The Twilight of ‘Modern Authoritarianism’

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With activists and journalists facing harsh new restrictions in countries from China to Egypt, there are growing signs that authoritarian regimes have begun to abandon the quasi-democratic camouflage that allowed them to survive and prosper in the post–Cold War world. And despite appearances, they are likely doing so as a result of increased vulnerability rather than waxing strength.

For a decade or more, Freedom House and others have described a phenomenon known as “modern authoritarianism,” in which fundamentally antidemocratic governments have strengthened their hold on power by making at least some of a common set of concessions—largely illusory in nature—to the world’s prevailing democratic order:

  • Economic openness: Rather than attempting to preserve a closed, command, or autarkic economy, the typical “modern authoritarian” regime cultivated extensive connections with the outside world, creating a sense of freedom and prosperity. However, state enterprises and crony tycoons retained a dominant position, and pliant legal systems allowed the leadership and other corrupt officials to set and routinely reset the terms of economic participation for foreign companies, investors, and local entrepreneurs.
  • Pluralistic media: Formal prepublication censorship and media monopolies were abandoned in most cases, clearing the way for a proliferation of commercialized, well-produced, and often entertaining media outlets. But the state and its agents retained direct or indirect control of key sectors, manipulated mainstream news coverage, and kept truly independent journalism on the margins of the information landscape.
  • Political competition: Most regimes allowed multiparty systems to emerge, and held regular elections, but opposition parties were fabricated, coopted, or defanged in practice, allowing the ruling group to retain a de facto monopoly on power.
  • Civil society: Nongovernmental organizations were permitted to operate, but they were kept under close watch and forced to compete with state-sponsored groups. Organizations focusing on apolitical topics like public health or education often received less scrutiny than critical human rights activists, who were variously belittled, harassed, or suppressed.
  • Rule of law: Twentieth-century authoritarian staples like martial law, curfews, mass arrests, and summary executions were largely left behind, and force began to be used more selectively, so that most of the population rarely experienced state brutality. Dissidents were punished through the legal system, with its vaguely worded laws and obedient judges, and in cases where extralegal violence was used, state authorship was either hidden or not acknowledged. Only certain ethnic minorities faced naked military force or deadly police tactics.

​These adaptations are still in place, to varying degrees, in most authoritarian states around the world. But some of the older practices associated with the mid-20th century seem to be reemerging.

In Russia, the government has recently begun to cut trade ties with Europe in response to sanctions, impose travel restrictions on millions of public-sector employees, eliminate the last few outlets for independent news, roll out strident propaganda campaigns, outlaw well-established human rights organizations, and flout international norms against territorial expansion by military force.

The Communist Party regime in China is increasing regulatory and legal pressure on foreign companies, squelching the limited policy debate and investigative reporting among more liberal and commercialized media outlets, tightening its control of social media, detaining even apolitical activists and commentators, televising forced confessions, and using brutal policing methods against ever-expanding segments of the population, particularly among ethnic minorities.

Authorities in Arab countries like Egypt and Bahrain have violently crushed opposition movements that were previously allowed to participate in national politics through elected parliaments, even if they were not permitted to govern in practice. These crackdowns have been accompanied by wholesale government attacks on civil society, critical media, and internet freedom, with little semblance of due process or impartiality.

Similar assaults on long-standing illusions of comparative pluralism and openness are under way in countries including Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. And in Venezuela, which has long featured a vibrant protest culture despite shrinking freedoms in other areas, the government has increasingly criminalized free assembly by opposition forces.

The exact causes of this shift are complex, but they stem in part from the common structural weaknesses of the “modern authoritarian” model, which include:

  • Systemic corruption as a means of buying loyalty
  • The unresolved problem of succession
  • Political vulnerability to economic shocks

Virtually all of the popular protest movements against authoritarian regimes over the past four years—to which the recent crackdowns are a response—have been linked to one or more of these weaknesses. Rumors of a father-to-son succession, combined with rampant elite corruption, helped to stoke opposition to the Mubarak regime in Egypt ahead of the 2011 uprising, for example. Vladimir Putin’s stage-managed return to the presidency after a cynical circumvention of term limits drove Russians to the streets in 2011 and 2012.

And while democracies have gone through multiple changes of government during the economic downturn that began in 2008, authoritarian states do not allow peaceful rotations of power and rely on economic growth as a source of legitimacy, meaning every protest against unemployment or economic mismanagement is a potential revolution in the making. Even those regimes that have continued to prosper while democratic economies struggle may simply be putting off crucial market-based corrections for fear of a public backlash.

The notion that modern authoritarianism is succumbing to its weaknesses should not bring much comfort to democracy supporters. It is encouraging to see that these deceptive adaptations have a limited shelf life, but the nascent reversion to older and blunter authoritarian practices—including jingoism as a means of bolstering domestic support—has already increased the level of instability in the world at large. The duration and severity of this dangerous period will depend on the quality of the response from democratic states.

Photo Credit: Lewa'a Alnasr 

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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