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Authoritarian Regimes: Values of Democracy Versus Dictatorship

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Authoritarian regimes have recently come to be one of the most widespread political systems in the modern world. Authoritarian regimes have managed to persist and overcome various hurdles that they are confronted with. The study of the endurance of authoritarian regimes is significant as it offers an internal perspective as to why other systems, like democracy, seem to fail while authoritarianism thrives. To further understand authoritarian regimes, we need to study the accompanying coercive apparatus that contribute to its survival. As well as looking into the cases of the Middle East and North Africa as key instances of authoritarianism survival. This paper will argue the endurance of authoritarian regimes is due to the robustness of the state’s coercive apparatus. Thereafter, we will be focusing on scholarly arguments that contend the precise nature of authoritarian regimes. Ultimately, this paper will additionally see to resolve the question of what causes an authoritarian regime to fail.

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Prior to unpacking the endurance of authoritarian regimes, it is first imperative to establish precisely what an authoritarian regime is. According to Heywood (1997:38), authoritarianism is, “a belief in, or practice of government‘from above’, in which authority is exercised regardless of popular consent.” When looking at the term, ‘authoritarian’ we can conceptualize two alternative meanings. Within comparative politics, authoritarianism refers to a regime that conducts unlawful elections. Conversely, when understanding political psychology, an authoritarian regime alludes to an individual who seeks a cemented social and pecking order. Authoritarian regimes can be traced by to the pharaohs of Ancient Egypt, who saw themselves as higher than the law and were unsusceptible to criticism. Additionally, Julius Caesar saw and declared himself a God. More modern examples of autocratic leaders can be considered in Stalin, Hitler, and Mao Zedong. This type of regime practices their supreme authority rather than permitting personal liberates and freedom of the individual. An authoritarian regime comprises of a sole leader or a small group of leaders who possess absolute power. Although authoritarian regimes permit elections, the genuine power will undoubtedly remain in the hands of those in charge while its people remain with very little to no liberty. In an authoritarian regime, there is a lack of freedom and if there is any freedom it is incredibly limited, for instance, there is no freedom of speech and religion.

An authoritarian regime can, therefore, be recognized as a political structure in which one person possesses absolute power. These mirror the concepts of a dictatorship, where power has been seized through the use of force; despotism, where power has been used callously and tyrannically and of totalitarianism, which endorses total submission to the state and government. Another concept that is one and the same when it comes to authoritarian regimes is personalization and institutionalization.

Tyrannical authority is seen as personalized while infrastructural power is noted as institutionalized. Furthermore, while democratic structures aim to keep their politicians in line, authoritarian regimes conversely aim to crush any form of political opposition. Unlike modern democracies, authoritarian regimes conversely offer little to no accountability and legitimacy towards its populace. According to Juan Linz (1975; 264), authoritarian regimes differ appreciably from its counterparts, democracies and totalitarian regimes, because it typically employs a limited amount of pluralism, it offers partial political participation and it does not tolerate excessive mobilization.

In a similar fashion, authoritarian regimes can be defined in a variety of ways: a number of scholars have offered their own definition of what an authoritarian regime is. Linz offers several distinct types of authoritarian rule; these perpetually include postcolonial authoritarian regimes, authoritarian corporatism, mobilizing authoritarian regimes, bureaucratic military authoritarian regimes and post-totalitarian regimes. Nonetheless, Linz’s considerations are not regarded without fault. There are undeniably some authoritarian regimes that do consider mobilization regardless of the factor of demobilization. Furthermore, the concept of mobilization does not consider and distinguish authoritarian regimes from its sister structure, totalitarianism. On the contrary, political scholar Dieter Nohlen (1987) argued that there are six methods in which authoritarianism can be suitably explained: through legitimacy, necessary apparatus of rule, a cemented ideology, political policies, a specific location and finally, an established relationship between the leader and its people forming some sort of social contract. Conversely, it is possible to dispute that another featured characteristic of authoritarian regimes may include a military rule, a dictatorship or a single party rule.

Authoritarian regimes employ a homogenized apparatus and ensure that suitable decision-making measures are followed in lines of the ruler’s power. It, therefore, provides a stable basis of domination compared to a predictable pattern of representation (Phaahla: 2019). A stable basis of domination entails a leader being in power for a lengthier period of time, there is no significant opposition and power remained in the hands of the same people. On the other hand, a predictable pattern of representation offers a democracy, there is a multiplicity of representation. It is deemed predictable in nature since democracy ensures that there will habitually be some form of representation. The purpose of an authoritarian regime is not to limit or restrain ‘despotic power’ but instead it hopes to give the regime suitable ‘infrastructure power.’ This cemented the leader’s power over its populous and state apparatus while having an advantage over any potential opposition (Phaahla: 2019).

That said, there are various ways in which authoritarian regimes survive and endure despite some opposition. These include packing, rigging and circumventing. Packing entails the placements of party and personal compatriots to high-up governmental and party positions. Any party or regime oppositions are squashed or purged. Within the regime’s institutions, there are high levels of command and control, similarly, these institutions ensure that there is sufficient political command over the populous. This ensures that the leader stays in power and subsequently makes certain that the regime’s political mandate is cemented. When looking at the concept of rigging, we understand it offers the modification or the subtly changing of laws and regulations to ensure there is no chance of any leadership opposition. Rigging is dissimilar to packing as it refuses to obey procedures. Circumventing, on the other hand, proposes that substitute policy channels redirect sway and assets away from the opposition. Circumventing becomes an alternative option if political institutions cannot be packed. This makes certain that policies that are implemented by the party are followed through as well.

When discussing the complex temperament of Authoritarian Regimes, we first need to present a comparative analysis of their endurance and the coercive apparatus that logically follows. Scholar of authoritarian regimes, Eva Bellin (2004: 139) argues that there needs to be certain prerequisites in place which allows the endurance of authoritarian regimes. Additionally, the failure of modern democracy in a number of states is due to the disintegration of these prerequisite conditions. First, she concedes that civil society is, in fact, weak and cannot carry out democracy to the best of its ability. Thereafter, she contends that a large majority of the economy lies in the hands of the state. Third, Bellin says there are low literacy rates, people are poor and there is large inequality amongst the masses. Another prerequisite can include the fact that some countries do not lie within the epicenter of democracy, rather they are outliers. Furthermore, certain cultures are prominent in some areas, and it can be noted that some religions do not promote democracy (Bellin, 2004: 141). All things considered, the masses, as well as the elite, do not make democracy a priority due to all of these reasons, therefore it can be said that states that champion democracy is seldom.

What’s more, Bellin (2004, 139) considers, “The lack of strong civil society, a market-driven economy, adequate income and literacy levels, democratic neighbours and democratic culture explains the region’s failure to democratize.” These factors support the endurance of authoritarianism in certain regions while evident attempts at democracy cease. A characteristic of coercive power is it allows for some sort of control on individuals. Rulers of an authoritarian regime keep this coercive power close to them. Coercive power can, therefore, be used to the advantage of rulers to cement their supremacy. Vessels of coercive power can include the military, the police, and various other security details. Within modern authoritarian regimes, coercive apparatuses have become a vital tool in ensuring the survival and endurance of the regime. For instance, when looking at the prominence of authoritarianism in the Middle East, we note these states strongly utilized coercive apparatuses to secure their continued existence as well as promoting the squashing of any democratic opposition (Bellin, 2004).

When discussing the coercive or security apparatus there are two key concepts that need to be mentioned, the institutionalized security apparatus against the patrimonial security apparatus. The bureaucratic establishment focuses on a system that is supported by rules; there are patterns of predictability, meritocratic deposition, promotions are received based on the ability of your performance and not your loyalty to the party. Conversely, a patrimonial establishment looks at cronyism and well as nationalism. The lines between the private and civil sector are blurred, there is corruption and abuse of power with the government and positions are based on loyalty and connections to those in the state.

Furthermore, modern scholar Kaufmann (2013) contends that there are three fixed concepts that add to the endurance of authoritarian regimes. These include legitimation, repression, and cooptation. If these three contributing factors work together concurrently, it can be remarked that power will more likely remain with the ruler. The notion of legitimation concludes the leader of the regime has to cement and establish their own legitimacy, unlike modern democracies where the legitimacy of the state and the leader is given by the people. In succession, this promotes unity between the ruler and the populous which therefore works to establish the ruler’s position and power. However, it must be stated that cooptation occupies the least significant role within the equilibrium of an authoritarian regime. Likewise, the idea of repression furthers a successful regime. Repression helps to crush any bubbling resistance by squashing and opposing ideas before they get a chance to catalyze. While repressive tactics place a significant role within the coercive apparatus of the state, they are unseen or heard. Instead, rulers would rather keep them hidden from the populous.

Within the Middle East and North Africa, there are measures or prerequisites in place which ensure that survival of the coercive apparatus. There is economic and monetary strength within the two regions. These regions are rent seeking, additionally the military and security forces are seen as priorities when it comes to the national budget. North Africa and the Middle East have received international support following the cold war. Institutionalization is seen as not very significant which helps the leader remain power. More vitally, there are elementary levels of social mobilization, therefore, making an uprising very unlikely.

One classic instance of the failure of Authoritarian regimes is due to the lack of autonomy and liberty by the individuals within the population. Uprisings are causes by discontent and frustration felt by individuals. Within an authoritarian regime, a cause of an uprising may be due to the strained relationship between the leader and the citizens. A revolution can be explained as a mass uprising with hopes of overthrowing one power structure and implementing a newer and more effective system. Goldstone (321: 2013) defines a revolution as, “an effort to transform the political institutions and the justifications for political authority in a society, accompanied by formal or informal mass mobilization and non-institutionalized actions that undermine existing authorities or seek to change prior political, social, or economic relationships.” There is no doubt that within an authoritarian regime there has to be some discontent felt by the citizens, and a revolution can be seen as a consequence if an authoritarian regime fails.

When studying the endurance of authoritarian regimes, we note a number of factors that ensure its survival. One of the most critical factors ensuring the survival of the regime can include the coercive apparatus. The nature of the authoritarian regime coupled with the supplementary coercive apparatus aims to provide some perspective as to why some states thrive while under an authoritarian regime. Whereas, some states who attempt to achieve a modern democracy fail. The callous complex of the coercive apparatus aids in ensuring the survival of the regime. Additionally, this paper looked at a possible consequence of discontent felt under authoritarianism. The comparative study of authoritarian regimes remains vitals as it offers some understanding as to why they endure and are successful while doing so.

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