top of page


The Rise of Sophisticated Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia
New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020.

This Element offers a way to understand the evolution of authoritarian rule in Southeast Asia. The theoretical framework is based on a set of indicators (judged for their known advantages and mimicry of democratic attributes) as well as a typology (conceptualized as two discreet categories of “retrograde” and “sophisticated” authoritarianism). Working with an original dataset, the empirical results reveal vast differences within and across authoritarian regimes in Southeast Asia, but also a discernible shift towards sophisticated authoritarianism over time. The Element concludes with a reflection of its contribution and a statement on its generalizability.

Supplementary Files: Citation, Code Book and Data Set

Reviews: Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia

Behind the Façade: Elections under Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia
New York: SUNY Press, 2016.

The study of authoritarian politics is in the midst of a renaissance. A particular concern amongst practitioners and scholars has been how the use of “nominally” democratic institutions, such as courts, legislatures and parties, actually aids the survival of dictators and ruling parties. Despite notable breakthroughs, however, the question of why authoritarian regimes bother to hold elections has received far less consideration. In democracies, elections by and large facilitate the expression of consent, because they enable citizens to select their representatives freely and fairly. In authoritarian regimes, by contrast, elections do not provide evidence of this principle, because citizens lack an effective choice due to the existence of manipulation and misconduct. While it is certainly easy to dismiss such polls as shams, this does not explain the longstanding and widespread use of this institution. So what is behind the façade? Using three comprehensive case studies from Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Myanmar, and Singapore), this book argues elections allow authoritarian regimes to collect information, pursue legitimacy, manage political elites and/or sustain neopatrimonial domination. Drawing on a historical and institutional approach, it demonstrates how these functions are employed to manage the complex strategic interaction that occurs between dictators, political elites and citizens. Since the book offers the first comparative treatment of this global phenomenon in nearly four decades, the findings are particularly relevant for practitioners involved in the promotion of democracy, but also students and scholars working on authoritarianism, democratization, elections and Southeast Asian politics. Far from being mere window dressing or even a precursor to democracy, this book demonstrates how flawed elections are paramount to the maintenance of authoritarian rule.

Reviews: Asian Politics & PolicyPacific AffairsSouth East Asia Research

Journal Articles

"Cambodia in 2021: With Fear and Favor"
Asian Survey, Vol. 62, No. 1 (2022): 118-125.

In 2021, Cambodia confronted the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Amid a surge in case numbers and total deaths, the virus brought new and profound consequences for the Southeast Asian nation. A spate of decrees, laws, and provisions provided Hun Sen’s government ways to contain the outbreak, along with an opportunity to further stifle political dissent. The economic effects of the crisis were acutely felt in the crucial tourist industry and garment sector, both of which experienced severe contraction that will be long-lasting. Beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, Cambodia’s foreign affairs were dominated by its friendly relationship with China, poor reputation within the United States, and pending chairmanship of ASEAN.

"Election Turnout in Authoritarian Regimes"
Electoral Studies, Vol. 68 (2020): 1-11 with Ferran Martinez i Coma

What explains election turnout in authoritarian regimes? Despite the significant energy, resources, and time ruling parties devote to improving the participation rates of citizens, there exists extraordinary variation both within and across authoritarian regimes. This paper hypothesizes that election turnout is explained by contestation, coercion and clientelism. To test this theory, the paper uses an original dataset capturing turnout rates for 548 legislative elections in 108 countries between 1960 and 2011. The resulting empirical analysis confirms these hypothesis – with one notable exception. Instead of encouraging turnout amongst citizens, clientelism discourages it. This counterintuitive finding occurs because citizens lack the optimum incentives for participation and ruling parties lack effective monitoring strategies of that behavior. The conclusion of the paper addresses its implications for existing theories of authoritarian politics and proposes several avenues for further research on election turnout under authoritarianism.

Supplementary Files: Data
"The Menu of Autocratic Innovation"
Democratization, Vol. 27, No. 6 (2020): 1053-1072.

This article develops the menu of autocratic innovation to account for a perceived transformation in the nature of autocratic rule. Drawing from an original list of 20 techniques intended to cultivate the pretence of accountability without permitting the actual practice of it, the article describes how autocratic innovation takes different forms (informational, legal, political, reputational and technological) and concerns different targets (citizens, civil society activists, opposition members and foreign policymakers). This theoretical framework is tested against nine autocratic regimes in Southeast Asia from 1975 to 2015. The evidence shows substantial variation in terms of the form and target of at least six distinct techniques: libel and defamation suits, anti-civil society measures, mock compliance to human rights agreements, public relations firms, think tanks and zombie monitors. The paper concludes by discussing three possible explanations for why autocratic innovation occurs: waves of autocratization, density of international linkages and leadership turnover.

"The APSA Journal List: Popularity, Purpose and Performance"
Australian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 54, No. 3 (2019): 318-333 (with Duncan McDonnell).

For over a decade, the Australian Political Studies Association (APSA) has maintained a list ranking journals into A*, A, B and C bands. However, we know little about how Politics scholars use and view the list. In this study, we firstly discuss the history of the APSA list, before then presenting the results of an original survey conducted in March 2017 with over 250 members of the discipline. While the APSA list seems to enjoy overall support, we find that there are concerns about its purpose, its assessment of journal quality and how it treats different subfields and methodologies. In the discussion section, we address some of the main criticisms that have been made of the list and offer a number of suggestions for revisions. These include widening the consultation process, making submissions to the ranking committee public and extending the range of journals included in the list.


Supplementary Files: Appendix

"Cambodia's Transition to Hegemonic Authoritarianism"

Journal of Democracy, Vol. 30, No. 1 (2019): 158-171.

Tragedy is a consistent narrative of Cambodian politics. Since 1953, when the country gained its independence from France, it has suffered no less than four coups, three invasions, one civil war, and a cataclysmic genocide carried out by the Khmer Rouge. The last few years have witnessed yet another iteration of this narrative. This came in the form of a brutal crackdown and sham election perpetrated by the dictator Hun Sen, who has been in power since January 1985. The crackdown itself targeted the last remaining vestiges of public antagonism to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, namely civil society groups, independent media organizations, and political opponents. The sham election capitalized of this act of suppression by providing a mechanism to maintain power, albeit while feigning conformity to the virtues of party competition, citizen participation and impartial validation. Despite a history of both intense repression and flawed elections under Hun Sen’s government, recent events were unprecedented by the standard of Cambodian politics. This was because Hun Sen’s government was implementing a strategy unfamiliar to people living inside Cambodia and unusual for scholars outside it: a transition from competitive to hegemonic authoritarian rule.

"Elections as Causes of Democratization: Southeast Asia in Comparative Perspective"
Comparative Political Studies, Vol. 52, No. 1 (2019): 3-35 (with Thomas Pepinsky).

The theory of democratization by elections holds that elections - even when flawed - can over time have an independent causal effect on democratic transitions. Despite the recent growth of this literature, questions remain about the global scope of the argument and its structural preconditions. We show that in Southeast Asia, elections are almost always the culmination rather than the cause of democratization, and use case materials from seven Southeast Asian countries to illustrate the mechanisms that lead from democratization to elections. Our argument has implications both for Southeast Asian democratization and for existing scholarship from other world regions.

Supplementary Files: Appendix; Replication Data

"Survive and Thrive: Field Research in Authoritarian Southeast Asia"
Asian Studies Review, Vol. 42, No. 3 (2018): 385-403 (with Meredith Weiss).

The literature on field research methods has focused almost exclusively on the strategies available to scholars working in democracies. By comparison, there has been scant guidance for those working in authoritarian regimes. This is despite the distinct set of challenges that arise where civil liberties and political rights are not consistently or well protected. The purpose of this article is to address this deficit. Drawing on the region of Southeast Asia as a natural laboratory for comparative analysis, it offers guidance on how to successfully conduct archival research, carry out interviews and undertake participant observation under authoritarianism. The resulting conclusions are applicable to the pursuit of primary research by scholars at all career levels and in other regions of the world.

"Misclassification on the Mekong: The Origins of Hun Sen's Personalist Dictatorship"
Democratization, Vol. 25, No. 2 (2018): 192-208.

Authoritarian regime datasets are an important tool for research in both comparative politics and international relations. Despite widespread use of these categorization schemes, very little attention has been paid to the quality of the judgements contained within them. Using the unambiguous case of Cambodia, this article demonstrates how leading datasets have failed to capture the manifest features of Hun Sen’s personalist dictatorship. This is demonstrated by the unconstrained and discretionary authority he wields across six domains of control. In addition to reclassifying Cambodia as a party-personalist regime, this article raises questions about the reliability of classification judgements for more opaque authoritarian regimes. The article has implications for existing and ongoing research into whether personalist dictatorships will undergo democratization, initiate interstate war and commit repression.

"Out of the Shadows: Autocratic Regimes, Election Observation and Legitimation"
Contemporary Politics, Vol. 23, No. 3 (2017): 328-347 (with Maria Debre).

Autocratic regimes have developed a new strategy to overcome the high costs of either fully complying or not complying with the international norm of external election observation. This paper explains how many dictators and dominant parties deploy “shadow” election observation groups over professional observation groups as part of a mock compliance strategy. By supplanting the identity of the group judging elections and displacing the normative standard being applied, autocratic regimes have sought to gain democratic-procedural legitimation via flawed elections. This argument is evidenced using case studies of parliamentary and presidential elections in Cambodia, Zimbabwe and Egypt, which show that legitimation driven by shadow observation groups has become a globally applied strategy. The conclusion offers policy proscriptions for how to counteract the deployment of these groups and what the emergence of this phenomenon means for the study of autocratic legitimation.

"The Autocratic Mandate: Elections, Legitimacy and Regime Stability in Singapore"
The Pacific Review, Vol. 30, No. 2 (2017): 205-231.

This paper explains how authoritarian regimes employ flawed elections to obtain both short-term legitimacy and long-term stability. In conjunction with the use of co-optation and repression, it argues that ruling parties hold de jure competitive elections to claim what is termed autonomous legitimation. This denotes the feigning of conformity to the established rules of the constitution and the shared beliefs of citizens. Regardless of overall turnout and support, ruling parties exploit the normative and symbolic value of elections in order to establish moral grounds for compliance within a dominant-subordinate relationship. In support of this argument, the case of Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP) is analysed in historical and contemporary terms. Since 1959, the PAP has used precisely-timed elections to extract one or more mandate types from citizens and, by extension, claim legitimacy. In particular, it has sought a mandate based on its response to an event, execution of a policy and/or collection of a reward. In the long run, autocratic stability has been achieved through a process of reciprocal reinforcement, which has combined autonomous legitimation with targeted co-optation and low intensity coercion. The paper concludes by addressing what the use of elections for legitimation means for democratisation in Singapore and the generalisability of this finding.

Supplementary Files: Appendix

"The Failure of Democratisation by Elections in Cambodia"
Contemporary Politics, Vol. 23, No. 2 (2017): 135-155.

This article questions the explanatory power of the theory of democratisation by elections. This approach to democratisation argues that elections in authoritarian regimes constitute part of a metagame between ruling elites and opponents, which involves a competition for votes inside a larger competition over the nature of political power. The cumulative effect is that even flawed elections raise the costs of repression and lower the costs of toleration in ways that eventually bring about democracy. When applied to the most likely case of Cambodia, however, electoral democratisation has resoundingly failed to occur. Instead, this article argues that neopatrimonialism inhibits the transformative power of elections by preventing the emergence of resolute democratic ideals, reform-minded elites and pro-democratic institutions. In this way, the distribution of party-state patronage constitutes a method of co-optation; and flawed elections represent a mechanism to renew and reinforce the historical roots and structural basis of state authority. Using the case of Cambodia, this article develops an account of neopatrimonialism in authoritarian elections and explores the implications of the Cambodian experience for the democratisation by elections theory more broadly.

"In Search of Stability: Electoral Legitimation under Authoritarianism in Myanmar"
European Journal of East Asia Studies, Vol. 14, No. 2 (2015): 163-188.

This article offers an original theory to account for how authoritarian regimes use elections to achieve stability and, thus, longevity. At the domestic level, elections are deployed to either feign conformity to established rules and/or shared beliefs about how political power should be maintained or mobilize citizens in a unanimous show of manufactured support for the ruling party. At the international level, elections are employed to simulate compliance to international democratic norms about the appropriate method of selecting political authority. It validates this theory using the case of Myanmar, where three different ruling cliques have sanctioned elections in the pursuit of this dividend. The institutionalization of this function over the course of five decades has in turn contributed to the stabilization of autocratic rule, which has occurred through a combination of endogenous self-reinforcement, exogenous reinforcement and reciprocal reinforcement. The article concludes by examining how electoral legitimation has been deployed in conjunction with repression and co-optation - the remaining pillars of stability. This positive causal relationship offers further opportunities for within-case and cross-case comparisons to be made in the future.

"Elections in Hybrid Regimes: Conceptual Stretching Revived"
Political Studies, Vol. 62, No. 1 (2014): 21-36.

This paper challenges the use of diminished subtypes as a strategy for avoiding conceptual stretching in the conceptual construction of hybrid regimes. The popular adoption of this strategy is based on its perceived ability to increase analytical differentiation and, more relevantly, avoid conceptual stretching by making a more modest claim about the extent of authoritarianism and democracy. Using this strategy, regimes are classified according to any additional or missing properties they contain relative to these two root concepts. This is demonstrated by an influential body of scholarship using elections as the defining property (e.g., “competitive authoritarianism” and “pseudodemocracy”). The problem, however, is that the creation of these subtypes is premised on a "true" democratic definition of elections: a method for selecting and empowering political representatives through a competition for people’s votes (albeit without freedom and fairness). This paper challenges the applicability of this conventional understanding and the conceptual construction of hybrid regimes based upon it. It argues that in attempting to avoid stretching the meaning of authoritarianism and democracy, scholars have inadvertently displaced concept stretching by assuming the meaning of democratic elections is applicable to hybrid regimes. Instead, it is proposed that elections in hybrid regimes can have at least three alternatives roles: legitimation, patronage, and elite management. This paper concludes by discussing the implications of this finding for the field of comparative studies and proposes three solutions to help guard against conceptual stretching in the future.

"A Survey of Politics and International Relations PhD Students in Australia"
Australian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 48, No. 4 (2013): 507-518 (with Glenn Kefford).

This paper analyses the results of the first survey of International Relations and Political Science PhD students in Australia. Completed by 186 students from 22 universities, the survey involved 54 questions covering the areas of degree structure, nature of research, workload pressures, candidate choices, and views of the profession. Some of the key findings indicate that students overwhelmingly base their choice of where to study on pre-existing personal relationships (rather than university reputation or research expertise); want both more coursework and methodology training; believe scholarship application outcomes are not based on merit; and feel they cannot meet the field’s workload expectations. The survey therefore raises important questions about the kind of opportunities and support individual academics, IR and politics departments, and university administrations provide to potential and existing students.

"The 2012 TRIP Survey of International Relations in Australia: One Problem to Rule Us All
Australian Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 62, No. 2 (2013): 222-237.

This article analyses the results of the most recent and largest cross-national survey on the International Relations (IR) discipline. Completed by scholars in twenty countries, the survey covered the areas of teaching, research, foreign policy, the profession, and the relationship between policy and academia. From an Australian perspective, the key findings include the strong link between what academics teach and research; the narrowing epistemological gap between the United States and Australia; the curious pessimism of scholars on a wide range of foreign policy issues; and our ability to define research quality independently of other national settings. The most significant and alarming finding, however, concerned how the present structure of the field is undermining our attempt to forge closer, more influential ties with policymakers in Canberra. In fact, it is clear from the results that what we research and how we go about it is actually counterintuitive to this goal. The article concludes with three recommendations aimed at rectifying this problem.

Book Chapters

“Out of the Shadows: Autocratic Regimes, Election Observation and Legitimation.” In A. Dukalskis and J. Gerschewski (eds), Justifying Dictatorship: Studies in Autocratic Legitimation (New York: Routledge, 2018): 78-97 (with Maria Debre).
bottom of page