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How Civil Wars Start by Barbara F. Walter Book

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How Civil Wars Start by Barbara F. Walter Book Read Online And Epub File Download

Overview: A leading political scientist examines the dramatic rise in violent extremism around the globe and sounds the alarm on the increasing likelihood of a second civil war in the United States

“An imperative book for our time.”—Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist

“When one of the world’s leading scholars of civil war tells us that the United States stands at the brink of violent conflict, we should pay attention.”—Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, authors of How Democracies Die

Political violence rips apart several towns in southwest Texas. A far-right militia plots to kidnap the governor of Michigan and try her for treason. An armed mob of Trump supporters and conspiracy theorists storms the U.S. Capitol. Are these isolated incidents? Or is this the start of something bigger? Barbara F. Walter has spent her career studying civil conflict in places like Iraq and Sri Lanka, but now she has become increasingly worried about her own country.

Perhaps surprisingly, both autocracies and healthy democracies are largely immune from civil war; it’s the countries in the middle ground that are most vulnerable. And this is where more and more countries, including the United States, are finding themselves today. 

How Civil Wars Start by Barbara F. Walter  Book Read Online And Epub File Download More Ebooks Every Category For Go Ebooks Libaray Online Website.

How Civil Wars Start by Barbara F. Walter Book Read Online Chapter One


Noor was a high school sophomore in Baghdad when U.S. forces first attacked Iraq on March 19, 2003. At age thirteen, she had seen her country’s leader, Saddam Hussein, condemn U.S. president George W. Bush on TV for threatening war and had heard her family talking around the dinner table about a possible American invasion. Noor was a typical teenager. She loved Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys and Christina Aguilera. She would watch Oprah and Dr. Phil in her free time, and one of her favorite films was The Matrix. She couldn’t imagine U.S. soldiers in Baghdad—where life, though sometimes hard, had mainly been about hanging out with friends, walking to the park, and visiting her favorite animals at the zoo. To her, it just felt unreal.

But two weeks later, American soldiers arrived in her part of the city. The first sounds she heard were airplanes and then explosions late in the afternoon. She rushed up to the roof of their house, following her mother and sisters, not knowing what they would find. When she looked up at the sky, she saw armored vehicles floating under parachutes. “It was like a movie,” she said. A few days later, American soldiers walked down the street in front of her house, and Noor ran to the front door to watch them. She saw her neighbors also standing in their doorways, smiles on their faces. The soldiers smiled back, eager to talk to anyone who was willing. “Everybody was so happy,” Noor recalled. “There was suddenly freedom.” Less than a week later, on April 9, her fellow Iraqis descended on Firdos Square in central Baghdad, where they threw a rope over the enormous statue of Saddam Hussein, and, with the help of American soldiers, tore it down. Noor thought to herself, You know, we can have a new life. A better life.

Life under Saddam had been challenging. Noor’s father had been a government employee, yet like many other Iraqis, the family had little money. Saddam’s failed war against Iran in the 1980s had left Iraq poor and in debt, and things had gotten only worse in 1990 after he invaded Kuwait and economic sanctions were imposed. Noor’s family, like most Iraqi families, struggled with rampant inflation, a crumbling healthcare system, and shortages of food and medicine. They also lived in fear. Iraqis were forbidden to talk politics or to criticize their government. They came to believe that the walls had ears, and that Saddam’s security services were constantly watching. Saddam had been brutal to his enemies and rivals during his twenty-four-year reign. Iraqis who criticized the president, his entourage, or his Baath Party could be put to death. Journalists were executed or forced into exile. Some dissidents were imprisoned; others simply disappeared. People heard stories of how prisoners were tortured—their eyes gouged out, their genitals electrocuted—then killed via hanging, decapitation, or by firing squad.

But now the Americans had come, and eight months after Iraqi citizens dragged Saddam’s statue to the ground, U.S. soldiers found the fearsome dictator hiding in an eight-foot-deep hole near his hometown of Tikrit. He looked dirty and dazed. With Americans in charge, most Iraqis believed that their country would be reborn and that they would experience the freedom and opportunities available in Western countries. Families dreamed of experiencing true democracy. The military, and perhaps the judiciary, would be reformed. Corruption would end. Wealth, including oil profits, would be distributed more equally. Noor and her family were excited for independent newspapers and satellite TV. “We thought we would breathe freedom, we would become like Europe,” said Najm al-Jabouri, a former general in Saddam’s army. They were wrong.

When Saddam Hussein was captured, researchers who study democratization didn’t celebrate. We knew that democratization, especially rapid democratization in a deeply divided country, could be highly destabilizing. In fact, the more radical and rapid the change, the more destabilizing it was likely to be. The United States and the United Kingdom thought they were delivering freedom to a welcoming population. Instead, they were about to deliver the perfect conditions for civil war.

Iraq was a country plagued by political rivalries, both ethnic and religious. The Kurds, a large ethnic minority in the north, had long fought Saddam for autonomy; they wanted to be left alone to rule themselves. The Shia, who made up more than 60 percent of Iraq’s population, resented being ruled by Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, and his mostly Sunni Baath Party. Over decades, Saddam had been able to consolidate power for his minority group by stacking government positions with Sunnis, requiring everyone to join the Baath Party to qualify for jobs regardless of religion or sect, and by unleashing his murderous security forces on everyone else.

A mere two and a half months after the invasion, Iraqis coalesced into competing sectarian factions, dictated in part by two fateful decisions by the U.S. government. In an effort to bring rapid democracy to the country, Paul Bremer, the head of the United States’ transitional government in Iraq, outlawed the Baath Party and ordered that all members of Saddam Hussein’s government, almost all of whom were Sunni, be permanently removed from power. He then disbanded the Iraqi military, sending hundreds of thousands of Sunni soldiers home.

Suddenly, before a new government could be formed, tens of thousands of Baath bureaucrats were thrown out of power. More than 350,000 officers and soldiers in the Iraqi military no longer had an income. More than 85,000 regular Iraqis, including schoolteachers who had joined the Baath Party as a condition of their employment, lost their jobs. Noor, who is Sunni, remembers the feeling of shock around the country.

Those who had been locked out of power under Saddam, however, saw their opportunity. Political jostling broke out almost immediately among figures such as Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia dissident who had returned from exile, and Muqtada al-Sadr, a radical Shia cleric who wanted Iraq to become an Islamic regime. Though the Americans had hoped to broker a power-sharing agreement among Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds, they soon acquiesced to the demands of Maliki, who wanted a government that, like the population, was majority Shia. For Noor, what resulted wasn’t democracy. It was chaos followed by a power grab.

Regular Iraqis, especially Sunnis, began to worry. If the more numerous Shia were in control of the government, what would prevent them from turning on the minority Sunnis? What incentives would they have to give them jobs, or share critical oil revenues? What would keep them from exacting revenge for Saddam’s past crimes? Former Baathist party leaders, intelligence officials, and Iraqi army officers, along with Sunni tribal chiefs, soon realized that if they wanted to retain any power in the new democracy, they had to act fast. Nascent insurgent organizations began to form as early as the summer of 2003. They found easy recruits in Sunni cities and Iraq’s Sunni-dominated countryside where citizens increasingly felt politically and economically aggrieved. As one Sunni citizen noted, “We were on top of the system. We had dreams. Now we are the losers. We lost our positions, our status, the security of our families, stability.”

Sunni insurgents didn’t go after American troops at first (the Americans were too well armed). Instead, the insurgents focused on easier targets: those individuals and groups who were helping the Americans. This included the Shia who enlisted in the new Iraqi security forces, Shia politicians, and international organizations, including the United Nations. The insurgents’ goal was to reduce or eliminate support for the U.S. occupation and isolate the American military. It was only afterward that the insurgents began to target American troops, planting inexpensive but highly effective roadside bombs along important supply routes. By the time Saddam Hussein was captured in December 2003, guerrilla war had broken out.

The fighting escalated in April 2004 when Shia factions began to compete for power. The most notorious was a Shia militia led by Muqtada al-Sadr, who played on Shia nationalists’ anger at U.S. occupation to gain support. He, too, targeted American allies and troops in order to convince the Americans to leave. By the time Iraq’s first parliamentary elections were held, in January 2005, it was clear that Sunnis would play, at best, only a secondary role in government. Some hoped the Americans would step in to strengthen the constitution, or rein in Maliki. But the Americans had become worried about their long-term entanglement in Iraq and did little to intervene. As acts of violence toward coalition forces continued to escalate, so did fighting among Iraqis, who fractured into dozens of regional and religious militias to try to gain control of the country. Many had the support of the local population and received money and weapons from foreign rivals. “Saudi Arabia supported the Sunni militias, and Iran supported the Shia militias, and then you had Muqtada al-Sadr, who promoted himself,” recalled Noor. “People everywhere started taking sides.”

Soon it was too dangerous for Noor to leave the house or even to walk to the grocery store. Rival militias were fighting for territory, and snipers waited to pick off anyone in the street; roadside bombs and military checkpoints became a fact of life. At the zoo, where Noor had spent so many weekends with her friends, the animals were either starving to death or eaten by people increasingly desperate for food. Noor and her family didn’t know what to do. First, they fled to a relative’s safer neighborhood, and then in 2007, they left Baghdad altogether because they no longer felt safe anywhere in the city. They traveled by bus to Damascus, where they were content, at least for a time. They did not know that the blood and chaos of civil war would eventually fill the streets of Syria, too.

It had taken American forces only a few months to remove Saddam Hussein from power and set Iraq on the path to a democracy. But almost as swiftly, the country descended into a civil war so brutal that it would last for more than a decade. Like the dictator’s fallen statue, all of Noor’s hopes—for a new voice, for new rights, for new dreams—had been smashed to pieces.

OVER THE PAST one hundred years, the world has experienced the greatest expansion of freedom and political rights in the history of mankind. In 1900, democracies barely existed. But by 1948, world leaders had embraced the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was signed by almost all of the UN member states. It asserted that every person had the right to participate in his or her government, the right to freedom of speech, religion, and peaceful assembly, and that they had these rights no matter their sex, language, race, color, religion, birth status, or political views. Today, almost 60 percent of the world’s countries are democratic.

Citizens of liberal democracies have more political and civil rights than those who live in non-democracies. They participate more in the political life of their nations, have greater protections from discrimination and repression, and receive a greater percentage of state resources. They are also happier, wealthier, better educated, and generally have a higher life expectancy than people who live in dictatorships. It’s the reason refugees risk their lives to reach Europe, fleeing more repressive countries in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa. And it’s why President Bush, after invading Iraq, felt confident that the United States would establish “a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East” and inspire a “global democratic revolution.”

There’s another big benefit of democratic governance. Full democracies are less likely to go to war against their fellow citizens and against citizens in other democracies. People may disagree about what form democracy takes. They may be frustrated with democracy’s need for consensus and compromise. But given a choice between democracy and dictatorship, most will gladly take democracy.

But the road to democracy is a dangerous one. When scholars around the world first began collecting data on civil wars, in the early nineties, they noticed an interesting correlation: Since 1946, right after World War II ended, the number of democracies in the world had surged—but so had the number of civil wars. They seemed to be rising in tandem. The first wave of democratization began in 1870, when citizens in the United States and many Central and South American countries began to demand political reform. (Black people were not full participants in American democracy until the 1960s, though they temporarily gained more rights during Reconstruction.) The second wave emerged immediately after World War II, when newly defeated countries and post-colonial states tried to build their own democratic governments. The third wave moved through East Asia, Latin America, and southern and Eastern Europe in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, when more than thirty countries transitioned to democracy. The latest wave began to develop with the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and seemed to gain strength as Arab Spring protests spread across the Middle East and North Africa.

Civil wars rose alongside democracies. In 1870, almost no countries were experiencing civil war, but by 1992, there were over fifty. Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) were fighting one another in a fracturing Yugoslavia. Islamist rebel groups were turning on their government in Algeria. Leaders in Somalia and the Congo suddenly faced multiple armed groups challenging their rule, as did the governments in Georgia and Tajikistan. Soon the Hutus and the Tutsis would be slaughtering each other in Rwanda and Burundi. By the early nineties, the number of civil wars around the world had reached its highest point in modern history.

That is, at least until now. In 2019, we reached a new peak.

It turns out that one of the best predictors of whether a country will experience a civil war is whether it is moving toward or away from democracy. Yes, democracy. Countries almost never go from full autocracy to full democracy without a rocky transition in between. Attempts by leaders to democratize frequently include significant backsliding or stagnation in a pseudo-autocratic middle zone. And even if citizens succeed in gaining full democracy, their governments don’t always stay there. Would-be despots can whittle away rights and freedoms, and concentrate power, causing democracies to decline. Hungary became a full democracy in 1990 before Prime Minister Viktor Orbán slowly and methodically nudged it back toward dictatorship. It is in this middle zone that most civil wars occur.

Experts call countries in this middle zone “anocracies”—they are neither full autocracies nor democracies but something in between. Ted Robert Gurr, a professor at Northwestern, coined the term in 1974 after collecting data on the democratic and autocratic traits of governments around the world. Prior to that, he and his team had debated what to call these hybrid regimes, sometimes using the term “transitional” before settling on “anocracy.” Citizens receive some elements of democratic rule—perhaps full voting rights—but they also live under leaders with extensive authoritarian powers and few checks and balances.

Civil war experts have known about the relationship between anocracy and civil war for a long time. It’s why we were so critical of President Bush’s decision to try to catapult Iraq from autocracy to democracy in 2003. We understood that a major political transition in Iraq was likely to trigger civil war instead. Experts have seen this pattern repeated around the world over the last century. Serbs went to war against Croats almost immediately after Yugoslavia began to democratize in 1991. The same was true of Spain in the 1930s: Spanish citizens got their first taste of democracy in June 1931 after holding their first democratic elections; five years later, Spanish citizens rose up when the military launched a coup to try to take control of the country. And Rwanda’s plan to democratize was the catalyst for the Hutu genocide against the Tutsis. It’s no coincidence that the biggest civil wars raging today—in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen—were born from attempts to democratize.

Categorizing countries as democracies, autocracies, or anocracies is painstaking work. Researchers have spent decades collecting detailed information about the types of governments that exist around the world and how they have changed over time. There are several large datasets, each measuring different variables, but most conflict researchers tend to rely on the one that has been compiled by the Polity Project at the Center for Systemic Peace—a nonprofit that supports research and quantitative analysis on democracy and political violence. Ted Gurr started this project, which is now led by his former associate Monty Marshall. The dataset is useful because of its long historical time frame, the large number of countries it includes, and because it was one of the first to attempt to quantify a country’s system of governance for statistical analyses. One of the most influential measures in the dataset is called the Polity Score, which captures just how democratic or autocratic a country is in any given year. It is a 21-point scale that ranges from −10 (most autocratic) to +10 (most democratic). Countries are considered to be full democracies if they receive a score of between +6 and +10. If a country receives a score of +10, for example, its national elections have been certified as “free and fair,” no important social groups are systematically left out of the political process, and major political parties are stable and based on mass national constituencies. Norway, New Zealand, Denmark, Canada—and, until recently, the United States—all have a +10 rating.

On the other end of the polity index score are the autocracies. Countries are considered autocracies if they receive a score of between −6 and −10. Countries that receive a score of −10, such as North Korea, Saudi Arabia, or Bahrain, offer citizens no role in choosing their leaders, and allow their leaders to rule much as they like.

Anocracies are in the middle, receiving a score of between −5 and +5. In anocracies, citizens get some elements of democratic rule—perhaps elections—but they also get presidents with lots of authoritarian powers. Fareed Zakaria calls these types of governments “illiberal democracies.” But you can also think of them as partial democracies, faux democracies, or hybrid regimes. Turkey became an anocracy in 2017 when citizens voted to change the constitution to give almost unrestricted powers to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Zimbabwe appeared to be on a path toward greater democracy after President Robert Mugabe resigned in 2017, but has since returned to old patterns of political repression, especially with regard to violence around elections. Iraq never made it to full democracy. It, too, is an anocracy.

The CIA first discovered the relationship between anocracy and violence in 1994. The U.S. government had asked the agency to develop a model to predict—two years in advance—where political instability and armed conflict was likely to break out around the world. What were the warning signs that a country was heading toward violence? The government would then put the countries that had the most warning signs on a watch list.

The Political Instability Task Force (the one I later joined) came up with dozens of social, economic, and political variables—thirty-eight, to be precise, including poverty, ethnic diversity, population size, inequality, and corruption—and put them into a predictive model. To everyone’s surprise, they found that the best predictor of instability was not, as they might have guessed, income inequality or poverty. It was a nation’s polity index score, with the anocracy zone being the place of greatest danger. Anocracies, particularly those with more democratic than autocratic features—what the task force called “partial democracies”—were twice as likely as autocracies to experience political instability or civil war, and three times as likely as democracies.

All the things that experts thought should matter in the outbreak of civil war somehow didn’t. It wasn’t the poorest countries that were at the highest risk of conflict, or the most unequal, or the most ethnically or religiously heterogeneous, or even the most repressive. It was living in a partial democracy that made citizens more likely to pick up a gun and begin to fight. Saddam Hussein never faced a major civil war during his twenty-four years in power. It was only after his government was dismantled and power was up for grabs—when it went from −9 to the middle zone—that Iraq erupted in war.

WHY DOES ANOCRACY put a country in such danger of civil war? A closer look at the governments and citizens who are weathering this middle zone offers some insight. Anocracies tend to share certain characteristics that can work together to exacerbate the potential for conflict.

A government that is democratizing is weak compared to the regime before it—politically, institutionally, and militarily. Unlike autocrats, leaders in an anocracy are often not powerful enough or ruthless enough to quell dissent and ensure loyalty. The government is also frequently disorganized and riddled with internal divisions, struggling to deliver basic services or even security. Opposition leaders, or even those within a president’s own party, may challenge or resist the pace of reform, while new leaders must quickly earn the trust of citizens, fellow politicians, or army generals. In the chaos of transition, these leaders often fail.

When I asked Noor about the transition in Iraq, she recalled the unease many Iraqis felt about their new government. “Maliki got into power, and what did he do?” she said. “Nothing. Everybody started complaining about him. People were unemployed and they didn’t have the money or the food to feed their families. What were they going to do?”

These weaknesses set the stage for civil war because impatient citizens, disgruntled military officers, or anyone with political ambitions can find both a reason and an opportunity to organize a rebellion against the new government. Former rebel leaders in Uganda, for example, admitted that they were much more eager to organize violence after they discovered that their government’s intelligence services were ineffective; they could rebel knowing that their plan was unlikely to be discovered. This is also what happened in Georgia when it held its first democratic elections as an independent country in 1991, after the Soviet Union dissolved. Though a reformist named Zviad Gamsakhurdia won the presidency, he faced challenges almost immediately, both from opponents, who accused him of being too authoritarian, and from ethnic minorities—the Ossetians and the Abkhazians—who were unhappy about their representation in government. The following year, armed supporters of the opposition staged a coup, overthrowing Gamsakhurdia; within six months, violent conflict had broken out between ethnic Georgians and Abkhazians. By 1993, the young country was engulfed in civil war.

A primary reason for revolt is that democratic transitions create new winners and losers: In the shift away from autocracy, formerly disenfranchised citizens come into new power, while those who once held privileges find themselves losing influence. Because the new government in an anocracy is often fragile, and the rule of law is still developing, the losers—former elites, opposition leaders, citizens who once enjoyed advantages—are not sure the administration will be fair, or that they will be protected. This can create genuine anxieties about the future: The losers may not be convinced of a leader’s commitment to democracy; they may feel their own needs and rights are at stake. This is the situation the Sunnis found themselves in when the United States transferred power to Maliki. They rightly understood that they were powerless to force the majority Shia to do anything. From their perspective, they were better off fighting while they were still relatively strong, rather than wait for their rivals to consolidate power.

And because the government is weak, events can easily spiral out of control. This happened in Indonesia after President Suharto, an authoritarian, was forced to step down after the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Within weeks of entering office, Suharto’s successor, Vice President B. J. Habibie, enacted rapid reforms: He allowed political parties to organize, removed press censorship, freed political prisoners, and made plans to hold free and fair elections for both the parliament and the presidency. He also finally announced on January 27, 1999, a willingness to give the small island of East Timor independence, dramatically reversing the government’s previous refusal.

But this opening started a chain reaction, as other discontented groups in Indonesia seized the opportunity to claim power for themselves, too. Shortly thereafter, the Christian Ambonese, an ethnic group in the province of Maluku who were displeased with the increasing Islamization of Indonesia, declared an independent republic. West Papuans, who had long chafed under Indonesian rule, voiced their own desire for independence. Meanwhile, in the province of Aceh, activists argued that if East Timor had been granted freedom, “then there is no reason Aceh should not be next.” Habibie’s government could not keep up. Struggling to maintain control, he shut down independence negotiations in some provinces and allowed government crackdowns in others. Soon, Indonesia was caught up in civil war on multiple fronts: among Muslims and Christians in Maluku, among Timorese and Indonesian paramilitary groups, and among Aceh separatists and the Indonesian government.

A painful reality of democratization is that the faster and bolder the reform efforts, the greater the chance of civil war. Rapid regime change—a six-point or more fluctuation in a country’s polity index score—almost always precedes instability, and civil wars are more likely to break out in the first two years after reform is attempted. Ethiopia’s recent political violence and escalating civil war, for example, is a consequence of its attempts to quickly democratize. In 2018, the Oromos—Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group—got their long-awaited wish when, after two years of protests, the country’s prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, agreed to transfer power to Abiy Ahmed Ali, an ethnic Oromo. Abiy seemed to be a democrat’s dream. He promised free and fair elections, instituted a more legitimate and inclusive political system, and invited long-exiled Oromos to return home. His reforms were, according to an American foreign service officer in Addis Ababa, “beyond our wildest dreams.”

But returning Oromo leaders constituted a new elite that was ready to exact revenge. A weaker military made it easier for former soldiers to begin to agitate. By redistributing power to Ethiopia’s administrative regions, Abiy created strong incentives for rival ethnic groups to compete for regional influence. A mere five months later, violence broke out. Mobs of roaming Oromo youth celebrating the exiles’ return sparked ethnic violence that eventually led to dozens of deaths and thousands fleeing to Kenya. Many observers found the conflict particularly astonishing because there was, in the words of one Ethiopian analyst, “such a remarkable level of democratic opening in the country.” The opening had simply happened too fast. Today, a full-scale civil war has broken out in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, where former government officials—purged by Abiy—have rebelled, vowing to regain their recently lost power and influence.

But democratization is possible. Though the path to democracy is treacherous, the risk of civil war fades when a country takes its time, evolving its political system gradually. Mexico weathered democratization relatively peacefully. Its transition lasted nearly twenty years, from 1982 until 2000, when the National Action Party (PAN) became the first opposition party to win a presidential election since 1929. The state remained strong and continued to function while democratic institutions matured. Slow reform reduces uncertainty for a country’s citizens and is less threatening to incumbent elites, setting a conciliatory tone and providing them with opportunities to gracefully relinquish power. The result is often less violence.

UNTIL RECENTLY, the way most countries ended up in the dangerous anocracy zone was when dictatorships were overthrown, as happened in Iraq, or autocrats were forced to embrace democratic reform as a result of mass protests. But after almost half a century of increasing democratization, countries, especially newer democracies, began to move in the opposite direction. Even once-safe liberal democracies, such as Belgium and the United Kingdom, saw their polity index scores lowered. Since 2000, democratic leaders who came to power via elections have begun to consolidate authoritarian rule. Civil war experts are once again worried. We understand that backsliding almost certainly means that the middle zone is likely to expand.

We’ve seen this in Poland, where the Law and Justice Party won elections in 2015; the president, prime minister, and deputy prime minister have since systematically taken control of the courts, restricted free speech, targeted political opponents, and weakened the electoral commission. In Hungary, Prime Minister Orbán has steadily transformed the country into the European Union’s first non-democratic member. The government controls the media, imposes Kafkaesque regulations on pro-democracy parties, and moves forcefully to silence voices of dissent. Orbán and his party may have won the national vote in 2018, but international monitors reported that the opposition was fighting on an unequal playing field. According to the V-Dem Institute, another research institute dedicated to tracking global democracy,[*] twenty-five countries are now severely affected by a wave of international autocratization, including Brazil, India, and the United States.

Democratic countries that veer into anocracy do so not because their leaders are untested and weak, like those who are scrambling to organize in the wake of a dictator, but rather because elected leaders—many of whom are quite popular—start to ignore the guardrails that protect their democracies. These include constraints on a president, checks and balances among government branches, a free press that demands accountability, and fair and open political competition. Would-be autocrats such as Orbán, Erdoğan, Vladimir Putin, or Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro put their political goals ahead of the needs of a healthy democracy, gaining support by exploiting citizen fears—over jobs, over immigration, over security.

They persuade citizens that democracy as it has existed will lead to more corruption, more lies, and greater bungling of economic and social policy. They decry political leaders’ compromises as ineffective, and the government as a failure. They understand that if they can persuade citizens that “strong leadership” and “law and order” are necessary, citizens will voluntarily vote them into office. People will often sacrifice freedom if they believe it will make them more secure. Then, once in power, these leaders plunge their countries into anocracy by exploiting weaknesses in the constitution, electoral system, and judiciary. Because they typically use legal methods—partisan appointments, executive orders, parliamentary votes—they are able to consolidate power in ways that other politicians are unable, or unwilling, to stop. This increasing autocratization puts countries at higher risk of civil war.

The moment of peak risk occurs smack in the middle of the zone—between −1 and +1. This is when the government is likely at its weakest in terms of both institutional strength and legitimacy. The risk of civil war remains relatively low for autocracies in the initial stages of democratization; the risk of civil war does not surge until they are almost at −1. A country may start out with a polity index score of −6, say, move up the scale as it implements reforms, and then, just at the moment it is halfway to democracy, experience a civil war. If the country can survive this treacherous period and implement even greater democratic reforms, then the risk of conflict sharply reverses.

For a decaying democracy, the risk of civil war increases almost the moment it becomes less democratic. As a democracy drops down the polity index scale—a result of fewer executive restraints, weaker rule of law, diminished voting rights—its risk for armed conflict steadily increases. This risk peaks when it hits a score of between +1 to −1—the point when citizens face the prospect of real autocracy. The chance of civil war then sharply drops if the country weathers this moment by becoming even more authoritarian, or changes course and begins to rebuild its democracy. 

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