4 March 2018

The Evolution of Autocracy: Why Authoritarianism Is Becoming More Formidable

By: Erica Frantz 

The twenty-first-century autocrat is not the same as his Cold War predecessor.

Globalisation, shifting power dynamics and the growing availability of the internet and other communication technologies have significantly changed the environment in which autocrats operate. Some observers have concluded from these changes that citizens now hold the upper hand, and that dictators’ days are numbered.1 The centralisation of power, according to this argument, is a requisite of dictatorship. In a world in which power is diffusing across NGOs, corporations, and wealthy and technology-empowered individuals, dictators will soon find themselves unable to build and maintain the power needed to uphold their repressive systems of rule.

Although twenty-first-century autocrats face more – and increasingly complex – challenges to their rule, the adaptability and resilience of authoritarian systems should not be underestimated. Since the end of the Cold War, dictators have evolved to survive and even thrive amid changes in their domestic and international environments. Even a casual scan of international news headlines – featuring stories of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s latest international feats, the political hardening under Egypt’s Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, Iran’s attempts to reassert its regional influence, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s consolidation of power – reinforces the notion that today’s autocrats are not waning, but making a comeback.

How did we get here? After all, for the last 25 years, momentum has been on democracy’s side. In 1991, there were just 70 democracies representing about 45% of the world’s population. The Soviet Union’s collapse, however, set in motion a number of changes to the international environment that put many authoritarian governments on the defensive. Not only did democracy become the standard of political legitimacy, but the absence of a geopolitical alternative also meant that Western democratic states gained new-found leverage to encourage democratic reform. In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, autocracies struggled to adapt to these changes and their numbers declined. By 2014, the number of democracies had surged to 115 countries comprising approximately 65% of the world’s population. Democracy, it seemed, had triumphed and secured its status as the world’s preferred form of governance.

Fast-forward to 2017 and a very different picture emerges. Although the number of democratic countries in the world remains near its all-time high, several trends are shifting the momentum in the dictators’ favour. Faced with what looked like slow but certain extinction in the 1990s and early 2000s, dictators have adapted. Learning from the mistakes – and successes – of their predecessors and peers, many autocrats have altered their tactics in ways that increase the resilience of their regimes.

The notion that autocracy is resurgent is not new. A number of important books, journal articles and op-eds over the last few years have drawn attention to the mounting challenges democracies face.2Most of these accounts, however, focus on trends in the world’s democracies. Existing analysis has examined the deterioration of democracy in new or weakly institutionalised democratic states, the erosion of the efficacy and self-confidence of the world’s established democracies, and the ways that shifting geopolitics are affecting democracy’s march. Little attention has been paid to changes taking place within autocracies themselves.

Authoritarian regimes are evolving. The twenty-first-century autocrat is not the same as his Cold War predecessor. Although certain similarities endure and tried-and-true tactics persist, authoritarian regimes are learning and adapting in ways that warrant our attention. Without an appreciation of authoritarianism’s changing dynamics, Western actors interested in supporting democracy will be hobbled by an outdated and inaccurate model of authoritarian politics. Staying abreast of what makes contemporary autocrats – both those in power and those aspiring to it – behave as they do is fundamental to developing strategies to engage and interact with such regimes, and to counter autocracy’s resurgence.
Autocracy is evolving

Politicians tend to value the maintenance of their power above all else. Faced with new challenges, leaders are willing to shift and recalibrate strategies to maximise their prospects for staying in office. Vladimir Putin, whose approach to governing has evolved since he came to power in 1999, is a case in point. In his first two terms (1999–2008) Putin benefited from oil-driven economic growth, and had significant success in containing insurgency in the volatile North Caucasus. Russia’s relative economic stability and much-improved internal security, especially relative to the tumultuous 1990s, allowed Putin to rule with a lighter touch than he is using today. Even as he worked to establish executive control over the judiciary, legislature and regions, Putin relied less on the repressive tactics he has since come to rely on. He was even confident enough in his authority to step out of the limelight in 2008 and allow a titular transition in power as he switched roles with then-prime minister Dmitry Medvedev.

The Putin who emerged following his re-election in 2012, however, had dramatically changed his approach to maintaining power. Just before he returned as president, Russia experienced its most significant protests since the collapse of the Soviet Union. They occurred in the wake of the Arab Spring, which toppled four of the world’s longest-serving dictators, reinforcing Putin’s anxiety about the threat of Western-backed attempts to unseat unfriendly regimes. Moreover, low oil prices and economic stagnation, and a more adversarial relationship with NATO after Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, strengthened Putin’s sense of insecurity and led him to adopt a tougher, more brutal brand of leadership. As Russia experts Fiona Hill and Cliff Gaddy write, ‘Vladimir Putin’s behavior is driven by the imperative to adapt and respond to changing – especially unpredicted – circumstances’.3

It is clear that dictators such as Putin can adapt to changes in their environment. What is less obvious is that there are general and consistent patterns in how autocrats are adapting across countries. In particular, widespread and fundamental changes concerning the ways in which autocrats come to power – and lose it – have altered the incentive structure, decision-making and behaviour of twenty-first-century autocracies since the end of the Cold War. These shifts have been associated with behavioural changes in dictatorships that make today’s authoritarian political systems a more formidable challenge to liberal democracy than at any time in the last 25 years.
Changes in the way autocrats come to power

Historically, the onset of autocracy has been sudden and decisive. Military or civilian leaders made clear-cut decisions to suspend democratic rules and engineer authoritarian rule. This is how the authoritarian regimes of inter-war Europe, and of Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa in the 1960s, were born. In fact, from 1940–89, almost half of all dictatorships emerged through a coup d’état.

Today, the initiation of authoritarianism is far less definitive. Contemporary autocrats are coming to power through a process of ‘authoritarianisation’, or the gradual erosion of democratic norms and practices. Democratic leaders, elected at the ballot box through reasonably free and fair elections, are slowly undermining institutional constraints on their power, gradually marginalising the opposition (and watchdogs such as the press) and eroding civil society in ways that make it difficult to pinpoint the moment at which the break with democratic politics occurs. For years, academics and political observers debated whether Turkey should be considered a dictatorship. At what point did President Erdogan cross the threshold into authoritarianism? And how should we think about moves by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) to undermine respect for democratic principles in the heart of Central Europe?

An analysis of how autocracies have emerged over the last 75 years shows that authoritarianisation has been on the rise since the end of the Cold War. In the 1970s and 1980s, only about 10% of autocracies emerged via authoritarianisation, compared with around 60% of regimes that began via coups.4 By the 2000s, the proportion of autocrats who came to power as democracies decayed had tripled. The trend is even more striking if we examine just those authoritarian regimes that emerged from the breakdown of a democracy (rather than a transition from one authoritarian regime to another, as in the case of Iran in 1979, when the country’s monarchy gave way to the theocracy in power today). From 2000–10, authoritarianisation accounted for 40% of all democratic failures, matching coups in frequency. If current trends persist, authoritarianisation will soon become the most common pathway to autocracy.

Turkey’s slide into dictatorship is the most recent example of this trend, the country’s regime having taken a page out of the modern-day dictators’ playbook. When Erdogan was elected in 2003, he and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) enjoyed strong public support. Erdogan tamed inflation, ushered in economic growth and took a stand for working-class, religious conservatives who had been locked out of power for decades.

Because he was elected on a platform of change, observers dismissed the opening salvos of his effort to consolidate control. In 2009, for example, Erdogan fined Dogan Media Group – a collection of newspapers and television channels critical of the president that were owned by one of Turkey’s biggest media tycoons – $2.5 billion for alleged tax evasion. At the time, public opinion was divided over whether Erdogan was dutifully punishing a tax evader or intent on muzzling the press. Many also downplayed his early efforts to enhance executive control over the country’s military, which historically played an outsized role in politics. With each power grab, however, members of the Turkish political system increasingly understood that their attempts to resist Erdogan’s efforts would cost them their jobs and the perks of power. Since 2009, Erdogan has undermined all institutional constraints on his power, including the media, judiciary and security services, and marginalised all significant critics within the AKP.

A similar story is unfolding in Poland. Like Erdogan, the ruling PiS fuelled its popularity by tapping into domestic grievances. Just as Erdogan harnessed discontent among Turkey’s religious conservatives, the PiS used a nationalist–populist agenda to appeal to public disenchantment.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the co-founder and chair of the PiS, interpreted his party’s majority win in the October 2016 elections as a mandate to consolidate power – something he claimed was necessary to deliver on electoral promises. In particular, the PiS has expanded its control over the judiciary. These moves have paved the way for the party to pass legislation that curbs political and civil liberties and makes it more difficult to remove the regime from power. For example, the PiS has enacted changes to media laws that promote government messaging; has sought to regulate NGOs; and, in March 2017, passed legislation limiting rights to assembly. The party is likely to seek to change electoral laws in ways that could give it enough seats to amend the constitution and solidify its control – just as Erdogan did in April 2017.

Erdogan, the PiS and other leaders are following the path blazed by once democratically elected leaders such as Putin and former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Along the way, leaders seek to grab power from the courts or local elected leaders such as governors; shut down the legislature or banish opposition parties from policymaking; silence opposition journalists and media firms while creating new media organisations under direct regime control; and, ultimately, change the rules governing elections. In Hungary, for example, Orbán’s party, Fidesz, saw its vote share decline from 52.7% in 2010 to 44.9% in 2014, yet its majority in parliament increased, largely because of its establishment of an electoral system that favours the winning party and its gerrymandering of electoral districts. Leaders implement such changes slowly, often under the guise of reform. They have learned that ambiguity and plausible deniability hinder domestic backlash, mute international criticism, and generally make it difficult for the opposition to mount a decisive response.

This slow dismantling of democracy is producing a particular brand of autocracy, one in which power is highly concentrated in the hands of a single individual.5 From 2000–10, 75% of authoritarianisation cases led to personalist (as opposed to other forms of) dictatorship. Leaders who come to power via authoritarianisation are well positioned to expand personal control because they eliminate most other constraints on their power in the process of emerging as autocrats. In contrast to the sudden and decisive breaks with democracy that result from coups, which often leave intact many governing institutions, leaders who practise authoritarianisation have already eliminated potential rivals and autonomous centres of power.

There is a tendency to assume that all dictatorships fit the strongman mould. But reality is more nuanced. From the end of the Second World War to the fall of the Soviet Union, most dictatorships have been run not by strongmen, but by strong political parties, such as the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in Mexico, or by military juntas, as in much of Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s. Since the end of the Cold War, however, highly personalised dictatorships have become the most common form of authoritarianism.6 In 1988, personalist regimes comprised just 23% of all dictatorships. Today, 40% of all autocracies are ruled by strongmen.

The changing face of autocracy is creating a number of challenges for US foreign policy. Consider today’s most belligerent autocrats: North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and, increasingly, China’s Xi Jinping. These are just a few examples of today’s personalist dictators. Because these leaders face few constraints on their decision-making, they often produce unpredictable and aggressive foreign policies, including a greater propensity to fight inter-state wars.7 Political-science research affirms that leaders’ decisions and policymaking are strongly influenced by whether they rule largely at their own discretion or face institutional constraints from a powerful party or military. Not only do unconstrained leaders produce more hostile and volatile foreign policies, but they are also more likely to espouse anti-Western rhetoric, mismanage foreign aid and obliterate their countries’ domestic institutions in ways that make it more difficult to establish democracy, even in the longer term.8 The rise of authoritarianisation, therefore, is likely to fuel the proliferation of the most problematic regimes.
Changes in how autocrats exit power

Not only are twenty-first-century autocrats coming to power differently, but they are also exiting office in new ways. Consider, for example, Blaise Compaoré, who resigned as president of Burkina Faso and fled the country on 31 October 2014 after ruling for 27 years. Just days before his resignation, women took to the streets armed with wooden spoons to protest the government’s announcement that the legislature would vote on – and likely pass – a constitutional amendment to extend presidential term limits. The protesters’ ranks rapidly swelled, and ultimately tens of thousands of Burkinabe citizens forced one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders from office. Although the events in Burkina Faso received a fraction of the media attention dedicated to the Arab Spring uprisings that occurred just a few years earlier, the storyline was much the same. Citizens who had endured decades of repression, corruption and poor living standards took to the streets, often at great personal risk, to demand change.9

Protests have rarely been effective

These events present a contrast with the demise of past autocracies. The ability of the people to force autocracies to moderate their behaviour, let alone overthrow them, has historically been limited. Analysis of leadership turnover in autocracies reveals that protests have rarely been an effective mechanism for change. From 1950 to 2012, only 7% of dictators were deposed through popular revolt. Instead, elite supporters posed the greatest danger to a leader’s survival in office. From 1950–89, for example, 41% of all autocrats who lost power were ousted by a coup.10 In the post-Cold War era, the picture has been different. The proportion of autocrats ousted via coup has fallen to only 12%. Meanwhile, popular revolts have become a far more common form of leadership turnover. The percentage of autocrats ousted in such revolts tripled from 4% during the Cold War period to 12% since. From 2010 to 2012 (the most recent year for which data are available), revolts accounted for 25% of all autocratic-leader ousters, while coups accounted for only 6%. Since the Arab Spring began in 2011, for example, protests have brought down five of the world’s longest-standing leaders: Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, Libya’s Muammar Gadhafi in October 2011, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh in February 2012 and Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaoré in October 2014. Less than a decade earlier, the Colour Revolutions swept through the former Soviet Union and dislodged the authoritarian systems of Georgia’s Eduard Shevardnadze in 2003, Ukraine’s Leonid Kuchma in 2005 and Kyrgyzstan’s Askar Akayev in 2005.

The growing vulnerability of autocrats to revolts reflects a pronounced rise in the threat the public poses to a dictator’s survival in office, and autocrats are modifying their strategies accordingly. Given the historical prevalence of coups, autocrats have traditionally used survival tactics aimed at countering threats emanating from the elite, such as elite rotation, or coup-proofing strategies, such as overpaying the security services or creating rival services or praetorian guards.

As more dictators fall to protests, however, leaders are increasingly targeting the citizenry. This shifting threat perception explains the dramatic rise in restrictions on political and civil liberties in autocracies. Autocrats are cracking down on the opposition, restricting assembly and choking off civil society to make it harder for citizens to mobilise against their regimes. Freedom House has recorded a rise in these restrictions over the last 11 years, with a majority occurring in countries that are already authoritarian.11

This hardening points to a resurgence in authoritarianism. As a growing number of the world’s ‘hybrid regimes’ – countries that mix authoritarian practices with democratic traits – respond to the threat of citizen protest by repressing political and civil liberties, the likelihood that any of them will someday transition to democracy diminishes. Academic research suggests that once countries become full autocracies, they are less likely to democratise than their hybrid counterparts, raising the risk that the ranks of authoritarian states will grow.

Shifting geopolitical trends also appear to be facilitating this authoritarian hardening. Savvy incumbents are learning to more effectively leverage the weaknesses of today’s multipolar world order by playing great powers off each other in ways that mitigate Western pressure on their regimes. The foreign assistance, trade, investment and military cooperation that non-Western powers such as China and Russia provide give authoritarian leaders a new source of external legitimacy, and enable them to credibly threaten to downgrade relations with the United States if Washington pressures them too much on democracy and human rights. In Egypt, for example, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi can use Cairo’s military and economic ties with Russia to offset Western human-rights pressure. The availability of alternatives to the West will make repression a more viable solution to autocrats’ rising fears of popular protest.

So far, Western approaches have been slow to take into account the ways in which autocracies are evolving and their internal dynamics changing. As a result, today’s autocracies have become more durable, lasting significantly longer than their predecessors. From 1946 to 1989, the average lifespan of an authoritarian regime was 12 years. Since the end of the Cold War, this number has almost doubled, to 20 years. As of 2012, the typical authoritarian regime had been in power for 25 years. This being the case, what might the future hold for democratic governance?

It is true that democracy still reigns as the most prevalent form of government worldwide. And the findings of multiple surveys suggest that many citizens across the globe prefer it to the alternatives. Yet, should current trends continue, we could witness a disconcerting reversal. If democracies do not respond to the challenges of contemporary authoritarianism, both in terms of their domestic affairs and in countering trends abroad, new autocracies will continue to outpace new democracies and become the international norm. Democracies, therefore, cannot afford to be complacent. To remain dominant, they must engage in the same process of learning and adaptation as their autocratic peers. Countering the twenty-first-century autocrat requires a twenty-first-century democrat.

1 See, for example, Moises Naim, The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be (New York: Basic Books, 2013); and William J. Dobson, The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy (New York: Doubleday, 2012).

2 See, for example, Larry Diamond, ‘Facing Up to the Democratic Recession’, Journal of Democracy, vol. 26, no. 1, January 2015, pp. 141–55; Joshua Kurlantcik, Democracy in Retreat: The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013); and Robert Kagan, ‘The Weight of Geopolitics’, Journal of Democracy, vol. 26, no. 1, January 2015, pp. 21–31.

3 Fiona Hill and Cliff Gaddy, Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin (Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2013), p. 6.

4 These statistics, and those that follow (unless otherwise noted), are based on data that classify the start and end dates, regime type, and entry and exit modes of all authoritarian regimes that held power between 1946 and 2014. See Barbara Geddes, Joseph Wright and Erica Frantz, ‘Autocratic Breakdown and Regime Transitions: A New Data Set’, Perspectives on Politics, vol. 12, no. 2, 2014, pp. 313–31.

5 For more on this finding, see Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Erica Frantz and Joseph Wright, ‘The New Dictators: Why Personalism Rules’, Foreign Affairs, 26 September 2016, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2016-09-26/new-dictators.

6 Erica Frantz and Andrea Kendall-Taylor, ‘Pathways to Democratization in Personalist Dictatorships’, Democratization, vol. 24, no. 1, 2016. pp. 20–40.

7 Jessica Weeks, ‘Strongmen and Straw Men: Authoritarian Regimes and the Initiation of International Conflict’, American Political Science Review, vol. 106, no. 2, May 2012, pp. 326–47.

8 See Erica Frantz and Natasha Ezrow, The Politics of Dictatorship: Institutions and Outcomes in Authoritarian Regimes(Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2011); Christopher Way and Jessica Weeks, ‘Making it Personal: Regime Type and Nuclear Proliferation’, American Journal of Political Science, vol. 58, no. 3, July 2014, pp. 705–19; Mark Peceny, Caroline C. Beer and Shannon Sanchez-Terry, ‘Dictatorial Peace?’, American Political Science Review, vol. 96, no. 1, March 2002, pp. 15–26; Jessica Weeks, Dictators at War and Peace (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014).

9 See Marie-Soleil Frère and Pierre Englebert, ‘Briefing: Burkina Faso – The Fall of Blaise Compaoré’, African Affairs, vol. 114, no. 455, April 2015, pp. 295–307.

10 Data for this analysis come from Milan Svolik, The Politics of Authoritarian Rule (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), who identifies the manner through which all leaders left office through 2008. We updated Svolik’s data set through 2012, using two coders to ensure accuracy. The updated data are available upon request. To classify countries as autocratic, we relied on the classification system found in Geddes, Wright and Frantz, ‘Autocratic Breakdown and Regime Transitions: A New Data Set’.

11 Freedom House, ‘Populists and Autocrats: The Dual Threat to Global Democracy’, 2017, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/freedom-world-2017.

Erica Frantz is an Assistant Professor at Michigan State University. Andrea Kendall-Taylor is Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council.

Andrea Kendall-Taylor is Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council and Adjunct Professor at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service.

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