Thomas O’Brien – Presidentialism and Democratisation in South Africa and South Korea

This is a guest post by Thomas O’Brien, Lecturer in Political Science at the Centre for International Security and Resilience, Cranfield University at the Defence Academy of the UK. It is a summary of an article that will appear in Government and Opposition

The regime changes in South Africa and South Korea provide interesting insights into the role of presidential leadership during democratisation. In both cases the incumbent leader was forced to choose to subject their position to a democratic vote, thereby facing the risk of defeat. Echoing the point made by Escribà-Folch and Wright (2015), the respective regime types made this option viable as there was a belief that victory was possible and the status quo was increasingly unsustainable. F.W. de Klerk in South Africa was head of the National Party and had some hope that he would be able to retain power through democratic means given the institutional base and resources of the party. Similarly, Roh Tae Woo’s military background provided an institutional base on which he could rely to ensure stability and call on for support, in spite of his move into a civilian role. The position of President and head of a formal institutional apparatus gave them authority and control, which facilitated a degree of confidence that they could make the transition to democratic leadership successfully. However, the decision to accept the need for reform was not driven by altruistic ideals. Opposition to the incumbent regime structures had been growing significantly by the time each leader came to power, limiting the space they had to operate. South Africa had seen sustained social protest against the apartheid policies and faced growing foreign pressure in the form of sanctions and boycotts. At the same time, de Klerk faced internal divisions as hardliners within the party sought to block reforms. Roh Tae Woo faced extensive social protests against continued authoritarian rule, having taken over from Chun Doo Hwan who had been forced to resign in the face of widespread and sustained social unrest.

The issue of continuity is particularly important in these two cases. Both de Klerk and Roh assumed the presidency following the inability of their predecessors to continue (due to ill health and loss of legitimacy) during periods of instability. Taking on the role at pivotal moments provided an opportunity to make a change that had not been possible for their predecessors due to their deeper association with the regime structures. While both leaders had held high-ranking posts, their profile had been less contentious enabling them to maintain control over the institutional structure as they introduced reforms (on the emergence of reforming leaders from within see O’Brien, 2007). Continuity in this sense enabled the emergent leaders to introduce what they perceived to be reforms necessary to ensure their continued control. In both cases the eventual loss of control did not disrupt the democratisation process, as the leaders had been able to initiate reform internally to safeguard against reversion to authoritarian practices and were willing to accept the outcome.

The relative success of democratisation in these two cases warrants continued consideration of the role of incumbent leaders in shaping trajectories around regime changes. Democratisation by its very nature is a period of uncertainty, as roles and institutions are contested and reconstituted. Events in the Arab Spring and the Colour Revolutions show that regime change does not necessarily lead automatically to consolidated democracy. External pressure plays a key role in creating the opportunity for democratisation or reform by introducing a degree of uncertainty, as more actors become involved and take a stake in the outcome. A leader committed to change may be able to draw on this pressure to exercise agency and challenge entrenched institutional practices and patterns. In such situations the actions of the incumbent leader are crucial in shaping the outcome, as it is ultimately the elites that determine how to manage the opportunities and threats that arise. Mainwaring and Pérez-Liñán (2013) note that elite policy preferences (moderate or radical), normative preference for democracy or authoritarianism, and the regional political environment are key in determining whether a process of democratisation will be initiated.

In initiating reform the leader’s ability to manage the process and the likelihood of playing a role in the post-transitional context is arguably shaped by four structural factors: authority, institutions, opposition and continuity. Authority refers to the source of the leader’s power and in such regimes is generally derived from performance or personal charisma (Brooker, 2000). The robustness of the leader’s authority will determine their ability to maintain loyalty and exercise agency in shaping political developments.  While the reasons for the decision to relinquish power or at least allow reform of the system vary, legitimacy can be identified as an important factor. Where a regime loses support and legitimacy among the wider population it is possible to continue, but internal divisions may emerge as other actors perceive their own positions to be threatened. Institutional patterns play a key role in ‘structuring the nature of political competition’ (Elgie, 1995: 23), as they provide a base from which the leader can operate. If these have been neglected or degraded, they are less useful in times of crisis (see O’Brien, 2007 on Boris Yeltsin). As noted above, opposition is significant in pressing for reform, but the location (internal versus external) and strength of this opposition will determine the space the leader has to operate. The accretion of custom and practice over time ties actors into the system, thereby reducing the chances of defection from within, but potentially limiting the agency of the leader by encouraging pressure to maintain the status quo.

The institutional form of the regime plays an important role in the decision-making of incumbent leaders. Examining the ability of foreign pressure to force change in non-democratic regimes, Escribà-Folch and Wright (2015) find that personalist regimes are more resistant, as the stakes are higher for the leader without a formalised base. In military and party regimes the existence of a formal support base provides more opportunities in the event of systemic threats. Military leaders are able to return to barracks and exercise some degree of control over the democratising regime, through the threat of force. Party based regimes have less direct control, but possess the ability to participate (possibly under a new name) in the reconstituted system and return incumbent leaders to office. The corporate form of military and party regimes also enables the leader to rely on the hierarchy to ensure loyalty of followers and limit chances of defection, as failure would be costly for the whole of the collective. As noted, the institutional form played a role in both South Africa and South Korea, ensuring stability and a chance that the incumbent leaders may be able to secure a degree of influence over the regime trajectory.

Decisions of a leader are central in shaping the likelihood of a move towards democracy, but this does not guarantee that a fully realised democratic system will result, as structural constraints and internal opposition may stall or reverse progress made. Elite preferences determine what tools and direction the leader may choose (Mainwaring and Pérez-Liñán, 2013), but these preferences exist within a social and institutional framework that enables or constrains their actions. F.W. de Klerk and Roh Tae Woo demonstrated through their actions a preference towards greater democracy, reinforced by social instability and external pressure, but it was their control of the institutions of government that enabled this preference to be acted on. The cases also reiterate the importance of the perceived likelihood of post-transition success, maintaining a degree of control over the process. As Escribà-Folch and Wright (2015) argue, in the absence of a post-transition future a turn to repression may be a more viable option. Preferences are not absolute, contextual factors and likely future outcomes condition the ability and willingness of leaders to act on their preferences.

References:

  • Paul Brooker (2000) Non-Democratic Regimes: Theory, Government and Politics. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Robert Elgie (1995) Political Leadership in Liberal Democracies. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Abel Escribà-Folch and Joseph Wright (2015) Foreign Pressure and the Politics of Autocratic Survival. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Scott Mainwaring and Aníbal Pérez-Liñán (2013) Democracies and Dictatorships in Latin America: Emergence, Survival and Fall. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Thomas O’Brien (2007) ‘The Role of the Transitional Leader: A Comparative Analysis of Adolfo Suárez and Boris Yeltsin’, Leadership, 3(4): 419-32.

Thomas O’Brien is a lecturer in the Centre for International Security and Resilience, Cranfield University at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom. His research examines leadership, democratization, environmental politics, human security, protest and New Zealand. Previous work has appeared in the British Journal of Sociology, Conflict, Security and Development, Contemporary Politics, Democratization, and Political Studies. @TomOB_NZ

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