What Is A Hybrid State?

The notion of a hybrid state is one that is not easy to define and has come under heavy scrutiny. It seems that some sort of consensus has been drawn that explains a hybrid state as consisting of a political regime which contains elements of both an autocratic system and a democratic system. Yet, a hybrid state may also be used to term both China and Iran.  These two countries are not cited as hybrid states by many theorists as China meets the criteria of an authoritarian system whereas Iran is categorised as a democracy. Both countries however combine 2 distinct systems in the structure of their states; China mixes a communist political ideology with a capitalist economy while Iran combines an underlying theocratic rule with the use of democratic institutions. These unique mixtures are able to remain relatively stable despite the obvious tensions that arise from having two dissimilar systems working simultaneously. This essay will first examine the view of a hybrid state as a combination of autocratic and democratic elements. This will be done by looking at different theories which are concerned with identifying and categorising these hybrid states. While much of the literature examined proposes slightly different ideas, they can all be used complimentarily to gain a well-rounded understanding of hybrid states. This essay will also attempt to explain further why China and Iran should be classified as hybrid states, using detailed case studies of each country’s past and current regime.

In recent years there has been a proliferation of hybrid regimes of the type that encompass both autocratic and democratic characteristics. Diamond explains this rise by suggesting that many of the transitioning authoritarian countries identified by Huntington (1991) in his description of the ‘third wave of democratisation’, have ceased with transition but are yet to be identifiable as democracies (2002, 23). These countries do not match the criteria outlined for a working type of democracy (polyarchies) by Dahl (1989), which included officials elected in free elections with universal suffrage and enlightened understanding by citizens –including the ability to influence the political agenda, equality and freedom of speech. Instead Diamond suggests these countries fall into a political ‘grey zone’ and can be identified as hybrid states (2002, 23). It is important to remember that while these hybrid states sit somewhere in between autocracy and democracy they are not to be defined as transitional states. Bogaards explains that as democratic consolidation for these states is a distant prospect, hybrid states must be considered their own type of political regime rather than a type of transitional state (2009, 415). Karl defines these hybrid states as a peculiar mix of autocratic and democratic features, with some competition in the access of power via elections but with severely limited civil liberties stemming from authoritarian practises (1995, 73-81). While this definition provides a good starting point, theories on now to categorise and identify hybrid states will be expanded upon over the next few paragraphs to provide a better understanding of the term.

Eklman’s 2009 article on hybrid political regimes describes some key characteristics of hybrid regimes and then goes on to identify Russia, Venezuela and Tanzania as archetypal hybrid states. Ekman’s theory on the characteristics of hybrid states draws heavily on Levitsky and Way’s 2002 article on the idea of competitive authoritarianism. He explains that much of the legitimacy of these regimes stems from what are seen as relatively free and contested elections (2009, 9). Drawing again on Levitsky and Way, Ekman suggests that these elections may be subject to manipulation through state power yet they still have the potential to make a difference and are contested seriously (ibid , 9 & 12). The mandate that is given from these elections then allows the governing power to institute rather undemocratic practises (ibid , 12). Ekman explains that in Hybrid states the government often: subordinates the judiciary- leading to weak rule of law, controls the media- giving little room to free press, and restricts civil liberties (ibid , 12-13). Again it is important to remember that it is through relatively competitive elections coupled with a parliament that provides some platform for opposition that these regimes can be regarded as somewhat democratic (ibid, 8-9). Through his discussion of the characteristics of hybrid states, Ekman was able to identify currently what he considers to be  the three most archetypal hybrid states; Russia, Tanzania and Venezuela (ibid, 14). Ekman suggests that these countries all share some basic similarities. ‘They are electoral regimes with strong presidents and recent histories of increasingly authoritarian tendencies’, they also all display recent records of economic growth (ibid. ). The rise in economic power of these countries may be important as it could be seen as a stabilising factor in what are potentially volatile states. Interestingly, Venezuela came to be a hybrid state through the collapse of a democratic regime, whereas hybrid states are often seen as stemming from authoritarian systems (ibid, 21).

Ekman’s idea of a hybrid state may show some biases towards the autocratic nature of these states and closely identifies with Levitsky and Ways’s notion of competitive authoritarianism. Bogaards’ approach to hybrid states takes into consideration both autocratic and democratic principles and defines his interpretations of hybrid states with a view to both. He calls this a ‘double-root’ strategy (2009, 410). Critical to Bogaards’ theory is the suggestion that hybrid states are their own kind of regime and are neither autocratic nor democratic (ibid, 415). Bogaards identifies five different regime types with hybrid states lying in middle. The other types are totalitarianism, electoral authoritarianism, defective democracy and functioning democracy (ibid, 412). Of course hybrid regimes do not fit into a totalitarian regime outline, where a citizen has no institution to protect him or her from the state (Jay 1998, 248). As was discussed earlier, hybrid states also do not match the principles of democracy as outlined by Dahl. These two statements are obvious, yet Bogaards asserts that hybrid states also cannot be classified as either electoral autocracies or defective democracies (2009, 415). Electoral authoritarian systems involve elections which are broadly inclusive, yet due to state manipulation are minimally open and competitive (Schedler 2006). Defective democracies are democracies where the key characteristics of freedom, equality and limitation of political power are not met or balanced equally (Lauth 2004). Bogaards’ theory places hybrid states in between these two categories. Bogaards’ criteria for classifying state types is similar to that of Ekman’s, he analyses elections, political rights, civil liberties, horizontal accountability of the governing power, and the effectiveness of government (2009, 412).Yet, as mentioned before, he does this with both reference to democracy and autocracy, so a pure hybrid system is identified when these criteria are found to contain a balanced mixture of both systems (ibid, 410).

Bogaards’ theory is certainly helpful in showing how hybrid systems can be identified as an individual regime type, though its reliance on analysing various criteria may still lead to differing and unsystematic outcomes. Wigell’s theory that regime types can be measured on the basis of two criteria and Schmotz’s expansion on this idea may provide a relatively more simple approach to categorising and identifying hybrid systems. Wigell (2008, 230-250) bases his theory on measuring states on how high or low they rate in both electoralism and constitutionalism. That is the measure of the popularisation of power, and the protection of civil liberties. Using these measures Wigell is able to place states on a scale, which is similar to that of Bogaards’; it consists of autocracy, constitutional oligarchies, electoral autocracies and democracies (ibid ). Democracies score high in both measures, where as authoritarian systems score low. Constitutional oligarchies are systems with high degrees of constitutionalism but lack open and competitive elections, the reverse is true for electoral autocracies (ibid ). It can be seen that Wigell’s theory contradicts that of Bogaards’ as he considers all regimes that are not either authoritarian or democratic to be hybrid systems. Schmotz’s (2008) theory expands on Wigell’s and allows for easier categorisation of hybrid states. He replaces the terms electorialism and constitutionalism with access to power and exercise of power. Again using a high or low measure he categorises hybrid systems in three ways:  A regime that has low competition in elections but has constrained governmental power, a regime that has highly competitive elections  but has powerful government with few constraints, and finally a regime that occupies the middle ground in both competitive elections and governmental constraint (ibid, 5-6). It seems that Schmotz’s systematic categorisation of hybrid states may be at this time the simplest way to identify states that consist of both autocratic and democratic characteristics.

It is now time to turn attention to China and Iran, two states whose political systems are not identified by the aforementioned theorists as hybrids. Yet, both are deserving of the title of hybrid state due to their uniquely mixed state systems. China has been under communist control since 1949 when Mao Zedong rose to prominence after the Chinese civil war (Yu-Shan 2009, 276). During his tenure Mao imposed a centralised state controlled economy, the hallmark of a communist regime. He established communes in rural areas, abolished rural markets, cut private property and allowed the state to set prices. These practises however had little economic rationality (ibid, 283). A major change came to China’s economic system in 1978 with Deng Xaophing becoming leader of China. He began to liberalise the economy, re-introducing the rural markets and allowing private enterprise in cities. Deng opened up China’s trade system which brought in world trade and foreign capital (ibid, 289-291). China’s liberalised economy has been further consolidated by recent leaders and has led to China being described as a ‘post-totalitarian capitalist developmental state’ (ibid , 281). China can be described as having a communist political system combined with a capitalist economic system, a true hybrid state. Lane and Myant (2007) suggest that the obvious liberalising/conservative tension in China is controlled by the government retaining some control over the state’s economy.  They suggest this can be seen in the way, in which the Chinese government favours so called pillar industries (ibid, 240). These are the biggest industries in China and are closely aligned to the state, remaining sheltered from market competition (ibid, 252). So while China remains an authoritarian state it should be classified as a hybrid due to the contrast in its political and economic ideology.

Iran, which is now known as the Islamic Republic of Iran, is the world’s only theocracy. This means that all political decisions must align with the teachings of the country’s chosen religion, Islam.  This is outlined in Iran’s constitution, written in 1979, as the principle of Velayat-e Faqih (Chebabi and Keshavarzian 2008, 569-570). The highest authority in the country is the Leader, the religious authority who has control directly or indirectly over the judiciary, the police, the military and other important figures in the state (ibid, 571-573). Iran also contains an important democratic element, it has a president and parliament elected by universal suffrage (ibid, 569). However the legislation proposed by parliament can be vetoed by the Council of Guardians (a committee chosen by the Leader) on account of incompliance with the constitution and Velayat-e Faqih (ibid, 571). The control of the Leader over the president and parliament, and therefore the legislature is the biggest source of contention in this unique mixture of theocracy and democracy.  Gheissari (2006) explains that the use of theocratic state apparatus helped to overcome the liberalising threat that was President Khatami, who was elected with overwhelming support in 1997. While in office Khatami was not able to deliver his liberalisation promise to the many reformists who supported him, this eventually led to the election of the conservative Ahmadinejad in 2005 (Gheissari 2006, 148). The Leader, Khamenei and his supporters stifled Khatami’s attempts at liberalising Iran. Although small reforms were initially made in terms of press freedom and greater civil liberties, these were later overturned.  Khamenei strengthened the military which along with the judiciary were used to undermine Khatami’s rule. The important ministries of oil, foreign affairs and intelligence were taken out of his control and from 1997 to 2004 the Guardian Council vetoed 111 out of a total 297 parliamentary legislations (ibid, 137-138). Although from this evidence it seems that theocracy dominates democracy in the Iranian system, the fact that Khatami was able to be elected shows that competitive elections are valued in the Iranian system. Furthermore Khatami’s reign led to the conservatives in Iran realising that citizens valued socio-economic issues and that this must not be taken for granted if they want to remain in power (ibid, 157).

Different theories have been proposed on how to identify and categorise hybrid states and while many of them vary slightly they all agree that a hybrid state consists of a political regime which contains both autocratic and democratic elements. A hybrid regime is not in transition from an autocracy to a democracy or vice versa, but is its own type of regime. While China is an authoritarian state it contains a unique mixture of communist politics and capitalist economics. Iran is considered a democracy yet the principles of its state are based on that of Islam, often bringing itself into conflict with the democratic ideal. Both of these countries then should also be considered hybrid states.


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SCHEDLER, A. 2006, 'The Logic of Electoral Authoritarianism', in A Schedler (ed.), Electoral Authoritarianism: The Dynamics of Unfree Competition, Lynne Reinner, Boulder, pp. 1-26.

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Jonas Rodrigo 16 months ago

An informative hub, Wuzumi.

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