Recessions Open Window of Opportunity for Transition to Democracy

Sub-Saharan African countries were more likely to make a transition from autocracy to democracy during economic recessions caused by the lack of rain. This is the key finding of the paper “Rain and the Democratic Window of Opportunity”, by Barcelona GSE Affiliated Professor and ICREA UPF Professor Antonio Ciccone and Markus Brückner of UPF and Universitat de Barcelona.

"Recent theoretical work in political economics has argued that democratization should be more likely after recessions as the cost of fighting ruling autocratic regimes is relatively low" says Professor Ciccone. "According to our theories, recessions should open a window for citizens to contest power." But so far there had been no empirical work investigating this hypothesis, mainly because it is difficult to identify recessions that are unrelated to political factors.

What makes Sub-Saharan African countries a natural laboratory to investigate the link between recessions and democratization is that there is a strong link between economic recessions and rainfall levels as most countries in the region depend heavily on agricultural production. In fact, Professor Ciccone and Markus Brückner found that a 25% drop in rainfall was reduced real income per capita by around 2% relative to trend over the 1980-2004 period. In addition, while 4 out of 5 Sub-Saharan countries were autocracies in 1980, there were more democracies than autocracies in 2004.

"The key issue therefore became whether democratization episodes tended to be preceded by years of low rainfall," says Professor Ciccone, "and we saw rather quickly that they did. If rainfall levels had played no role in determining transitions to democracy, there should have been roughly the same number of transitions to democracy following years of very low rainfall (rainfall levels in the lowest quintile) than years of high rainfall (in the highest quintile). But in the data there were twice as many transitions to democracy following years of very low rainfall than years of high rainfall.” Using regression analysis, Professor Ciccone and Markus Brückner found that a 25% drop in rainfall increases the probability of a transition to democracy during the following two years by around 3 percentage points.

The researchers then put the two pieces of the puzzle -- the effect of low rainfall on income per capita and its effect on the probability of a transition from autocracy to democracy -- together. The result is that a 5% fall in income due to low rainfall raises the probability of democratization by around 7 percentage points. However, they did not find evidence that recessions affect transitions from democracy to autocracy.

Professor Ciccone concludes that "overall, the study provides empirical support for the idea that transitory, negative economic shocks can open a window of opportunity for citizens to put pressure on autocratic rulers." And, when citizens reject policy changes that are easy to renege upon once the window of opportunity closes, autocratic regimes have no choice but make democratic concessions.

About Prof. Ciccone


Antonio Ciccone is a macroeconomist who is Affiliated Professor of the Barcelona GSE, where he serves as Program Director of the MSc in Economics as well as member of the Steering Committee of the Msc in International Trade, Finance, and Development. He is an ICREA Researcher at the Department of Economics and Business of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra and CREI, and is one of the editors of The Economic Journal.


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