The outbreak of war in Sudan illustrates the perilous trajectories facing “hybrid” regimes around the world. Just a few years ago, Sudan was considered a hybrid regime — a country that holds elections yet has strong autocratic characteristics. As recently as 2018, both Sudan and Zambia were hybrid regimes (although Sudan was certainly more authoritarian than Zambia), but the two countries took very different paths. In Sudan, under former President Omar al-Bashir, elections were not a legitimate avenue for the expression of the will of the people, and change only came through revolution. Even then, hopes for reform were dashed though a subsequent military coup, a troubled transition, and now the outbreak of war. In Zambia, by contrast, elections in 2021 provided an avenue for reform and democratic consolidation. Sudan, now a closed autocracy, holds little prospect for democratic reform. Zambia, now considered as having the potential to be a bright spot in democratic advancement, illustrates the hope that reform is possible in mixed democratic-autocratic systems.

Hybrid regimes, also known as “electoral autocracies,” are governments that endeavor to be seen as democracies but lack the fundamentals to warrant such a label. They hold elections but the playing field is rarely level, as ruling parties utilize a diversified portfolio of election manipulation tactics to secure power, including corrupted voter registration systems, intentional logistical delays, targeted violence, strategic results tampering, and compromised electoral management bodies.

Hybrid regimes pose a thorny policy challenge to the United States. In 2022, almost one-half of countries globally (72 in total) met the definition of “hybrid” or “electoral autocracy” and were present in every geographic region. Examples include Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Nigeria, Mexico, El Salvador, Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Philippines.

Unfortunately, since these governments hold elections and display other trappings of democracy, some policymakers give them a pass on their democratic track record -– especially if the country is relevant to other American interests.

This is short-sighted and counterproductive, even –- and especially — for U.S. national security. Consider the case of Egypt: despite receiving billions in U.S. security assistance, the Egyptian government has been offering to sell arms to Russia to aid the Kremlin’s illegal war in Ukraine, in direct conflict with American policies. It is also exceedingly difficult, if not dangerous, for U.S. companies to invest in or access the markets of hybrid regimes. The opaque and compromised nature of institutions common to these States often results in unclear or biased regulation. For example, while Nigeria has the fastest-growing population in Africa and a market ripe for U.S. exports, corruption and biased regulation make it difficult for U.S. companies to operate there.

Failing to address the democratic deficiencies of hybrid regimes sets up the United States for long-term strategic failure and hinders American economic prosperity. To avoid these outcomes, the United States must carve out a new path forward that preserves near-term U.S. interests while also pressing these States to make democratic progress. After all, there is hope for hybrid regimes. As a recent study notes, “In the face of the global wave of autocratization, data shows that no less than eight countries are bouncing back and making U-turns … Cases like these raise some hope for a future reversal of the last 20 years’ downward trend towards autocratization.”

Thwarting US Interests

Hybrid regimes are less likely to uphold the interests of the United States and its democratic allies on the world stage. Of the 72 hybrid regimes, only 20 voted to remove Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council in April 2022 over the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Of the countries who joined with the United States in a U.N. General Assembly committee to condemn China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang in October 2022, only four were hybrid regimes.

Hybrid regimes also are more prone to internal conflict and instability because they often lack legitimacy among politically marginalized groups (and sometimes large swaths of the population). They are ill-equipped to effectively handle security challenges –- often resorting to heavy-handed tactics that inflame violence –- and have weak institutions that are unable to challenge abuses of executive power.

The susceptibility of hybrid regimes to political violence and instability is perhaps most acute in sub-Saharan Africa. According to an analysis of 2022 data, hybrid regimes experienced almost three times as many conflict incidents and five times as many conflict fatalities compared to stronger democracies. Analysis of data for the past decade shows that hybrid regimes in sub-Saharan Africa are seven times as likely to experience a coup or attempted coup compared to democracies.

The Flawed Approach to Hybrid Regimes

As the United States increasingly engages in strategic competition with China and its authoritarian model, it must remember that it is free people and democratic societies who are its most valuable allies on the global stage. Premature acceptance of sub-standard elections and willful ignorance of democratic backsliding may provide short-term bilateral gains, but in the long term serves to further separate the people in these countries from the United States, eroding affinity between our peoples, and increasing risks of conflict and instability that weaken current and future allies.

It’s important to note the distinctions between hybrid regimes and authoritarian regimes, which do not hold plausibly competitive elections (if they hold elections at all) for the chief executive and the legislature and where institutions have little-to-no ability to check the power of the executive. This distinction enables the international community to minimize the democratic failures of hybrid regimes.

An example is the tendency to judge elections in hybrid regimes as “good enough” unless the fraud and violence are egregiously obvious. In February, the U.S. State Department rushed to congratulate the declared winner of Nigeria’s 2023 presidential election, even though the election was widely criticized by observers for targeted violence, lack of transparency, significant voter disenfranchisement, and outright vote manipulation in some states.

The United States has applied this low bar in other recent elections. Angola’s August 2022 presidential election saw the half-century rule of the MPLA party extended by another five years, in an election where the ruling party controlled the media and courts, imposed worrying changes to the vote-tabulation process, and heavily obstructed efforts to observe the election. Despite these red flags, the U.S. Embassy quickly congratulated the declared winner and commended “the millions of Angolan voters who cast their ballots in this election, and in doing so demonstrated their commitment to strengthening democracy.” Following Tunisia’s December 2022 parliamentary elections, which some international observers labeled a “sham,” the State Department issued a vanilla statement, noting low turnout and the need for greater political inclusion, but failing to cite any other major issues that impeded the credibility of the process, such as barriers to political party participation and egregious restrictions on the press.

Such omissions have immediate and direct consequences for U.S. security and economic interests. For instance, in Nigeria, the widely disputed election results and the high levels of regional disenfranchisement of voters will likely compound regional and sectarian grievances, fueling increased conflict and destabilization, and diverting even more resources and attention of the United States and like-minded partners to combat instability. And in Angola, the extension of MPLA rule under questionable circumstances could lead to continued democratic backsliding and undermine prospects for economic reform, harming U.S. economic interests, including trade (already in significant decline), and could make the country more vulnerable to the malign influence of Russia and China.

Sadly, hybrid regimes most often result from democratic backsliding, rather than autocracies moving toward democratic reform. Of today’s 72 hybrid regimes, 20 were considered stronger democracies 20 years ago, while eight were considered closed autocracies.

Democratic backsliding is usually a gradual process. The international community’s muted response to closing space in hybrid regimes tends to facilitate continued backsliding. Over the past five years, there has been a worrying global increase in the number of authoritarian regimes.  This suggests that early action to address the democratic deficiencies of hybrid regimes is critical to forestalling autocratic consolidation.

Failing to make the distinction between hybrid regimes and democracies, and failure to comprehend trajectories of democratic backsliding, undermines the intent of democratic initiatives like the Biden administration’s Summit for Democracy. At the most recent summit, countries that have been experiencing years of democratic backsliding and refuse to publicize their commitments to democracy (such as Nigeria and Philippines) are given equal standing with countries that are actively and transparently consolidating democracy. Of the 120 countries invited to participate in the 2023 Summit for Democracy, 25 were hybrid regimes. Only about half of these countries publicized their commitments from the summit. And of the stronger democracies invited, almost 40 are countries that experienced notable democratic backsliding over the past five years and are at increasing risk of becoming hybrid regimes this decade.

Democracies are not only more stable than hybrid regimes, but they also enjoy better economic growth, equality, and educational achievement. The failure to adequately differentiate hybrid regimes from stronger democracies fuels the counterproductive perception that “democracy fails to deliver,” when it is in fact the failure to achieve meaningful democracy that prevents so much of the world from enjoying its dividends. 

Walking and Chewing Gum at the Same Time 

The United States and allies must balance their cooperation with hybrid regimes, when it is necessary at all, with a push for those governments to reform and realize broader democratic progress. These aims are not contradictory, but complementary and central to advancing U.S. objectives. Achieving this balance will require prioritizing respect for democratic practices, institutions, and norms when determining how to engage hybrid regimes. Democracy will not always trump other factors, but it should be moved up the rank order of priorities.

There are practical steps the United States and like-minded allies can take -– using diplomacy and foreign assistance -– to advance near-term pressing issues while targeting democratic deficiencies that make hybrid regimes problematic for American interests.

For instance, the United States and G7 allies should make clear they will not welcome with open arms leaders chosen through dubious, sub-standard elections. From Washington to London, leaders should get serious about issuing public sanctions, including asset freezes and visa bans, for malfeasance during elections. On the flip side, the U.S. and allies should make better use of high-level diplomatic engagement, such as leveraging the legitimacy conferred by Cabinet-level visits, to incentivize governments to make changes and adhere to international democratic best practices.

These steps can be impactful while not undercutting cooperation on pressing matters. In Nigeria, for instance, the United States can engage the government to achieve priorities via the U.S. Ambassador and U.S.-Nigeria Binational Commission (BNC), a forum established in 2010 to discuss a range of interests. The Secretary of State need not make plans to visit Abuja to meet newly elected President Bola Tinubu while key court decisions -– and a potential independent audit -– are pending on the results of the recent election.

The United States and G7 allies should pay more rigorous attention to elections in general. Rather than accepting elections as a continuation of the status quo, the West should view electoral processes as critical moments to correct or continue countries’ democratic trajectories, and apply commensurate attention, pressure, and incentives. One step in the right direction would be to more explicitly and publicly link future foreign aid funding used to support elections in such countries to recipient governments agreeing to abide by established electoral standards, including enforcement of election law, equitable access to voting, and transparency in reporting election results and election data. Failure to link foreign assistance to meaningful reforms results not only in sub-par elections and wasted U.S. taxpayer dollars, but also provides diplomatic cover for election malpractice and malfeasance.

Foreign aid has an important role to play in advancing U.S. interests in hybrid regimes by helping cultivate and reinforce democratic practices and norms outside a government in power. The United States is therefore smart to invest in civil society-led advocacy campaigns that hold leaders accountable and in efforts to strengthen political parties that can contest elections and offer an alternative to the status quo.  Yet the United States can do more to couple such capacity building via foreign aid with creating the political will for reform. While building democratic capacity can incentivize and enable the will to reform, capacity should not be viewed as an end in itself; this is a convenient, but short-sighted and counterproductive, approach. Diplomacy and foreign assistance can help enable this political will through a combination of incentives, pressure, and advocacy campaigns, as well as identifying and equipping rising political stars unafraid to push for change.

Looking Forward

As the U.S. and allies navigate relations with hybrid regimes, they should approach evaluating a country’s democratic performance as science and not art. Objective third-party evaluations of democratic performance are widely available but largely ignored in U.S. policymaking. Robust and credible civil society organizations proliferate in many hybrid regimes; yet despite many of these organizations receiving assistance from the United States, their warnings about democratic backsliding are regularly disregarded. The United States should pair support to these organizations with listening to their perspectives -– to the extent they reflect the people’s perceptions and expectations of democracy -– and account for their views in the policymaking process.

U.S. officials must resist the convenient but inaccurate narrative that the hybrid regimes of the world are slowly but surely moving in the right direction. Evidence of backsliding in the past 10 years has shown that is far from certain. A narrative of wishful thinking only results in misleading analysis and poorly targeted foreign assistance and diplomacy, serving to reinforce one-party rule and compound public grievances around the world. Using rigorous metrics can help make progress in this area. 

Major policy initiatives like the Summit for Democracy should require concrete commitments from all participants and demonstrable democratic progress against these commitments. These initiatives should include public accountability for democratic backsliding and for failure to achieve reform objectives. At minimum, governments on prior Summit invite lists who go on to enable backsliding should not be included moving forward.

Ideally, the United States should reward allies that make tangible democratic advances with tangible benefits. For example, the United States should consider re-initiating free-trade agreement discussions with Ecuador if President Guillermo Lasso’s government makes progress on anti-corruption and continues to consolidate democracy. Doing so would reward a key ally in the region and one of the remaining democratic bright spots with tangible changes that benefit the Ecuadorian people and U.S. interests. Similar carrots could be held out for progress in a range of other contexts as well. Participants should also commit to stand with democracy against autocracy on the world stage. Mitigating democratic backsliding and combatting authoritarianism requires the concerted efforts of a global community.  

With major elections coming up in several hybrid regimes this year and next — including Turkey’s planned runoff election on May 28, as well as balloting in DRC, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, Mexico, and El Salvador — the United States must think carefully about how it will assess and react to these elections, and whether perceived short-term bilateral gains will truly be worth the long-term costs.

Going forward, while it is important for the United States to shore up its alliances with the Philippines and other partners to thwart China’s malign influence and kinetic threat, U.S. leaders also must be acutely aware of the democratic backsliding that is occurring in these hybrid regimes and use American leverage to counter it. Without such clear accountability and seriousness in upholding of democratic values, the United States can expect to have “allies” and “partners” that are not only less free and stable, but also distinctly unreliable.

IMAGE: US Vice President Kamala Harris (L) and Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema are seen outside at the State House in Lusaka on March 31, 2023 after a press conference. President Hichilema asked for US help to expedite debt restructuring negotiations with the country’s creditors.  (Photo by SALIM DAWOOD/AFP via Getty Images)