictator or his successor that HE could be the one remembered for leading his nation into a modern golden age of democracy and freedom...and good luck with that. As said in the beginning: If it were so easy, the 20th century would have been quite different.

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Growth of the middle class. If the autocracy is successful and the country develops and grows richer, eventually a strong middle class is formed and calls for more opportunities to participate in the decision-making process. Steadily the state would grant more and more powers to elected bodies.

This is basically what happened in the West and some of the East Asian countries. Democracy cannot function without the middle class - the people who pay more in taxes than receive from the government. The middle class is also the economic class that creates the most new jobs and businesses, leading to greater economic stability and better opportunity for others.This gives people better access to education and resources, which helps others get involved in decision-making processes and reduces the power of potential autocrats.

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  • Re "the people who generate wealth": is "the" necessary? Not every person who "generates wealth" is middle-class. – agc Apr 21 at 9:41
  • I'd knock out the "wealth generation" bit and instead give some more historical examples, starting with the way that middle class traders originally displaced the feudal power structure. The Industrial Revolution in the UK was largely driven by a disenfranchised middle class who then demanded electoral reform (to oversimplify a complicated story). The history of Spain and Taiwan in the 1970s also provides examples of middle-class growth leading to liberal democracy. – Paul Johnson Apr 21 at 13:21
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    Didn't Libya have a middle class before descending into chaos and war? Same for Syria. It may be necessary but not sufficient. – Ivana Apr 21 at 22:13
  • @Ivana I think the point is that it needs a strong middle class that is free to make good economic and job decisions. Libya had a strong middle class, but the leadership was overthrown and the nation was partially torn apart by Islamic extremist and other groups (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libyan_Civil_War_(2014%E2%80%93present)). In Syria, the middle class was dwindling as far back as 2015 according to some sources (ft.com/content/4aea5cc4-f96a-11e4-ae65-00144feab7de) due to rebels and loyalists alike antagonizing the middle class, leading to further instability. – Tyler Mc Apr 24 at 16:37
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The Arab Spring in the early 2010s allowed us to see how democratic revolutions turn out in present times.

While Tunisia and Egypt experienced a relatively bloodless transfers of power (Egypt didn't get much democracy in the end, but that's a different story), others like Libya and Syria experienced devastating civil wars which go on to this day.

Looking at what these different outcomes have in common, an important factor seems to be whether or not the military is loyal to the regime. If the military is willing to back the regime and use violence against protesters, then the revolution either dies down (like it happened in Bahrain) or escalates into a civil war. If the military sides with the protesters and refuses to suppress them through violence, then democratic reforms are possible.

Conclusion: If you want to change an authoritarian regime, talk to the generals.

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There isn't really an answer to this question, because the question presumes that the term 'authoritarian regime' points at a uniform, singular thing, which it decidedly doesn't. It's much like asking the question: "How can I win against a professional athlete?" That seems like a sensible question at first glance, until we realize that winning against a professional basketball player is different from winning against a professional gymnast or a professional fencer, and that no one has actually specified whether we are trying to beat them at their own sport, or at some alternate sport (like curling), or at (say) a game of chess. How do I beat Simone Biles at curling or LeBron James at chess? Damned if I know, but I sincerely doubt there is one unique strategy that accomplishes both.

Authoritarian regimes run the gamut. There are Leftist authoritarian regimes like the corporatist USSR or the North Korean Juche system; there are Rightist authoritarian regimes like the Fascist regimes of the 1930s and the modern Russian regime under Putin. Authoritarian regimes might be based in military power, religious dogmatism, economic control, domination through surveillance and information, or any combination of those. The only thing authoritarian regimes have in common is a top-down hierarchical ordering that concentrates power in the hands of an individual or small group, and clearly the goal of regime change is to displace that individual or small group and replace them with something else. But a religious ruler like the King of Saudi Arabia rules by different mechanisms than a militaristic ruler like Bashar al-Assad of Syria. And what source does this regime change attempt have? A popular uprising? A small rebellious faction under a charismatic leader? An external nation trying to uproot a regime for their own purposes? This too changes things.

The only thing close to a 'bloodless' revolution we've seen historically was the Indian independence movement under Mahatma Gandhi, and that was only bloodless in the sense that Gandhi's followers (mostly) refrained from attacking the British. There was plenty of bloodshed throughout the rest of the Indian push for independence. One might credit Martin Luther King with a similar (if smaller scale) regime change in the US to pass civil rights laws that ended the authoritarian tendencies of Southern 'Jim Crow' states. We could also look at the "People Power Movement" in the Philippines, which avoided bloodshed mainly because the US convinced then-ruler Marcos to abandon power rather than use military force against non-violent protesters. But that only worked, arguably, because of the Philippines' close connections to the US: an ex-territory with a prominent US military presence. In other authoritarian regimes, non-violent protests have simply been crushed, or their leaders 'disappeared' (whisked away in secret to be imprisoned, tortured, and/or killed).

Non-violent protest is an effective tool under certain conditions, but it is hardly a cure-all, and entails some significant risks.

The thing to keep in mind here — and this is perhaps the other uniform feature of authoritarian regimes — is that authoritarians identify themselves as and with the nation as a whole. An authoritarian leader does not distinguish between patriotism and self-interest: what's bad for him is bad for the country. Trying to unseat an authoritarian leader (even for the best and most reasonable of reasons) will be viewed indistinguishably as an attack on the leader and an attack on the nation, and such an authoritarian leader will attack personally with the full power of his position: power which he sees as a natural and inviolate extension of himself. It's the 'royal we' taken to extremes — I am the country and the country is me — and such a person will only willingly give up his position in the same dire straights that he might willingly give up an arm or a leg. Convincing such a leader to release power without excess bloodshed is a difficult and context dependent task.

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  • What about South Afrika? – Ivana Apr 21 at 22:17
  • @Ivana: maybe, but there was so much state violence in that process I have a hard time thinking of it as 'bloodless'. – Ted Wrigley Apr 21 at 23:17
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The flaw with this question is that it assumes there's a proven "universal recipe".

I strongly doubt that. The world has 190 odd countries, some of which are true dictatorship. Overthrowing dictators has really come into play in the 20th century. Or at least, overthrowing dictators in a 20th century context (TV, radio, mass transport, large populations, large armies, now the internet and cellphones) is largely a post 1950 phenomenon.

There can't have been more than 20-30 or so popular overthrows of real honest-to-goodness dictators (I am discounting palace coups by wannabe dictators). Africa, a good storage spot for them, has trended towards gradually less flawed elections, rather than overthrows. Eastern Europe doesn't really count as its circumstances were driven by the collapse of the USSR, rather than local events, except in Rumania, where Ceaușescu wasn't quite willing to let go. And that one certainly wasn't bloodless. Places like South Korea and Taiwan evolved, from military dictatorships to fully open elections. Adpol's answer is spot on, but doesn't concern an overthrow and is predicated on a measure of actual economic success, something that isn't a given in many dictatorships.

Of the actual bunch of candidate overthrows to examine, there is a wide range of circumstances and outcomes that makes it very hard to conclusively say "well, this worked in country X, it will work in country Y".

  • Marcos in Phillipines
  • the Arab Spring countries
  • Post-Franco opening up in Spain
  • Duvalier overthrow in Haiti
  • Shah overthrow in Iran
  • Ceaușescu in Rumania
  • Bashir in Sudan

Not all of these are bloodless, no, but that would limit them even more.

Now contrast some of what worked with was tried, and emphatically, hasn't worked, in Venezuela. Or Syria. Is it different? Not necessarily, but the outcome ended up different because the combination of the dear leader, military and population, spiced up with country's history with free or not free governments, culture and religion ended up making a difference. And a lot of it still depends how a few individuals, starting with the despot, top military and top opposition react in the final days and hours. Not to mention the support or opposition from influential foreign countries.

While Assad could have taken the coward's way out and let his people free, he courageously set about murdering them in their thousands, with nerve gas, no less, with the kind help of Brother Putin and encouraged by his glorious father's example.

That's just a very different script from Tunisia or Egypt (not that Egypt isn't back to dictatorship now) and its outcome was driven by a very small number of people, none of which were in the opposition.

Beyond a trite "the people need to be fed up and ready to do something about it" there is very little hard commonality in what worked. *

The process is completely non-deterministic and has way too many variables and too few datapoints to draw firm conclusions. What works in some circumstances may very well end up a total bloodbath and a failure in others.

I challenge for example any "methods" to be applicable to North Korea.

* the world can offer some assistance, among other things by:

  • sanctions against the regime, undercutting its power base. Despots love luxury and general love their toys. Take them away and alternative modes of government seem more attractive.
  • offer of sanctuary. A cornered rat will fight much harder than one who can slink away. France offered Duvalier a way out, AFAIK without any self-interest in doing so. The world should probably balance the interest of justice in something like the ICC vs. offering amnesty for expedience and to facilitate peaceful transitions.
  • moral condemnation of the despot by religious leaders, when applicable.
  • dangling economic sweeteners like EU membership for Serbia
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Straight off the top of my head, it seems that the most effective and bloodless way is to either, assuming you are in a democracy, vote in different people. In a pure and absolute democracy (where everyone votes on everything) you can just convince people to vote for something different or even commit voter fraud. (By just throwing in a couple million additional "people" that don't exist) However, since you are talking about an authoritarian regime, the best way would probably be the route you described, by just waiting for the old dictator to die and a better replacement to step in the top job.

Another possibility is to commit a small coup, in which you simply kill the old leader, and instill a new one. However, history suggests that this is not the case. A good video to watch on something like this would be The Rules for Rulers it provides a good overview of that sort of thing. It is extremely difficult to keep that kind of thing quiet if you don't have the military behind you, hence replacing one authoritarian regime with another. The main problem is that there is no scientific way to do this sort of thing, as people are not machines, and will often do something that you do not want them to do. Another good way to look at this is to study Game Theory, which deals with what people do in situations.

I would just give a comment and not an answer, but I don't have the reputation.

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