16. July 2017 | EDP Wire | Johannes Gerschewski

How do autocracies legitimate their rule?

My colleague Alex Dukalskis from University College Dublin and I have edited a recently published special issue of “Contemporary Politics” on the topic “Legitimation in Autocracies”. The special issue unites international scholars working in the field and is an attempt to push forward the debate about a factor that has gone almost unnoticed by the recent wave of comparative authoritarianism: autocratic legitimation. In the last two decades, various scholars have shed light into the black box of authoritarian regime dynamics. On the one hand, these scholars have focused on repression against the opposition. On the other hand, scholars have yielded important insights into the intra-elite cohesion of autocratic regimes. What is still missing, however, is the question to what extent an autocracy can rely on the masses, the “regular” people, to sustain their rule. In this light, the special issue tries to tackle the question: To what extent can autocracies legitimate their rule in the eyes of the ordinary citizens?

The contributions to this special issue range from conceptual discussions and the introduction of a new dataset to empirical analyses of hybrid regimes, electoral monitoring and the question to what extent social services can legitimize autocratic regimes. The synopsis of each article of the special issue is presented below.


Alexander Dukalskis and Johannes Gerschewski: What autocracies say (and what citizens hear): proposing four mechanisms of autocratic legitimation

All autocratic governments make claims about why they are entitled to rule. Some autocracies are more talkative than others, but all regimes say something about why they deserve power. This article takes seriously these efforts by introducing and interrogating the concept of autocratic legitimation. After engaging in a definitional discussion, it traces the development of autocratic legitimation in modern political science by identifying major turning points, key concepts, and patterns of inquiry over time. Ultimately, this introductory article aims to not only argue that studying autocratic legitimation is important, but also to propose contexts, concepts, and distinctions for doing so productively. To this end, the article proposes four mechanisms of autocratic legitimation that can facilitate comparative analysis: indoctrination, passivity, performance, and democratic-procedural. Finally, the essay briefly introduces the five original articles that comprise the remainder of this special issue on autocratic legitimation. The article identifies avenues for further research and identifies how each article in the issue advances productive pathways of inquiry.

Christian von Haldenwang: The relevance of legitimation – a new framework for analysis

The legitimacy of political orders is an important reference point in political analysis, but the concept is difficult to operationalize and measure – particularly in those countries where legitimacy is critical, i.e. cases of political transformation, non-democratic rule and high state fragility. To be successful, legitimation (the process by which legitimacy is procured) has to fulfil two functions: relate demands for legitimation to government performance (the ‘demand cycle’), and relate legitimacy claims issued by the rulers to behavioural patterns of the ruled (the ‘supply cycle’). Looking at the recent academic debate, the article finds that empirical research has largely ignored the demand cycle, while attempts to explore the relationships underlying the supply cycle tend to suffer from misconceptions of basic terms. The article proposes a framework for empirical enquiry that addresses both shortcomings.

Christian von Soest and Julia Grauvogel: Identity, procedures and performance: how authoritarian regimes legitimize their rule

Constructing convincing legitimacy claims is important for securing the stability of authoritarian regimes. However, extant research has struggled to systematically analyse how authoritarians substantiate their right to rule. The article analyses a novel data set on authoritarian regimes’ claims to legitimacy that is based on leading country experts’ assessments of 98 states for the period 1991–2010. This analysis provides key new insights into the inner workings and legitimation strategies of current non-democratic regimes. Closed authoritarian regimes predominately rely on identity-based legitimacy claims (foundational myth, ideology and personalism). In contrast, elections fundamentally change how authoritarian rulers relate to society. In their legitimacy claims, electoral authoritarian regimes focus on their ‘adequate’ procedures, thereby mimicking democracies. All regimes also stress their purported success in proving material welfare and security to their citizens.

Honorata Mazepus: What makes political authorities legitimate? Students’ ideas about legitimacy in five European democracies and hybrid regimes

Because the legitimacy of political authorities exists only in the eyes of citizens, this study investigates which criteria citizens use to decide that an authority is legitimate. By comparing ideas about what makes political authorities legitimate, this study in five European democracies and hybrid regimes illuminates the ‘demand side of political legitimacy’. Using original student survey data, this article compares expectations of students from the Netherlands, France, Poland, Ukraine, and Russia about how political authorities should acquire the right to rule and how they ought to behave when in office. The analysis shows that the respondents across the five countries use similar criteria for granting legitimacy. Across the five countries, throughput and input were more important criteria for legitimacy than the output produced by authorities. Although several country differences were found, these differences did not align with regime type. The findings challenge the widespread view that what kind of authorities people consider legitimate is determined by their socialization in a particular political regime.

Maria J. Debre and Lee Morgenbesser: Out of the shadows: autocratic regimes, election observation and legitimation

Autocratic regimes have developed a new strategy to overcome the high costs of either fully complying or not complying with the international norm of external election observation. This article explains how many dictators and dominant parties deploy ‘shadow’ election observation groups over professional observation groups as part of a mock compliance strategy. By supplanting the identity of the group judging elections and displacing the normative standard being applied, autocratic regimes have sought to gain democratic-procedural legitimation via flawed elections. This argument is evidenced using case studies of parliamentary and presidential elections in Cambodia, Zimbabwe and Egypt, which show that legitimation driven by shadow observation groups has become a globally applied strategy. The conclusion offers policy proscriptions for how to counteract the deployment of these groups and what the emergence of this phenomenon means for the study of autocratic legitimation.

Andrea Cassani: Social service to claim legitimacy: comparing autocracies performance.

Autocrats cannot rule by repression and co-optation alone, and need to instil some sense of legitimacy in the populace. Lacking democratic legitimacy, and being in shortage of other identity-based sources of diffuse support, legitimation claims in post-Cold War autocracies increasingly rests on rulers’ ability to achieve concrete outcomes, including the improvement of citizen living conditions. However, autocracies differ from each other, and different institutional arrangements could influence a leader’s ability to deliver social services, and chase performance-based legitimation. Accordingly, this article compares the social service performance of different post-Cold War authoritarian regimes. The analysis demonstrates that so-called electoral autocracies outperform single-party and military regimes, although they show a capacity to provide for their citizens that is similar to hereditary regimes. These findings suggest that the legitimacy returns of introducing semi-competitive and participatory institutions could grow exponentially. Besides procedural legitimacy, these institutions could help rulers pursue legitimation through social services.

More about the special issue here. The introductory chapter by Alex and Johannes can (temporarily) be downloaded here at no charge.

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