21. October 2019 | EDP Wire | Johannes Gerschewski

Regime Legitimation Strategies (RLS), 1900 to 2018

This EDP Wire contribution summarizes the V-Dem[1] Working Paper “Regime Legitimation Strategies (RLS), 1900 to 2018” that introduces new expert-coded measures of regime legitimation strategies for 179 countries in the world from 1900 up until 2018. The authors of the paper are EDP network member Johannes Gerschewski and his colleagues Marcus Tannenberg (University of Gothenburg), Michael Bernhard (University of Florida), Anna Lührmann (University of Gothenburg), and Christian von Soest (GIGA Institute). The paper is available as open access. The summary was prepared and edited by Nora Berger-Kern.


Governments routinely make claims that provide justification for why they are entitled to rule. These claims legitimate the rules, both formal and informal, on who holds authority, how they can exercise it, and to what ends, and thereby empower rulers to exercise authority, i.e. make collectively binding decisions. The V-Dem paper introduces new expert-coded measures of regime legitimation strategies for 179 countries in the world from 1900 up until 2018.

The main purpose of this paper is to describe and validate the data against expectations on claims from case studies as well as with existing regime type classifications. Not only does the paper document historical shifts in legitimation claims, but the measures also pick up recent trends, such as, an increased emphasis of the leader in countries such as Russia, Turkey, and Cambodia over the last decades, and more recently also in India and the Philippines. It furthermore documents recent increases in legitimation claims based on both conservative and nationalist ideologies in Serbia, Hungary and Poland, which have experienced autocratization in recent years.

The findings of this paper are based on country experts rating the extent to which the government promotes or references its performance, the person of the leader, rational-legality, and ideology in order to justify the regime in place. The item on ideology asks the experts to further categorize the ideology of the regime as nationalist, communist/socialist, conservative/restorative, religious, and/or separatist. The data is the first to capture legitimation claims across time and for all regime types. The temporal aspect allows not only for tracking trends, but – crucially – for analyzing what happens following changes in legitimation claims or what happens with legitimation claims when other aspects of rule are transformed. By also measuring claims put forward by democratic regimes, the researchers are able to for the first time document when changes from procedural to identity-based claims, such as the person of the leader or the ideology occur which may coincide with autocratization.

The Concept of Legitimacy and Legitimation

Legitimacy is one of the most crucial, yet also most contested concepts in political science.[2] Legitimate rule is supposed to be free of arbitrariness and despotism and legitimate rule refers here to how a good political order should look like. In contrast to this rich normative tradition, Max Weber has set the ground for a different understanding of legitimacy (Weber [1922] 1978): instead of asking how political rule should look, he proposed observing how political rule actually is (Collins, Randall, and others 1986). Weber’s strict empirical usage of the term makes it possible to extend legitimacy from democratic theory to the empirical study of both democratic and autocratic regimes. For the project, this Weberian notion of legitimacy is adopted and the term is used in an explicit empirical-analytical way.

The main idea behind the RLS project is that behind every political order there is a “legitimacy idea” (Kielmansegg 1971) that constitutes the major narrative of why a ruler is justified to rule, no matter if the regime is democratic or autocratic. The “legitimacy idea” captures the reason why a ruler is (or feels) entitled to rule and what this purported right to rule actually entails. Simultaneously, legitimacy refers to not only the claims of rulers, but also their reception by the ruled. Thus, legitimation in Weberian sense is a two-stage process that entails the ruler’s articulation of set of claims to justify that rule and their acceptance by those under that rule. Only when the ruler’s claim is congruent with the belief of the ruled, it can meaningfully be spoken of legitimate rule (Gerschewski 2018, 653–55).

Famously, Max Weber distinguished in his work between three forms of legitimate rule rational, legal, charismatic, and traditional. Rational-legal rule is based “on a belief in the legality of enacted rules and the right of those elevated to authority under such rules to issue commands.” Charismatic rule rests “on devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative patterns or order revealed or ordained by him.” Finally, traditional rule is grounded “on an established belief in the sanctity of immemorial traditions and the legitimacy of those exercising authority under them” (Weber [1922] 1978, 1: 215). Weber’s concepts are ideal-typical and as such, the types of legitimacy, while they are logically distinct concepts designed to measure, are not logically exclusive in reality. In fact, any real-world system of authority would be expected to combine some elements of more than one form of legitimation.

The V-Dem Legitimation Survey

Four expert questions that focus on a government’s legitimation strategies in respect to (a) its rational-legal rule, (b) the person of the leader, (c) its political ideology and (d) its performance to comprehensively capture claims to legitimacy form the basis of the survey. The experts furthermore categorize the content of a government’s ideology. The questions are:

  • To what extent does the current government refer to the legal norms and regulations in order to justify the rule of the regime in place?
  • To what extent is [the leader] portrayed as being endowed with an extraordinary personal characteristics and/or leadership skills (e.g. as father or mother of the nation, exceptionally heroic, moral, pious, or wise, or any other extraordinary attribute valued by the society)?
  • To what extent does the current government promote a specific ideology (an officially codified set of beliefs used to justify a particular set of social, political, and economic relations) or social model (for example socialism, nationalism, modernization, religious traditionalism, etc.) in order enhance the legitimacy of the regime in place?

The content of the political ideology is then put forward in a separate, multiple-choice question including five different possibilities: (a) nationalism, (b) socialist or communist, (c) conservative or restorative, (d) separatist or autonomous, and (e) religious. In so doing, the most important types of political ideologies are covered. Lastly, performance legitimation is tackled by posing the following last question:

  • To what extent does the government refer to performance (such as providing economic growth, poverty reduction, good government, and/or providing security) in order to justify the rule of the regime in place?

Methodology and Expert Coders

With the exception Ideology Character, the expert’s rating for all four items and country years are entered into V-Dem’s measurement model which converts expert scores into interval latent variables. This is a Bayesian item response theory model that estimates country-year point estimates on the basis of expert codings. Patterns of coder dis/agreement are used to estimate variations in reliability and systematic differences in thresholds between ordinal response categories, in order to adjust the point estimates of the latent concept.

The mean number of expert coders ranges from 4.69 to 4.72 for the legitimation variables over the 119 years, totaling 18,604 country years.[3] The data included in the V-Dem v.9 dataset does not include country-years with less than three expert coders.

Data Validation

In this section, the data for the four different legitimation claims and the variation in the ideological character of those claims is validated. Different claims to legitimacy at the aggregate level are examined. Figure 1 shows the distribution of claims for all available country years, including horizontal bar plots, indicating the mean and standard deviation. It shows that the data points are spanning the full spectrum for each claim. The figure provides a reference going forward with the data exploration.

Figure 1: Distribution of Legitimation Claims

Do different regime types have different propensities to rely on the four different types of claims to legitimacy being measured in this paper? Using the Regimes of World typology from V-Dem Lührmann, Tannenberg, and Lindberg (2018), figure 2 below plots the degree to which closed autocracies, electoral autocracies, electoral and liberal democracies rely on different legitimation claims from 1900 to the present. The expectation is that autocracies should be more dependent on ideological and leadership-based claims, whereas democracies should be focused on rational-legal and performance criteria to justify authority. By and large the data is in line with this expectation.

Figure 2: Distribution of Claims by Regime Type

Beginning with ideological claims, both closed and electoral autocracies rely more heavily on these sorts of claims to justify their rule, than the two democratic regime types. Among democracies, electoral democracies exhibit a greater propensity to utilize ideological rationales than liberal democracies. There are a number of liberal democracies that are exceptional in this regard. For instance, from 2004 to 2016 Israel relied heavily on the personal authority of its rulers, a period which was characterized by the domineering leadership of prime ministers such as Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu. Another exception in this regard is South Africa under the presidency of Nelson Mandela. His role as the charismatic leader of the anti-Apartheid movement and its first democratic elected president gave him strong credibility as a transformational leader.

The picture with regards to claims based on performance and rational-legal exhibit the reverse relationship. Closed autocracies, in particular, do not rely on these sorts of claims to a high extent, whereas electoral autocracies, with their emulation of democratic procedures, rely on them to a greater extent, but not as extensively as democracy (Ginsburg and Moustafa 2008). The other aspect that is quite interesting with regard to electoral authoritarianism is that it combines all four claims in large measure.

Furthermore, the data set examined in the paper shows (a) the ways in which military, monarchic, party and personalist autocracies seek to legitimize their rule, where less variation between different forms of autocracy compared to figure 2 are observable. And (b) the distribution of claims by autocratic regime type and democracy (one party, multiparty, monarchy, military and democracy), where one finding for example is that, as expected, one-party regimes rely to a greater extent on ideology than any other regime type, and rely on the person of the leader more than multiparty authoritarian regimes do. Additional scatter diagrams plot the four legitimation claims against V-Dem’s Electoral Democracy Index (EDI) for a cross-section of all countries in the V-Dem dataset in 2018. The findings reiterate the pattern of associations already visible in the previous plots, but also highlight that the four legitimation measures are not mere proxy measures of democracy. They carry additional information.

Face Validity Checks

The validity of the measures are explored by looking at selected individual countries over time to see if the values generated by the expert surveys are congruent with what is generally known about the development of each country.

Figure 3: Examples: Philippines and Turkey

By looking at legitimacy claims based on the personalistic characteristics of the ruler (the short dotted blue line) a clear rise of strongmen is noticeable. Taking the case of the Philippines for example, there is a sharp rise after notorious strongman Rodrigo Duterte was elected president in June 2016. In Turkey there is a dramatic increase in personalistic legitimation claims since Recep Tayyip Erdoğan assumed the premiership in 2003. These increased even further after he became president in 2014. And even more striking, the intensity of claims based on Erdoğan’s persona now surpasses those of the founder of the republic and its first president, Kemal Attatürk (in power 1923-38).


This EDP Wire briefly summarized and introduced the Regime Legitimation Strategies (RLS) measure, providing for the first-time measures of governments claims to the right to rule that are comparable across time and space, that are freely available for 179 countries and 119 years. It shows how claims to legitimacy based on; Ideology; the person of the Leader; Performance; and Rational-legal norms and regulations vary across regimes, and within countries over time.

From the validation exercise, it is evident that experts do understand and can be employed to code legitimation claims: with very few exceptions their coding square well with expectations from case studies as well as with existing regime type classifications. In addition to capturing historical shifts the measures pick up recent trends, making them, for example, of interest to scholars of autocratic politics; regime survival; nationalism; and autocratization among others.


Barker, Rodney (2001): Legitimating Identities: The Self-Presentations of Rulers and Subjects, Cambridge University Press.

Beetham, David (1991): The Legitimation of Power, Palgrave Macmillan.

Collins, Randall, and Collins Randall et al. (1986): Weberian Sociological Theory, Cambridge University Press.

Gerschewski, Johannes (2018): “Legitimacy in Autocracies: Oxymoron or Essential Feature?”, Perspectives on Politics 16 (3), Cambridge University Press: 652–65.

Gilley, Bruce (2009): The Right to Rule: How States Win and Lose Legitimacy, Columbia University Press.

Ginsburg, Tom, and Tamir Moustafa (2008): Rule by Law: The Politics of Courts in Authoritarian Regimes, Cambridge University Press.

Kielmansegg, Peter Graf (1971): “Legitimität Als Analytische Kategorie”, Politische Vierteljahresschrift 12 (3), JSTOR: 367–401.

Levi, Margaret, Audrey Sacks, and Tom Tyler (2009): “Conceptualizing Legitimacy, Measuring Legitimating Beliefs”, American Behavioral Scientist 53 (3), Sage Publications Sage CA: Los Angeles, CA: 354–75.

Lipset, Seymour Martin (1959): “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy”, American Political Science Review 53 (1), Cambridge University Press: 69–105.

Lührmann, Anna, Marcus Tannenberg, and Staffan I Lindberg (2018): “Regimes of the World (Row): Opening New Avenues for the Comparative Study of Political Regimes”, Politics & Governance 6 (1).

Rigby, Thomas Henry, and Ferenc Fehér (1982): Political Legitimation in Communist States, Springer.

Weatherford, M Stephen (1992): “Measuring Political Legitimacy”, American Political Science Review 86 (1), Cambridge University Press: 149–66.

Weber, Max (1922) 1978: Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, Vol. 1. University of California Press.


[1] Varieties of Democracy (V–Dem) is a new approach to conceptualization and measurement of democracy. The headquarters—the V-Dem Institute—is based at the University of Gothenburg with 17 staff. The project includes a worldwide team with six Principal Investigators, 14 Project Managers, 30 Regional Managers, 170 Country Coordinators, Research Assistants, and 3,000 Country Experts. The V–Dem project is one of the largest ever social science research-oriented data collection programs. Learn more about the project here.

[2] Barker 2001; Beetham 1991; Gilley 2009; Levi, Sacks, and Tyler 2009; Lipset 1959; Rigby and Fehér 1982; Weatherford 1992 as some examples.

[3] There are a number of notable countries that unfortunately were not coded by the requisite number of experts in the 2019 update (v.9), e.g. Iraq (1920-2018), China (1900-2018), and Greece (1900-2015). Hopefully, these lacunae can be fixed during the next scheduled update of the data set.

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