The Resurrection ofAuthoritarianism

The Resurrection of Authoritarianism

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Authoritarianism has long been described as a system of government in which the state remains the central institution, power is exercised by an individual or a group of people, citizens enjoy limited political freedom, and procedures of political participation and competition are generally absent. But as we witness a rapid and alarming backsliding of democracy, an undermining of democratic institutions and practices, also described as the ‘wave of autocratization,’ authoritarianism has become the ‘new normal;’ it has also attained new characteristics. Understanding these new characteristics are essential to exploring the source of this new wave of authoritarianism and its future trajectories. It is also necessary to historicize the new phenomenon, instead of considering this as a sudden and abrupt outburst of popular outrage against elites and undermining of democratic institutions by leaders. Although increasingly described as a global phenomenon, the trend of authoritarian resurgence has drawn more public attention in recent years as countries in Europe and the United States started to display the symptoms. However, the trend became palpable in the mid-2000s as many countries, instead of transitioning from authoritarianism to democracy, were regressing.

Salient Features of Classical Authoritarianism

Despite broad agreement on some features of authoritarianism, political scientists have never agreed on a universal definition. Various taxonomies of non-democratic systems that emerged over time listed several forms of authoritarian systems of governance. These include monarchy, military-authoritarianism, and one-party systems, to name but a few. Historically, these authoritarian systems often lack or enjoy weak legitimacy, and range from an absence of political parties to a limited party system; head of the executive includes members of a monarchical family to the head of the military to political leaders. Power structure was personalistic, except in one-party states and bureaucratic authoritarian regimes, an issue I will return to later. The ideological orientation, as well as the power base of these rulers varied; the broad spectrum of ideology stretched from the radical left to the extreme right, and the power base ranged from family to corporate interests to a particular class. The obvious and defining element was the absence of separation of power, both vertically and horizontally, making accountability completely absent.

Two Variants of Authoritarianism in the Developing World

Two kinds of authoritarianism that largely emerged in republics in the 1960s and 1970s engendered discussions in political science. They were populist authoritarianism and bureaucratic authoritarianism. The former emerged in the wake of decolonization after World War II. Many nationalist leaders, in post-colonial states in Asia and Africa, embraced populist ideology and adopted an authoritarian style of governance. Populism, in this instance, was meant to be an anti-status quo ideology with promises of egalitarianism enjoying the support of working class and/or peasantry, but led by non-working-class organization. Latin America experienced the first populist wave beginning in the 1930s in the wake of economic crisis, which continued until the 1960s. In South Asia, the anti-British-colonial movement had a populist undercurrent since the 1920s, but the combination of populism and authoritarianism came to the fore in the mid-1970s, when charismatic leaders rose to power through democratic means; the political developments in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan in the mid-1970s illustrate this trend.

Regimes which combined populism and authoritarianism, with different ideological leanings, proliferated in various parts of the world over many decades. The populist leaders of the first wave in Latin America, like many African countries, gradually shunned democracy, either in favor of a one-party system or by creating a restrictive political environment and limiting civil rights. Anti-imperialism was a defining feature of their politics. In large measure, these leaders – in Latin America and elsewhere – were removed from power through military coup d’état, often backed by the United States. Intervention of the military in politics and overt military rule became the principal modes of authoritarianism in the developing world beginning in the 1960s, especially in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, while many Eastern European countries, as client states of the Soviet Union, experienced one-party authoritarianism aka the Soviet Union. Such phenomena were also present in limited forms in the African continent. Totalitarian systems in the Soviet Union, China, North Korea and Cuba, were a distinct type of authoritarianism, and were not widespread.

Among military authoritarianisms, one particular form became prominent in Latin America and spread to some countries in East Asia. This was described as Bureaucratic Authoritarianism, a term coined by Guillermo O’Donnell. The distinctive nature of this brand of authoritarianism in South America between the 1960s and 1980s was that it combined the military, technocrats, and the nascent bourgeoise. David Collier summarized the features of bureaucratic authoritarianism as ‘a form of bureaucratic and technocratic military rule that seeks to curtail popular mobilization and is built on a political coalition and a party orientation that entails strong ties to international economic actors.’ It is different from populist authoritarianism as well as traditional authoritarianism. This has also been described as a type of state, rather than a regime, because of the policy orientation and long-term impacts on society and polity. The intrinsic connection between global capitalism and this type of regime made them immune to western criticisms.

Thus, in the post-WWII era, manifestations of authoritarianism varied in the developing world, and they emerged as a response to domestic and global economic crises, global economic dynamics, and Cold War rivalry, to name but a few. Their emergence was also predicated by domestic political processes, especially the strength of institutions and charisma of the leaders.

Democracy, Democratization, and Authoritarianism

The phenomenon of authoritarianism must also be located within the broad history of democracy and democratization. Non-democratic regimes have been a dominant feature of modern history. But Viscount James Bryce, in his two-volume study titled Modern Democracies, published in 1921, insisted that since 1789 the new world entered a new phase. He argued that the disintegration of Austria and the liberation of subject nationalities from Germany and Russia, which produced significant numbers of new states and offered the opportunity of self-government, would greatly increase the number of democracies in the world. He wrote, “Within the hundred years that now lie behind us what changes have passed upon the world! Nearly all the monarchies of the Old World have been turned into democracies.” In his view, democracy became normal and natural: “A not less significant change has been the universal acceptance of democracy as the normal and natural form of government. Seventy years ago, as those who are now old can well remember, the approaching rise of the masses to power was regarded by the educated classes of Europe as a menace to order and prosperity. Then the word Democracy awakened dislike or fear. Now it is a word of praise. Popular power is welcomed, extolled, worshipped.” Interestingly, Bryce’s high optimism came at a time when the world was witnessing a downturn of democracy and emergence of authoritarian rulers in Europe.

Samuel Huntington, in his seminal work, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (1991), argued of three waves of democracy. The first wave of democracy (1882-1926) faced reversal by the end of WWI (1914-1918) when several countries turned to authoritarianism. The second wave, which spanned the years between 1945 and 1962, was followed by another reversal, marked by the spread of military rule in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Some of the Latin American countries which enjoyed long spells of democracy and were considered to have consolidated democracy also succumbed to the military power grab. As such, it became evident that authoritarian rulers die, but the ideology of authoritarianism has many lives. The yearnings of citizens for an inclusive system of governance challenged the repressive system, in more places than ever before. According to Huntington, beginning in 1974 with the downfall of autocratic rule in Spain, the Third Wave of democracy ensued. The end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall and retreat of authoritarian rulers, previously supported by the West and USSR, created a euphoria in the early 1990s, epitomized by Francis Fukuyama in his book, The End of History and the Last Man (1992). The ‘democratic moment’ has arrived, Marc Plattner wrote in 1991.

The Reverse Wave and the New Authoritarianism

The number of countries discarding authoritarianism as an ideology and a system of governance grew exponentially in the early 1990s and provided credence to the claim that we had reached a critical juncture of human history. Various ideologies of authoritarianism seemed to be in a terminal stage, if not already dead. But in less than a decade, it became obvious that writing the obituary of authoritarianism was premature. By the early 2000s it became apparent that many countries that left the authoritarian stage towards democracy had stalled. Empirical data and observations revealed that some of these countries were either static or beginning to regress. This gave rise to the concepts of several adjective-laden democracies –illiberal democracy, semi-authoritarianism, liberalized autocracies, competitive authoritarianism, electoral authoritarianism, for instance.

Two points became obvious, that the democracy wave has been reversed; and that a new form of governance which alloys democracy with authoritarianism has emerged, which can be called the hybrid regimes. The countries within this strand are apparently democratic but essentially authoritarian. What makes them distinctly different from earlier forms of authoritarian systems is that they no longer outrightly reject democracy, instead they use democratic institutions, for example elections, to remain in power. Authoritarianism returned in democratic garb.

Two of these new forms are described as competitive authoritarianism and electoral authoritarianism. Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way described the former: “In competitive authoritarian regimes, formal democratic institutions are widely viewed as the principal means of obtaining and exercising political authority. Incumbents violate those rules so often and to such an extent, however, that the regime fails to meet conventional minimum standards for democracy.” Electoral authoritarianism, according to Andreas Schedler, are states under the control of a dictator who has successfully ‘established the institutional facades of democracy, including regular multiparty elections for the chief executive, in order to conceal (and reproduce) harsh realities of authoritarian governance.’ Elections under these systems, are no longer tools of democracy, instead a tool of authoritarianism. Schedler writes, that ‘[…] electoral contests are subject to state manipulation so severe, widespread, and systematic that they do not qualify as democratic.’

New Authoritarianism and Populism

The debate on the names of these regimes notwithstanding, in the past decade we have witnessed the resurrection of authoritarianism in various regions of the world. Not all leaders of the new strand of authoritarianism in Asia, Africa, and Latin America have adopted a populist rhetoric or strategy, but some did, for example Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. Almost all, however, have used populist rhetoric to rise to power and thrive. In the case of Europe, in consolidated democracy and emerging democracies, the rise of authoritarianism is blended with populism. This is why recent discussions on authoritarianism, in academia, public discourse, and the public policy arena, are often mixed with populism. It is necessary to underscore that these two phenomena are not intrinsically linked, but in Europe (and in some other parts of the world too), they advanced in tandem. Populism’s predilection for framing the debate in binary – ‘elite versus masses’/ ‘us versus them’ – is conducive to anti-democratic ideologies and tend to be sympathetic to authoritarianism. The anti-elitism becomes anti-pluralism, and thus professes for an exclusivity, as Jan-Werner Muller argued in his book What is Pluralism?

It is equally important to note that populism by nature is not meant to be a rightwing ideology, instead it can be adopted by leftwing political forces. But in the case of Europe, the rightwing ‘nationalists’ have adopted populism as a mobilizational strategy. What prompted the rise of populism is a matter of debate. The editors of the World Policy Review noted, ‘The populist boom is fueled by disparate, local issues, but these often share common features, such as feelings of disenfranchisement, of being left out of a global economic boom and of discomfort at seeing familiar social orders upended.’ There are two explanations for the rise of populism in Europe and the US: economic insecurity and cultural backlash. However, what is important for the purpose of our discussion is that these populists have demonstrated authoritarian characteristics such as anti-immigrant xenophobia, Islamophobia, and intolerance to diversity.

In some measures, the underlying factors of the rise of populism have also facilitated the rise of anti-democratic ideology. David Motadel writes in History Today, “It is social inequality, economic crisis, concerns about social, demographic and cultural change and anxiety about the complexity of the modern world which are driving people to anti-liberal solutions. The world’s demagogues play with their fears, offering simple solutions, scapegoats and a strong hand.”

European populists, after succeeding in gaining state power, swiftly moved to dismantle the democratic institutions, including institutions which ensure accountability. The actions of the leaders of Hungary and Poland, in the past years, are cases in point.

The Contours of the New Authoritarianism

There is no denying that democracy is in crisis. The long list of the adjectives used for describing the phenomenon – democratic backsliding, recession, erosion, de-consolidation – essentially points to the fact that authoritarianism, once considered a relic of the past, has acquired a new lease on life. But this new brand of authoritarianism has new features along with the markers of classical authoritarianism. Most importantly, it has transcended from only a system of governance to a practice. As such, along with countries which display the features of classical authoritarianism – brutal repression of opponents with powers concentrated in the hands of a single leader, there are countries where institution(s) behaves in exclusionary manner, with an intent to deprive citizens of their lawful rights.

This is a global phenomenon rather than a particular system of governance limited to a specific country or group of countries or restricted within national boundaries. The phenomenon is global not only because it has proliferated all around the world but also because the new authoritarianism and its variants, such as the hybrid regimes, have global backers. To borrow Larry Diamond and Marc Plattner’s words, ‘authoritarianism has gone global.’ The most important aspect is, as Diamond and Plattner in their introduction to the volume Authoritarianism Goes Global inform, that big authoritarian states, such as Russia, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, have taken ‘coordinated and decisive action to contain democracy at the global level.’ Arch Puddington, in an analytical essay entitled, ‘Breaking Down Democracy: Goals, Strategies, and Methods of Modern Authoritarians’ described this development as ‘authoritarian internationalism.’ An interesting paradox is that most of the authoritarian leaders tend to portray them as ‘nationalist’ and ‘anti-globalization,’ yet embrace this version of internationalism.

At the heart of the new authoritarianism, or autocratization, lies identity politics. Gulnaz Sharafutdinova has pointed out that “Whether it is Trump ‘making America great again,’ Putin rising ‘Russia up from its knees,’ or Orban preserving ‘Europe for Europeans’ – they all present themselves as embracing the will of whole peoples.” They are not exceptions, and their claims are far from aberrations, instead they are representatives of modern authoritarians who are successful ‘identity entrepreneurs.’ Almost all of them present themselves as the savior of the nation. This is where populism converges with authoritarianism – populists claim that they represent ‘people’ even when they didn’t get the majority’s support are echoed by authoritarian leaders that they are the only ones who are protecting the ‘people’ from evil elites or the opponents. Opponents are not only portrayed as ‘unpatriotic’ and ‘evil,’ but also those who are constantly engaged in ‘conspiracy.’ Jan-Werner Muller, in a conversation with Uri Friedman published in the Atlantic in February 2017, drew our attention to this ‘frequent invocation of conspiracy theory by populists;’ the same is true of the authoritarian leaders.

Authoritarian leaders are obsessed with history. The attempts to rewrite history and create a single official narrative of history, as in Russia, and to protect this narrative through constitutional and legal measures, as in Hungary, are replicated elsewhere. In so doing they launch an open assault on academic freedom. Arch Puddington writes, ‘a number of countries have undertaken a refashioning of history to buttress the legitimacy and aims of the current government. Historians and journalists are forbidden to cross certain redlines set by the authorities.’

These new elements of authoritarianism are added to a few other characteristics, such as creating a climate of fear in society through extrajudicial measures. As we already are aware, these new authoritarian leaders, unlike their predecessors, gain their legitimacy through managed elections, creating pseudo-opposition, and allowing a limited space for civil society organizations. These features do not replace the old ones such as crippling the opposition, using legal and extra-legal measures to control the media and dissent, and the use of blunt force. An interesting paradox of the new authoritarians is that they champion the new communication technologies, especially social media, but impose restrictions on cyberspace. They are used for surveillance by the state on the one hand, while for propaganda and propagating fake news by their supporters or ‘troll army,’ as they are called.


The preceding discussion shows the historical trajectory of the rise of the new brand of authoritarianism in the past decades and its various characteristics. Once confined to oblivion, or at least an aberration, authoritarianism has gained a new lease on life at the beginning of this century. Historical, social, political and economic factors – both global and domestic – have facilitated the resurgence. That’s why it is of utmost importance to understand the context of this phenomenon.

This essay neither offers a complete history of the phenomenon nor provides an exhaustive list of the features of the new authoritarianism, but it is intended to draw attention to the pathway and some defining features. Discussion on the resurgence of authoritarianism as an ideology, and the tactics and methods of the new authoritarian leaders will allow us to focus on the process of legitimation of the authoritarianism, the sources of resilience of this new authoritarianism, and the ways to combat this phenomenon.


Ali Riaz is a Distinguished Professor of political science at Illinois State University, USA. He currently also holds the Thomas E Eimermann Professorship. His recent publications include Lived Islam and Islamism in Bangladesh (2017) and Bangladesh: A Political History since Independence (2016). He has coedited Political Violence in South Asia (2019), and Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Bangladesh (2016).

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