The Authoritarian Wager: Mass Political Action and the Sudden Collapse of Repression

Branislav L. Slantchev, Kelly S. Matush

July, 2016


Authoritarian rulers sometimes repress mass political action against their regimes and sometimes allow it to happen even if it leads to social conflict and their ouster. The sudden collapse of repression in regimes that had formerly relied on it is especially puzzling when governments have well-funded and reliable security forces that could have been used. We develop a game-theoretic model that explores the incentives of authoritarian rulers to repress and allow more open contestation. Rulers who do not know the distribution of preferences among the citizens must employ indiscriminate repression that makes any political action costly. If rulers have the capacity to fully repress any political action, then they create despotic regimes. But if their capacity is constrained and they expect that some challenges might occur, then they might prefer to make contestation as open as possible. Because the regime survives unless challenged by opponents, there is a status quo bias in favor of its supporters, which makes them less likely to come to its defense. We identify conditions under which this emboldens opponents sufficiently to overcome the costs and risks of taking action against the regime. In these cases, rulers can be better off abandoning repression in order to encourage their supporters to act. In doing so, they must wager their survival on the outcome of the ensuing conflict.