My work is primarily based in the field of comparative politics but also spans themes of political economy and international development. It focuses on three areas: the politics of authoritarian regimes; the state of and challenges to democracy in the world; and regime changes (autocratization and democratization). I also have regional expertise in studying China and East Asia specifically.

Authoritarian Regimes

My research on authoritarian regimes focuses primarily on institutions and elites. I have, for instance, focused on questions of why parliaments in autocracies vary considerably in strength and under what circumstances they can become stronger. Currently, I am collecting original data on members of parliaments in authoritarian regimes across the globe.

Corruption, Elite Contestation, and Parliaments: Why Do Legislatures Become Stronger in Authoritarian Regimes?Wiebrecht, F. (2024)Political Research Quarterly. [Link]
A growing body of literature studies the personalization of power in authoritarian regimes. Yet, how institutions can become a credible constraint to dictatorial rule is less widely studied. I theorize that corruption is a key factor associated with stronger legislatures in authoritarian regimes. By engaging in corruption, authoritarian elites in ruling coalitions can build up networks of support and influence and ultimately, use their elevated position to impel more legislative powers vis-à-vis the executive. Examining panel data on the strength of legislatures in authoritarian regimes between 1946 and 2010, I show empirically that authoritarian parliaments are stronger when levels of corruption in a given regime are high. The link between corruption and legislative strength is especially strong in the Middle East and Africa, and primarily applies to party-based and military dictatorships. More competitive electoral and legislative processes, however, do not uniformly affect parliaments’ strength. These findings contribute to our understanding of institutional changes in autocracies and highlight the centrality of elite contestations in determining institutional trajectories.
Between elites and opposition: legislatures' strength in authoritarian regimes.Wiebrecht, F. (2021).Democratization. [Link]
Virtually all authoritarian regimes have legislatures, and their role in bolstering regimes has been highlighted in recent research. Yet, the strength of authoritarian legislatures has received relatively little attention, although it can differ remarkably across regimes. This study utilizes an index of legislative strength to analyse parliaments in authoritarian regimes from 1946 to 2010. The empirical findings highlight that three factors are particularly important in predicting legislative strength, namely the level of personalism and the existence of an opposition and elections. However, beyond these factors, it appears that stronger legislatures are not generally associated with less authoritarian control over legislative and electoral processes. Yet, the findings also illustrate significant differences between de facto and de jure powers and across time periods. More competitive electoral and legislative procedures are linked to more de facto powers and stronger legislatures particularly after 1990. The findings contribute to our understanding of the institutional landscape in authoritarian regimes and provide a basis for future research on the effects of legislative strength.

Democracy in the World

What is the state of democracy in the world? What are the challenges to democracy? Is democracy beneficial to economic, human, and societal development? How can we promote democracy? These are just some of the questions that my research seeks to answer. 

Impact of Democracy on Economic, Human, and Societal Development (Revise & Resubmit)(with Martin Lundstedt, Vanessa Boese-Schlosser, Natalia Natsika, Kelly Morrison, Yuko Sato, and Staffan I. Lindberg)
Advances in data and progress in statistical modeling have generated both robust results and null findings of the impact of democracy on aspects of the economy, human, and societal development. We review the evidence, finding that democracy improves economic growth, population health, gender equality, and peace, but that empirical findings are either mixed or null for economic inequality and poverty, corruption, education, and public goods provision. Where democracy is found to have a robust effect, the impacts are often substantial. We critically discuss challenges to the study of societal impacts of democracy, and outline ways of improving research going forward. 
From Aid to Empowerment: The Impact of Democracy Assistance on Civil Society  (Revise & Resubmit)(with Adea Gafuri and Marike Blanken)
A growing body of research indicates that democracy aid improves levels of democracy in recipient countries. However, the precise mechanisms behind this relationship are understudied. Contributing to the study of democracy promotion, this study highlights aid for civil society as one crucial way of fostering democracy abroad. We argue that democracy assistance channelled through civil society organisations empowers civil society and consequently enhances democracy in the recipient country. Analysing earmarked funding for civil society with panel data of 128 recipient countries between 2005 and 2021, we find evidence for the effectiveness of this type of aid. The results demonstrate that assistance to civil society positively affects both, the strength of civil society and democracy levels in the recipient country. We also find this assistance to be particularly effective in closed authoritarian regimes. This work contributes to debates about the effectiveness of democracy aid and the mechanisms behind it.
State of the world 2022: defiance in the face of autocratization.Wiebrecht, F., Sato, Y., Nord, M., Lundstedt, M., Angiolillo, F., and Lindberg, S.I. (2023)Democratization. [Link]
This article presents the state of democracy in the world in 2022 using the most recent Varieties of Democracy dataset (V13). There are four main findings. First, the level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen is down to 1986-levels and 72% of the world’s population live in autocracies. Second, the third wave of autocratization reaches a new height with 42 countries autocratizing. By contrast, only 14 countries are democratizing. Third, between 1992 and 2022, autocracies increased their share of the global economy and now account for 46% of world GDP when measured by purchasing power parity. Fourth, defying the global wave of autocratization, eight countries not only stopped but also reversed autocratization in the last 10 years, which we define as democratic U-turns. We find five elements that seem important across the identified cases: executive constraints, mass mobilization, alternation in power, unified opposition coalescing with civil society, and international democracy support. We analyze different combinations of these factors and discuss how they could be critical in stopping and reversing contemporary autocratization. This first analysis suggests that in-depth, comparative case studies of these eight cases and their counterfactuals would be an important area of future research.

Regime Changes

Why do countries democratize or autocratize? My research seeks to identify important factors for regime changes in both directions and identify how these processes may be connected. 

When Autocratization is Reversed: Episodes of Democratic Turnarounds since 1900 (Under Review)

(with Marina Nord, Fabio Angiolillo, Martin Lundstedt, and Staffan I. Lindberg)

Working Paper here.

The world is in a wave of autocratization. Yet, recent cases such as Brazil, the Maldives, and Zambia demonstrate that autocratization can be both halted and turned around. This paper introduces “U-Turn” as a new type of regime transformation episode in which autocratization is closely followed by and linked to subsequent democratization. It provides a comprehensive conceptualization and operationalization of this new type of episode, complementing the existing Episodes of Regime Transformation (ERT) framework. The accompanying database provides descriptions for all 102 U-Turn episodes from 1900 to 2023, differentiating between three types: authoritarian manipulation, democratic reaction, and international intervention. The analysis presents a systematic empirical overview of patterns and developments of U-Turns. A key finding is that 52% of all episodes of autocratization become U-Turns, which increases to 73% when focusing on the last 30 years. The vast majority of U-Turns (90%) lead to restored or even improved levels of democracy. The data on U-Turn episodes opens up new avenues for research on autocratization and democratization that were previously treated as isolated processes, particularly it could help us understand why some processes of autocratization trigger a successful pro-democratic backlash – a critical question in a world currently in its starkest-ever wave of autocratization.

Party Systems, Democratic Positions, and Regime Changes: Introducing the Party-System Democracy Index (Under Review)(with Fabio Angiolillo, and Staffan I. Lindberg)Working Paper here
One of the most important global political developments is the current wave of autocratization. Although most research has identified this as an executive-led process, recent work also highlighted the importance of opposition actors in more or less successfully resisting it. We combine this work into a common framework and highlight the role of party systems for regime changes. Specifically, while party-systems literature emphasised and measured policy differences, we conceptualise party systems’ democratic positions highlighting to what extent divergent regime preferences are prevalent across parties. To estimate this dimension, we provide the new Party-System Democracy Index (PSDI), allowing us to track preferences for regime types across party systems from 1970 to 2019 across 178 countries and 3,151 election-years. We implement well-established content, convergent, and construct/nomological validity tests to confirm the reliability of our measurement. Finally, we also show that the PSDI is an important predictor for regime changes in either direction and that changes in the PSDI can signal a looming regime change. This work provides a new framework for studying regime changes and contributes to the renewal of the party-systems literature.
Disinformation and Regime SurvivalSato, Y., and Wiebrecht, F. Forthcoming.Political Research Quarterly.Working Paper here.
Disinformation has transformed into a global issue and while it is seen as a growing concern to democracy today, autocrats have long used it as a part of their propaganda repertoire. Yet, no study has tested the effect of disinformation on regime stability and breakdown beyond country-specific studies. Drawing on novel measures from the Digital Society Project (DSP) estimating the levels of disinformation disseminated by governments across 148 countries between 2000-2022 and from the Episodes of Regime Transformation (ERT) dataset, we provide the first global comparative study of disinformation and survival of democratic and authoritarian regimes, respectively. The results show that in authoritarian regimes, disinformation helps rulers to stay in power as regimes with higher levels of disinformation are less likely to experience democratization episodes. In democracies, on the other hand, disinformation increases the probability of autocratization onsets. As such, this study is the first to provide comparative evidence on the negative effects of disinformation on democracy as well as on the prospects of democratization.


I have rich fieldwork experience in China and spent considerable time in the country. My research on China focuses in particular on policymaking processes including processes around policy innovations, widely seen as the backbone of China's economic rise, and the extent to which consultations with non-Party actors take place and affect outcomes.

Expertise and Responsiveness in People’s Political Consultative Conferences  (Revise & Resubmit)
What benefits do inclusive institutions have for authoritarian rulers? Previous research studied delegate behavior in authoritarian institutions but has been less well-equipped to assess government reactions to it. Analyzing the case of a People’s Political Consultative Conference in China, I argue that an overlooked key benefit of inclusive institutions is their contribution to policy rationalization. Drawing on novel data spanning more than 9,000 policy suggestions submitted by delegates, their biographies, and the corresponding government responses, I illustrate that the government values suggestions that signal expertise rather than those that display loyalty. While this is especially true for departments of a more technocratic nature, I find no evidence suggesting that proposals highlighting grievances are responded to more favorably. These findings provide an important addition to our understanding of the role of authoritarian institutions in policy-making processes.
Environmental Antecedents, Innovation Experience, and Officials’ Innovation Willingness: Evidence from China.Huang, B., Wu, X., and Wiebrecht, F. (2024)Public Management Review. [Link]

Prompting officials’ innovation willingness is a prerequisite for processes of public sector innovation. This article constructs a framework explaining officials’ innovation willingness by linking environmental antecedents and path dependence. The empirical analysis, based on an original survey of 403 officials and interviews with 102 officials in China, shows that their innovation willingness is mostly driven by factors within the bureaucratic system, i.e. top-down and horizontal drivers but less so by bottom-up drivers. Moreover, officials with previous innovation experience tend to have more innovation willingness but are less driven by top-down factors. This study advances the theory of innovation willingness generation.

Explaining Activity in Authoritarian Assemblies: Evidence from China. Wiebrecht, F. (2022)Journal of East Asian Studies. [Link]
Who attempts to influence policymaking through authoritarian assemblies and why are some delegates considerably more active in doing so than others? Drawing on original data from provincial People's Political Consultative Conferences (PPCCs) in China, this study adopts a delegate-centered perspective and develops a theory of delegates’ activity in authoritarian assemblies. It argues that delegates’ activity can be explained by a combination of both cooptation theory and an understanding of delegates’ position within the authoritarian regime and hierarchy. The results highlight that core elites with more direct means of influencing policymaking will forego assemblies. Yet, peripheral elites lack other institutional channels of access to decision-makers and have to voice their demands in authoritarian legislatures. This study highlights the need for disaggregating groups of actors in authoritarian politics and offers an alternative view of cooptation particularly relevant for closed authoritarian regimes.
The Dynamic Role of Governments in Adopting Policy Innovations in China.Huang, B., and Wiebrecht, F. (2021)Policy & Politics. [Link]
A growing number of studies have paid attention to the dynamic nature of vertical government interactions in authoritarian China. Yet, less attention has been paid to the question of why higher-level governments play different roles in diverse cases of innovation adoptions. Building on the extant literature, this study introduces the concept of innovation copyright, i.e., the perceived ownership of the innovation, to explain the different roles of higher-level government involvement in innovation adoption. A comparative case study of policy innovations in China highlights that if higher-level governments perceive that they own the innovation copyright, they act as proactive facilitators, and if higher-level governments perceive that the innovation copyright belongs to local governments, they are involved as political backers. The copyright structures the expectations of higher-level and local governments and as a consequence determines their roles in innovation adoptions.
Cultural Co-Orientation Revisited: The Case of the South China Morning Post.Wiebrecht, F. (2018)Global Media and China. [Link] [PDF]
The freedom of press is one aspect that leaders from the West often criticise about China. As former British colony, Hong Kong has been able to preserve its special status with constitutional rights and liberties that also include the freedom of press. However, in recent years, sentiments of increased influence from Beijing have led to fears that it would curb the freedoms enjoyed by residents of the Special Administrative Region. However, instead of clear unambiguous interferences, Beijing has opted for an indirect approach that is predominantly characterised by the salience of economic considerations in reporting news binding the media outlets closer to the position of Beijing. This article shows that the South China Morning Post has undergone an editorial shift that moves it closer to the position of the Chinese government.

Most of  my work is published through Open Access but if you would like to receive a copy of any of my publications or access to the data used, please feel free to get in touch. (felix.wiebrecht[at]