Sta. Ana coordinates Action for Economic Reforms ( This piece was published in the March 29, 2010 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

Let’s imagine a kingdom—let’s call it Wonderland—ruled by an autocrat, named Queen of Hearts. The kingdom’s political system is nominally democratic.  Elections are held regularly; the courts and the legislature function; the media operate; civil society organizations exist; the rule of law is invoked.

Yet, elections are violent and fraudulent. The Queen of Hearts wins the elections through the manufacture of votes.  Further, the autocrat Queen has clever ways to extend power, say, by having a proxy to continue ruling on her behalf. The appointed justices are the Queen’s servants. The legislators are toadies. Journalists are bribed.  Or killed. Outspoken businessmen face the Queen’s vengeance when she sends out the tax collectors to harass them. Activists are harassed; some mysteriously disappear, others imprisoned.

And the autocrat uses the law to subvert the rule of law.  “Off with his head,” the Queen’s favorite expression, is how the kingdom deals with the opposition.

Collective action is weak.  Citizens are becoming depoliticized or demoralized. Street action is hard to sustain.  A coup d’etat is far-fetched; the generals are the Queen’s loyalists. And the string of coup failures has decimated the ranks of the military adventurers. An armed revolution, other than being too long, exacts a high toll on people’s lives.

So is there another option for the citizens of Wonderland to end tyranny and build new institutions?

Wittingly or unwittingly, a paper written by Benjamin F. Jones and Benjamin A. Olken for the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) makes the option of assassination a serious matter that can be pursued to effect institutional changes with a democratic character.  The paper is titled: “Hit or Miss, the Effect of Assassinations on Institutions and War” (NBER Working Paper Series, Working Paper 13102, May 2007).

The paper’s abstract says: “Assassinations are a persistent feature of the political landscape. Using a new data set of assassination attempts on all world leaders from 1875 to 2004, we exploit inherent randomness in the success or
failure of assassination attempts to identify assassination’s effects. We find that, on average, successful assassinations of autocrats produce sustained moves toward democracy. We also find that assassinations affect the intensity of small-scale conflicts. The results document a contemporary source of institutional change, inform theories of conflict, and show that small sources of randomness can have a pronounced effect on history.”

Using econometrics, Johnson and Olken attempt to find out the effects of assassinations on two things: institutional changes and armed conflicts.  But here, for the benefit of the citizens of Wonderland, we are more concerned about the former.

The authors collected data on all publicly reported attempts to assassinate national leaders.  They were able to record a total of 298 assassination attempts of which 58 were successful.  That isn’t a high rate, which might deter plotters.  While a successful assassination of an autocrat likely leads to a more democratic environment, a failed assassination can only invite more violence and instability.

Yet we must note, though this is not tackled in the Johnson and Olken paper, that some assassination attempts were done crudely or haphazardly. The paper is not explicit either about the definition of an autocrat.  In Wonderland and in the real world, autocrats are garbed in democratic clothing.

Nevertheless, the low success rate of assassination attempts should be measured against the finding that the successful assassinations of  autocrats lead to institutional changes that pave way for democracy. The regressions results include the following:

1.    Democratic transitions are 13 percent percentage points more likely upon the autocrat’s assassination than upon a failed assassination.
2.    Leadership changes through institutional means are 19 percentage points higher upon an autocrat’s assassination than upon a failed assassination attempt.

The Johnson and Olken paper also contains bits of information that can guide future assassination plots.  For example, the role of luck in history is real. If Hitler had extended his stay by another 13 minutes at a Munich beer hall in 1939 (he suddenly changed his departure plans), he would have likely been killed by a bomb. Another example: Guns have a better kill rate than explosive devices.

Of course, the academicians Johnson and Olken are not endorsing assassination as a strategy to achieve democracy in autocratic environments.  But their paper has opened a Pandora’s box, presenting a scholarly, evidence-based elucidation of an unlawful act that leads to democratic changes.  Amoral political strategists will use the Johnson and Olken study to justify assassination as part of the menu for institutional change and improve the chances of success of democratic-enhancing assassination attempts.

I wonder how the citizens of Wonderland will react to the Johnson and Olken study.  Alice of Wonderland will of course say: “Curiouser and curiouser.”

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