Sepp Blatter and the selectorate theory: FIFA shows how autocrats survive

dictatorshandbookThe police have finally come for several FIFA officials, and yet the organisation seems set to re-elect Sepp Blatter for a fifth term as President. It appears to go against all our expectations of how the system should work – democratic processes should remove corrupt leaders – but it fits in with our wider experience of how the world works, where autocratic rulers and their regimes do tend to stay in power much longer than their democratic counterparts.

So, why do corrupt, authoritarian and undemocratic regimes tend to survive longer than those that aren’t? That’s where the selectorate theory comes in. This is a theory devised by international relations scholar Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and others that seeks to explain this process, as well as some other features of the international system. I’m going to try and explain it briefly here, but for the full theory you should read either The Dictator’s Handbook or The Logic of Political Survival which give a much fuller explanation. (The Logic of Political Survival is the original academic text, The Dictator’s Handbook is written for a mass audience)

The theory looks at how leaders stay in power, and the key to staying in power in any system is keeping the support of a winning coalition within the selectorate that determines who gets to hold power. In a democracy, the selectorate is usually quite large – everyone who votes – and consequently the winning coalition needed to stay in power is also usually quite large. Within an autocratic or authoritarian system, however, the number of people who determine who gets to be in power is usually quite small and thus the winning coalition is also quite small, especially compared to the overall population. If all a leader has to do to stay in power is keep the support of that winning coalition, it’s a lot easier for the leader to do so if the winning majority is small.

There are too many reasons for this. First is the leader’s positive power to effectively pay off the winning coalition with state resources, diverting what should be public goods into private goods. This is also possible in democracies, but the size of the winning coalition means that any payoffs to its members are relatively small on an individual level. When you merely have to ensure the loyalty of a few thousand people (or a couple of dozen, in the case of FIFA) it’s a lot easier to achieve, which is one reason corruption is a lot higher in autocratic regimes – it’s how the leaders maintain their power.

The second reason is slightly more complex and relates to the size of the winning coalition compared to the selectorate and the population. This is an important ratio because it helps to bind the winning majority into supporting the current system and not wanting to see it overthrown. If the winning coalition is only a small chunk of the selectorate, then it will not want to see the system overthrown, because when a new leader emerges, they could well be relying on the support of a different chunk of the selectorate and those in the current winning coalition will be out of power and not receiving any of the benefits they get from that. We can see that with FIFA – the winning coalition needed is a very small number of people to maintain control of the Executive Committee. If Blatter was to fall and be replaced in an open process, there are enough people out there with some power in football that the chances of an individual still holding their position within the winning coalition afterwards would be quite small, so they remain committed to supporting the present regime.

That’s why, once they’re established (they’re actually more likely to collapse in the first year than democratic regimes), autocratic regimes tend to stay in power because it’s in the interests of all those in power not to rock the boat. The winning coalition wants to remain as small as possible to ensure it gets the best share of the spoils, and it’s in the leader’s interest to keep it as small as possible compared to the selectorate to ensure that the risk of losing their place at the table is too great to risk overthrowing them – apres moi, la deluge, is the autocrat’s warning to his supporters. That’s why corruption appears to be rife in many international sporting organisations as they tend to be run by restricted oligarchies who are all fearful of rocking the boat because there are too many out there willing to take their position and leave them with nothing.

Autocrats survive because of the way they corrupt the system, not despite it, and it’s the lure of the benefit of that corruption (and fear of the consequences of losing it) that keeps their winning coalition onside.

2 thoughts on “Sepp Blatter and the selectorate theory: FIFA shows how autocrats survive”

  1. This is a good analysis. However, the system contains the seeds of its own destruction. Because the benefits are substantial for a small selectorate, it’s in people’s short-term interest to make the selectorate even smaller, which easily happens anyway through power struggles. People still in power see this happening and fear. You easily get at a situation like Ceausescu’s in Romania where not only were so many disempowered people angry and desperate, enough to represent a serious challenge, but people in the charmed circle and others recently ejected but still with some useful knowledge and contacts were prepared to join an attack on the status quo.

    Blatter’s case is unusual because of the huge sums FIFA controls and its modest committed outgoings compared to a modern state. An analogy would be a small oil-rich state.

  2. Après moi, le deluge works a treat to keep the winning coalition on side. Just look at how dictators implicate their followers in crimes to ensure they daren’t desert. General Franco made his inner circle witnesses to murder, so they faced the fear of being either murdered by his side or prosecuted by the opposition if they defected.

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