Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Colonial Origins of Democracy and Dictatorship

Alexander Lee, Jack Paine

A century ago, every democratic regime was in Western Europe or in a country settled by Western Europeans. The picture is now more varied. Non-Western countries such as India and Jamaica have been democracies for more than half a century, despite lacking many factors often cited as prerequisites for democracy.

But stable democratic experiences are exceptional. In countries such as Uganda and Malaysia, democratic competition at independence gave way shortly afterwards to military coups or autocratic consolidation by the incumbent. Many other countries, such as Angola, Kuwait, and Niger, were authoritarian at independence and did not establish democratic institutions until decades after independence, if ever.

Why democracies emerge and how they survive are among the most widely studied topics in political science. However, most existing research overlooks the profound institutional restructuring that occurred under Western colonialism. The overall practice of colonial governance was unmistakably authoritarian. Nonetheless, by the mid-twentieth century, most colonies had adopted hybrid political institutions with electoral elements. For most contemporary countries, mass electoral competition originated under external rule.

We answer two main questions in the book. First, why did colonies vary in their electoral experiences under Western rule? Second, how did these differences affect democracy levels after independence?

Why Colonial Elections Happened

Most colonies experienced some form of national electoral competition under colonial rule. Among 107 countries that gained independence from a Western power, all but eight experienced at least one national election under colonialism. However, colonial electoral institutions varied in many ways, including the timing of the first election, the scope of the electorate, the role of elected versus appointed officials, and the power of the legislature.

We analyze three main actors who influenced elections under colonialism. Metropolitan officials dictated the terms of negotiations, and democracy levels at home shaped their stances. Colonizers with pluralistic institutions (e.g., a strong parliament or a full-blown democratic regime) were more permissive toward permitting electoral institutions that resembled those at home. Nonetheless, the basic rules of colonial electoral competition and suffrage were usually less democratic (often, much less so) than constitutional laws in the metropole.

By contrast, authoritarian powers categorically denied any form of electoral representation for colonists. These metropolitan officials feared that electoral institutions would stimulate rather than alleviate pressures for greater autonomy, and would create damaging precedents for metropolitan opposition groups.

These divergent incentives meant that, in certain time periods, British colonies were more pluralistic than those of other powers. However, this difference declined during periods in which other powers became more democratic, in particular France.

White settlers, where they settled in large-enough numbers, were relatively privileged at pushing for electoral representation. Europeans had stronger lobbies, could cripple the economic productivity of the colony through non-participation, and sometimes posed a strong revolt threat.

However, white settlers bequeathed conflicting legacies. Actions by white settlers did not unambiguously promote democracy, especially in the long run. Settlers created representative institutions exclusively for themselves and routinely repressed non-whites who sought political rights.

Non-whites were also important, but their role was more complex. Indigenous peoples and forced migrants were usually less able to pressure the colonial state. Nonetheless, they could gain concessions in three distinct circumstances.

First, a non-white middle class educated in the colonizer’s language emerged early in some major port cities and plantation islands. Campaigns by these groups often succeeded because they could lobby the colonial state using its own language and cultural idiom. Yet because only a small segment of the non-white population exerted pressure, these efforts usually yielded small franchises and limited policy-making autonomy.

Second, non-Europeans sometimes had a credible threat to revolt. After 1945, the international system created permissive conditions for mass revolts in which anti-colonial rebels could viably gain external support. This made mass franchise expansion very costly to resist, although the resulting elections often had shallow institutional roots.

Third, in some colonies (usually geographically small), a monarch had a plausible claim to national legitimacy. This created an option to perpetuate subnational policies of indirect rule by handing off power to a national monarch.

How the Effect of Colonial Elections Persisted

Distinct experiences with colonial elections yielded divergent democratic trajectories after independence. Most contemporary regimes with electoral competition trace their roots at least in part in the colonial era. In 2022, 99 non-European countries were democracies or electoral autocracies. Of these, 87 experienced their first election under Western colonial rule, and almost every exception was not colonized by a Western power. We simply cannot explain postcolonial democracies or the broader importance of electoral competition in the non-European world without examining colonial origins.

Yet postcolonial democracy was not the only, or even the most frequent, product of colonial elections. Countries with lengthy episodes of colonial pluralism—that is, several decades of at least minimally competitive elections—usually became durable democracies. By contrast, the most common sequel to shorter episodes of colonial pluralism was military coups or electoral authoritarian regimes.

Different facets of colonial electoral experiences are highly correlated with democracy levels after independence. Colonial elections, because of their various flaws, put countries on divergent trajectories at independence that have largely reinforced themselves over time.

Two types of countries had lengthy exposure to colonial elections. These cases tended to remain stable democracies afterwards. First, in countries like India and Jamaica, a non-white middle class speaking the colonizer’s language emerged in the nineteenth century and lobbied the metropole for electoral representation. Early concessions enabled non-European elites to form institutionalized parties with extensive electoral experience prior to gaining independence. Afterwards, institutionalized parties acted as a buffer against possible military intervention.

Second, Europeans developed early elections and comprised a majority of the colonial population in the historically unique neo-Britains (United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand). In these countries, broad suffrage did not usually threaten the white political elite’s hold on power. This contrasted with many other cases with smaller settler minorities, where white settlers fiercely resisted majority rule.

However, relatively few colonies experienced lengthy periods of colonial pluralism. In many colonies, the first election occurred less than a decade (sometimes, only months) before independence; or, if elections occurred earlier, they were geographically circumscribed or selected members for virtually powerless assemblies. Parties tended to be weaker in these cases, and elections were not perceived as the exclusive means of gaining and retaining power. Electoral institutions that existed at independence were often quickly swept away by military coups (e.g., Uganda) or incumbent consolidation (e.g., Ivory Coast), or used as an electoral authoritarian institution (e.g., Malaysia).

Other colonial regimes forbade any (meaningful) elections. This stance usually yielded durable authoritarian regimes after independence governed by either a rebel group who fought the colonizer (e.g., Angola) or a national monarch (e.g., Kuwait).

As of 2024, widespread decolonization from Western empires began nearly eight decades ago. Yet processes that began then or even earlier continue to affect contemporary political regimes. Many regimes that originated in the colonial era are still in place: thirteen democracies, six monarchies, five rebel regimes, and seven other dictatorships. Durable postcolonial democracies emerged almost exclusively from colonies with early elections, spurred by either non-European middle classes or white settlers. By contrast, stable postcolonial dictatorships emerged from authoritarian decolonization episodes. In countries where electoral reforms were instituted shortly before independence, competitive elections seldom lasted long afterwards. The various flaws in the electoral process during decolonization have analogs to more recent episodes. Western democracy promotion in the 1990s and 2000s generally succeeded at inducing multi-party electoral competition, but not full-blown democracy. Establishing competitive elections as the sole means of achieving and retaining political office is an enduring challenge that external intervention

Colonial Origins of Democracy and Dictatorship by Alexander Lee and Jack Paine

About The Authors

Alexander Lee

Alexander Lee is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Rochester. He earned his Ph.D. from Stanford and his BA from Yale. His research focuses on the fac...

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Jack Paine

Jack Paine is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Emory University. He earned his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley and his BA from the University of Virginia. His research analyse...

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