Captured Commitments: An Analytic Narrative of Transitions with Transitional Justice

How can outgoing autocrats enforce promises of amnesty once they have left power? Why would incoming opposition parties honor their prior promises of amnesty once they have assumed power and face no independent mechanisms of enforcement? In 1989 autocrats in a number of communist countries offered their respective oppositions free elections in exchange for promises of amnesty. The communists’ decision appears irrational given the lack of institutions to enforce these promises of amnesty. What is further puzzling is that the former opposition parties that won elections in many countries actually refrained from implementing transitional justice measures. Their decision to honor their prior agreements to grant amnesty seems as irrational as the autocrats’ decisions to place themselves at the mercy of their opponents. Using an analytic narrative approach, the author explains this paradox by modeling pacted transitions not as simple commitment problems but as games of incomplete information;that is, embarrassing information that provides insurance against the commitments being broken. The author identifies the conditions under which autocrats step down even though they can be punished with transitional justice and illustrates the results with case studies from Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary.

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