Authoritarianism is a form of government characterized by the rejection of political plurality, the use of a strong central power to preserve the political status quo, and reductions in the rule of law, separation of powers, and democratic voting. Political scientists have created many typologies describing variations of authoritarian forms of government. Authoritarian regimes may be either autocratic or oligarchic in nature and may be based upon the rule of a party or the military.
Authoritarianism, principle of blind submission to authority, as opposed to individual freedom of thought and action. In government, authoritarianism denotes any political system that concentrates power in the hands of a leader or a small elite that is not constitutionally responsible to the body of the people. Authoritarian leaders often exercise power arbitrarily and without regard to existing bodies of law, and they usually cannot be replaced by citizens choosing freely among various competitors in elections. The freedom to create opposition political parties or other alternative political groupings with which to compete for power with the ruling group is either limited or nonexistent in authoritarian regimes.
Authoritarianism thus stands in fundamental contrast to democracy. It also differs from totalitarianism, however, since authoritarian governments usually have no highly developed guiding ideology, tolerate some pluralism in social organization, lack the power to mobilize the entire population in pursuit of national goals, and exercise power within relatively predictable limits. Examples of authoritarian regimes, according to some scholars, include the pro-Western military dictatorships that existed in Latin America and elsewhere in the second half of the 20th century.
Authoritarianism is characterized by highly concentrated and centralized government power maintained by political repression and the exclusion of potential challengers. It uses political parties and mass organizations to mobilize people around the goals of the regime. Adam Przeworski has theorized that “authoritarian equilibrium rests mainly on lies, fear and economic prosperity.” However, Daniel A. Bell and Wang Pei used China’s experience with COVID-19 to argue that the categories are not so clear cut.
Authoritarianism also tends to embrace the informal and unregulated exercise of political power, a leadership that is “self-appointed and even if elected cannot be displaced by citizens’ free choice among competitors”, the arbitrary deprivation of civil liberties and little tolerance for meaningful opposition. A range of social controls also attempt to stifle civil society while political stability is maintained by control over and support of the armed forces, a bureaucracy staffed by the regime and creation of allegiance through various means of socialization and indoctrination.
Authoritarianism is marked by “indefinite political tenure” of the ruler or ruling party (often in a one-party state) or other authority. The transition from an authoritarian system to a more democratic form of government is referred to as democratization.
Authoritarian regimes often adopt “the institutional trappings” of democracies such as constitutions. Constitutions in authoritarian states may serve a variety of roles, including “operating manual” (describing how the government is to function); “billboard” (signal of regime’s intent), “blueprint” (outline of future regime plans), and “window dressing” (material designed to obfuscate, such as provisions setting forth freedoms that are not honored in practice). Authoritarian constitutions may help legitimize, strengthen, and consolidate regimes. An authoritarian constitution “that successfully coordinates government action and defines popular expectations can also help consolidate the regime’s grip on power by inhibiting re coordination on a different set of arrangements.” Unlike democratic constitutions, authoritarian constitutions do not set direct limits on executive authority; however, in some cases such documents may function as ways for elites to protect their own property rights or constrain autocrats’ behavior.
The concept of “authoritarian constitutionalism” has been developed by legal scholar Mark Tushnet. Tushnet distinguishes authoritarian constitutionalist regimes from “liberal constitutionalist” regimes (“the sort familiar in the modern West, with core commitments to human rights and self-governance implemented by means of varying institutional devices”) and from purely authoritarian regimes (which reject the idea of human rights or constraints on leaders’ power). He describes authoritarian constitutionalist regimes as:
(1) Authoritarian dominant-party states that.
(2) Impose sanctions (such as libel judgments) against, but do not arbitrarily arrest, political dissidents.
(3) Permit “reasonably open discussion and criticism of its policies”.
(4) Hold “reasonably free and fair elections”, without systemic intimidation, but “with close attention to such matters as the drawing of election districts and the creation of party lists to ensure as best it can that it will prevail and by a substantial margin”.
(5) Reflect at least occasional responsiveness to public opinion.
(6) Create “mechanisms to ensure that the amount of dissent does not exceed the level it regards as desirable.” Tushnet cites Singapore as an example of an authoritarian constitutionalist state, and connects the concept to that of hybrid regimes.
Within authoritarian systems, there may be nominally democratic institutions such as political parties, legislatures and elections, but they are managed in a way so as to entrench authoritarian regimes. Within democracies, parties serve to coordinate the pursuit of interests for like-minded citizens, whereas in authoritarian systems, they are a way for authoritarian leaders to find capable elites for the regime. In a democracy, a legislature is intended to represent the diversity of interests among citizens, whereas authoritarians use legislatures to signal their own restraint towards other elites as well as to monitor other elites who pose a challenge to the regime.
Fraudulent elections may serve the role of signalling the strength of the regime (to deter elites from challenging the regime) and forcing other elites to demonstrate their loyalty to the regime. By contrast, in democracies, free and fair elections are used to select representatives who represent the will of the citizens. Elections may also motivate authoritarian party members to strengthen patron–client and information-gathering networks, which strengthens the authoritarian regime. Elections may also motivate members of the ruling class to provide public goods.
According to a 2018 study, most party-led dictatorships regularly hold popular elections. Prior to the 1990s, most of these elections had no alternative parties or candidates for voters to choose. Since the end of the Cold War, about two-thirds of elections in authoritarian systems allow for some opposition, but the elections are structured in a way to heavily favor the incumbent authoritarian regime.
Hindrances to free and fair elections in authoritarian systems may include:
- Control of the media by the authoritarian incumbents.
- Interference with opposition campaigning.
- Electoral fraud.
- Violence against opposition.
- Large-scale spending by the state in favor of the incumbents.
- Permitting of some parties, but not others.
- Prohibitions on opposition parties, but not independent candidates.
- Allowing competition between candidates within the incumbent party, but not those who are not in the incumbent party.