Perspectives on Politics

Research Article

Beyond Patronage: Violent Struggle, Ruling Party Cohesion, and Authoritarian Durability

Steven R. Levitskya1 and Lucan A. Waya2

a1 Harvard University

a2 University of Toronto


We explore the sources of durability of party-based authoritarian regimes in the face of crisis. Recent scholarship on authoritarianism suggests that ruling parties enhance elite cohesion—and consequently, regime durability—by providing institutionalized access the spoils of power. We argue, by contrast, that while elite access to power and spoils may ensure elite cooperation during normal times, it often fails to do so during crises. Instead, the identities, norms, and organizational structures forged during periods of sustained, violent, and ideologically-driven conflict are a critical source of cohesion—and durability—in party-based authoritarian regimes. Origins in violent conflict raise the cost of defection and provide leaders with additional (non-material) resources that can be critical to maintaining unity and discipline, even when a crisis threatens the party's hold on power. Hence, where ruling parties combine mechanisms of patronage distribution with the strong identities, solidarity ties, and discipline generated by violent origins, regimes should be most durable.

We apply this argument to four party-based competitive authoritarian regimes in post-Cold War Africa: Kenya, Mozambique, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. In each of these cases, an established single- or dominant-party regime faced heightened international pressure, economic crisis, and a strong opposition challenge after 1990. Yet whereas ruling parties in Kenya and Zambia were organized almost exclusively around patronage, those in Mozambique and Zimbabwe were liberation parties that came to power via violent struggle. This difference is critical to explaining diverging post-Cold War regime outcomes: whereas ruling parties in Zambia and Kenya imploded and eventually lost power in these face of crises, those in Mozambique and Zimbabwe remained intact and regimes survived.

Steven Levitsky is Professor of Government at Harvard University ( His research interests include political regimes and regime change, parties and party-building, and weak and informal institutions, with a focus on Latin America. His recent books include Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes after the Cold War (with Lucan Way, Cambridge University Press 2010), and The Resurgence of the Left in Latin America (co-edited with Kenneth Roberts, 2011).

Lucan Way is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto ( His research focuses on democratic transitions and the evolution of non-democratic rule in cross-regional perspective. He has published articles in Comparative Politics, Politics & Society, Slavic Review, Studies in Comparative and International Development, World Politics, and other journals. He is on the Editorial Board of Journal of Democracy.


  The authors would like to thank Jaques Bertrand, Michael Bratton, Jason Brownlee, Jorge Domínguez, Victor Falkenheim, Frances Hagopian, Antoinette Handley, Nahomi Ichino, Jeff Kopstein, Adrienne LeBas, Matt Light, Elizabeth Perry, Richard Sandbrook, Ed Schatz, Dan Slater, Arthur Spirling, Peter Solomon, Susan Solomon, Nicolas van de Walle, and Jennifer Widener for helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper.