The article explores the conditions under which incumbent leaders in initially competitive political systems manage to offset democratic resistance and establish an authoritarian regime. Autocratisation – the transition from a competitive political system to a regime dominated by a single political force – is a challenging effort for an incumbent and involves interventions in three ‘arenas’ to achieve (a) public legitimation, (b) institutional reforms increasing political repression and (c) mass-scale co-optation. Focusing on Slovakia and Belarus in the 1990s, where autocratisation efforts failed and succeeded respectively, the article finds that co-optation plays a catalytic role in helping the incumbent pass institutional reforms and escalate repression without risking de-legitimation. In Belarus, co-optation engulfed society and the economy whereas, in Slovakia, a socioeconomic environment with greater autonomy from government limited the scope for co-optation. The Slovak opposition was able to find the resources and supporters necessary to fight back against the incumbent.

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