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Diffusing Containment, Containing Diffusion

Comparative Politics
Contentious Politics
Democratisation
Alexander Schmotz
WZB Berlin Social Science Center
Kevin Koehler
European University Institute
Alexander Schmotz
WZB Berlin Social Science Center
Oisin Tansey
Kings College London

Abstract

Mass mobilisation poses a serious threat to the survival of authoritarian regimes, and large-scale public protests can be highly effective in pressuring incumbent elites out of office. In recent years, scholarship on protests and regime change has sought to examine the causes and consequences of regime contention, with a particular focus on clustering dynamics of mass protests. Yet these moments of transnational mass mobilisation rarely translate into uniform waves of democratic transitions, and a key barrier to perfect chains of emulation and replication comes in the form of government repression by incumbent elites who seek to protect themselves public overthrow. State repression is thus a key factor in accounting for authoritarian resilience in the face of mass protests. In this paper, we examine the factors that shape incumbents’ decisions to engage in repression against protests, as well as particular strategies they use to clamp down on protest movements. We build on recent research that has highlighted the importance of international dynamics in the domestic politics of protest repression, rather than seeing repression as a purely domestically-driven strategy (Heydemann and Leenders 2011; Koesel and Bunce 2013; Weyland 2016). In particular, we argue that there is an important regional dynamic to protest repression, and that domestic incumbents are more likely to repress protests if there has already been a regional pattern of repression. States do not emulate individual first-movers, but rather respond to a regional tipping point when a critical mass of regional neighbours engage in repressive behaviour. We support our arguments with quantitative analysis of protest repression data from the NAVCO dataset and qualitative analysis of six cases of protests repression from the Arab Spring.