What Explains the Persistence of Authoritarian Regimes?

Authoritarian regimes despite having a strong negative connotation attached to them, have on multiple occasions managed to survive for decades. This essay explores the potential reasons which help explain the persistence of authoritarian regimes besides coercion, fear and violence, which are ever-present in most authoritarian regimes. The essay first attempts to define what an authoritarian regime is, it then moves on to discuss the ways in which authority bearers attempt to control an entire country. The essay analyses various ways in which authoritarian regimes seek to legitimize their power in order to help sustain their rule.

In its broadest sense, the authoritarian regime is an umbrella term for all forms of undemocratic rule (Lauth, 2012). However, a clearer and narrower definition of authoritarian regimes that has gained unanimity was given by Juan J. Linz in a pioneering article entitled “An Authoritarian Regime: Spain”. Linz defines authoritarian regimes as:

“Political systems with limited, not responsible, political pluralism: without elaborate and guiding ideology (but with distinctive mentalities); without intensive or extensive political mobilization (except at some points in their development), and in which the leader (or occasionally a small group) exercises power within formally ill-defined limits but actually quite predictable ones.” (Juan, 1970)

According to Linz, authoritarian regimes display limited political pluralism, have a vague ideology and is a regime in which the leader is not bound by well-defined limits to their power. An authoritarian regime may refer to a system of governance that observes authoritarian practices. Authoritarian practices can be broadly defined as “a pattern of actions, embedded in an organized context, sabotaging accountability to people (‘the forum’) over whom a political actor exerts control, or their representatives, by disabling their access to information and/or disabling their voice.” (Glasius, 2018). Hence, a regime assumes the label of an authoritarian regime only when it is structured in a way that the regime can resort to coercion whenever deemed necessary by the leader; and the leader can escape any form of accountability for the same. Such practices are considered authoritarian and regimes which observe such practices are labelled as authoritarian regimes.  Authoritarian regimes and leaders are usually frowned on, yet many authoritarian regimes manage to survive for decades: Cuba’s Fidel Castro was in power for 52 years (1959-2011), and North Korea’s Kim II-Sung served as the country’s supreme leader for 45 years. Repression and the fear of violence is ever present in dictatorships. People are driven by the fear of being arrested and facing the brunt of violence. Few authoritarian rulers manage to justify repressive actions, against their own citizens, as legitimate (Edel & Josua, 2018). However, violence and repressive means alone cannot explain the persistence of a regime for decades. It needs to employ other ways to legitimise its rule. There are various other factors which explain why specific authoritarian regimes persist for so long and others do not.

“Violence is the ultimate arbiter of conflict in authoritarian regimes” (Svolik, 2012), therefore, the military plays an important role in aiding the regime to hold power for long. However, heavy reliance on the military, although important for repression, can lead to the downfall of authoritarian leaders. Once the military becomes indispensable for the survival of a regime, they demand political privileges and policy concessions (Svolik, 2012). Such perks and privileges help expand the military’s power well beyond what is needed to suppress the opponents and enough to suppress the dictator. Therefore, to ensure the persistence of an authoritarian regime, leaders keep their military under control by giving them limited power and disposing of them once a threat is defeated. For instance, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali kept his military small and underequipped, hence avoiding the threat posed by a strong military (Svolik, 2012).

Violence is a crucial tool in authoritarian regimes, yet for the survival and persistence of such regimes, leaders adopt apparently cooperative practices which help in the legitimation of the regime. Co-optation makes use of cooperative practices and “helps tie strategically relevant actors to the regime elite through formal and informal means” (Gerschewski, 2013). In most cases, authoritarian regimes survive with the help of loyalty from a small group that brought them to power. Co-optation is achieved by offering incentives to this small group of elites in order to gain their acceptance and support for the authoritarian rule (Tilley, 2018).Co-optation is a strategy which can be employed in multiple ways and has two subtypes: strengthening and widening. Strengthening strategy targets people who might already be co-opted, but contemplating a shift in a stance against the regime; whereas, the widening strategy aims to make those individuals who are not supportive of the regime, pro-regime (Josua, 2016). This can be done by either offering them an official post in the government or granting financial resources.

Institutional structure co-optation allows the integration of potential opponents into the political arenas such as formal institutions like parliaments and parties. Bearing in mind the limited importance of legislatures in authoritarian regimes, co-optation provides a way to include neglected groups in decision-making in addition to co-opting local officials into loyalist parties (Josua, 2016). “Material co-optation implies the distribution of mostly financial resources to different target groups” (Josua, 2016). The wealth concentrated within a small circle of elites is distributed to either silence criticism or bring big businessmen under the loyalist umbrella, prolonging the existence of the authoritarian regime. (Kreitmeyr, 2019) The concentration of wealth within the coterie of regime officials and loyalists is important for political control. (Parsa, 2020). These regime officials then fund anti-democratic bodies, such as the Guardian Council in the Islamic Republic of Iran, which in turn eliminate any anti-regime elements (Svolik, 2012). “The co-optation of businessmen from the private sector into the executive was a significant development in many countries”.(Holdo, 2019) Hence, co-optation uses financial resources or other incentives to buy off individuals or groups by giving them incentives such as financial resources or a role in decision making. The fewer the opponents, the longer the regime persists.

Another apparently benevolent manoeuvre, which can be used to explain the persistence of authoritarian regimes, is the authorization given by a few authoritarian regimes to their citizens to voice their opinions publicly. “They sometimes allow citizens to voice their opinions on platforms such as social media, concerning issues that seem politically sensitive” (Chen & Xu, 2017). This is done for two reasons: to allow the horizontal flow of information between citizens and for the vertical flow of information from citizens to the government. The horizontal flow of information makes the citizens aware of the stance taken by others on a policy or issue. Therefore, they are either encouraged or discouraged to coordinate collective action. Further, there is a vertical flow of information, because of which the government becomes aware of the collective feeling towards or against a policy. The government can accordingly make arrangements to either amend the policy or suppress the upcoming rebellion. Thus, “public communication allows the government to pre-empt collective action caused by horizontal learning” (Chen & Xu, 2017). In addition to this, quite often an uprising against the government is avoided because of fluctuating public opinion which is conveyed on social media. Lack of congruence between citizens’ opinions on an issue discourages rebellion, helping authoritarian regimes survive for longer. Conversely, countries like China are afraid of the potential of free internet, therefore they spend heavily on surveillance of the internet and try to shut down free communication in an attempt to avoid an uprising, hence prolonging the survival of the authoritarian regime. (Tilley, 2018).

Democratic regimes survive for so long because they more often than not have a strong claim to legitimacy. Their rule is legitimised because of elections and various power-sharing arrangements. Authoritarian regimes too need support from their population, which is “achieved by offering claims to legitimacy that justify the division between ruler and ruled” Claims to legitimacy can be manipulations by the government or honest beliefs held by the authoritarian government (Soest & Grauvogel, 2017). Legitimacy claims can be identity-based, performance-based or they can be based on Max Weber’s notion of charisma and traditional and legal-rational authority. Legitimacy can also be claimed on a procedural basis.

Most authoritarian regimes invoke “different dimensions at the same time to strengthen their claim to legitimacy” (Soest & Grauvogel, 2017) Identity-based legitimacy revolves around the righteousness of the political order because of the collective identity. History often plays a significant role when a group of elites seek to claim legitimacy on the grounds of identity. Further, Weber put forward the idea of three forms of legitimate rule, ‘charismatic’, ‘traditional’ and ‘bureaucratic’, these can all be linked to authoritarian regimes. “Charismatic authority sweeps aside old norms and generates charismatically-certified new norms” (Spencer, 1970). Followers of a charismatic leader often view the leader as a saviour or someone who has the potential to transform their bleak present into an attractive future. Charisma can help sustain a regime for some time eventually the charisma wears off and the regime loses support. “Traditional authority is legitimated by traditional norms” (Spencer, 1970). The people respect the norms, traditions and customs already in place, consequently, they respect the leader who becomes the bearer of authority because of these norms, hence legitimizing the leader’s rule. Traditional authority is stable so as long as the norms are accepted. “Legal rational authority rests on legal norms and is also contained by them” (Spencer, 1970) As long as an authority can prove that their power is vested in a set of legal norms apparently outside their control, they can invoke legitimacy.

“Persistence of authoritarian regimes also depends on the legitimation of its power through performance (von Soest & Grauvogel, 2017). Authoritarian regimes modernize their economies in an attempt to justify their despotic rule. However, economic development in its broad sense also includes the standard of living of its citizens, which the authoritarian regimes cannot guarantee. They attempt to legitimize their rule with economic growth indicated through improved GDP. China is an example of an authoritarian regime that has displayed growing economic success, helping the regime’s survival. In addition to economic growth authoritarian regimes, to give a democratic character to their rule, conduct regimented elections. (Lauth, 2012) Elections help the authoritarian leaders expand their support, at least ostensibly, beyond their small elite group in addition to convincing the international order that the regime is democratized. Elections in authoritarian regimes are not genuine but are “carefully orchestrated events wrapped in a spectacle to reinforce the regime’s strength and test the oppositional waters” (Ali, 2018). They are rigged either by ballot-stuffing, the arrest of opposition figures, and intimidation of opposition supporters or miscounting of votes (Ali, 2018). Thus, elections help authoritarian regimes survive by giving an illusion of democracy.

In conclusion, for an authoritarian regime to survive it should be capable of striking a balance between using of military to silence insurgents and keeping the military’s power in check. It is important for a dictator to silence dissent but at the same time they should allow the citizens to voice their opinions on public platforms because that might actually help the ruler prolong his rule. Further, authoritarian regimes employ various ways to legitimise their power: use of identity based politics, creation of an illusion of democratic institutions, focussing on economic growth etc. A combination of employment of these factors in a regime’s governance can be used to explain why certain authoritarian regimes persist for so long. However, one needs to bear in mind that each regime is unique because of its population, history and current economic, political and social scenario. Therefore, the list of reasons because of which an authoritarian regime survives is non-exhaustive.


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The views expressed in this article are the author's own.

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