2 Understanding Authoritarian Politics
- Erica Frantz
Who Are the Key Actors in Authoritarian Regimes?
The leader is the individual in charge of the regime. The leader cannot maintain this position, however, without the support of others. In dictatorships, the individuals whose support the leader requires to stay in power are known as elites (often referred to in the collective as an elite coalition, support group, leadership group, or winning coalition). The term “elite” can mean many things, but in this context it refers specifically to an individual who is part of the leader’s support group. The leader’s tenure is contingent on the backing of this group. The exact number of elites needed for a leader to maintain power is unknown; it likely varies from one environment to the next. The masses are the ordinary citizens living in an authoritarian regime, at least some of whose support the regime requires to stay afloat.1 As with elites, precisely how many citizens whose support a dictatorship needs to maintain power is unknown and likely conditional on circumstances.
In democracies, formal rules stipulate the powers delegated to major political actors and how these actors are selected and deposed. Importantly, these rules are usually followed in p. 22↵ practice. As a result, it is typically fairly easy to identify who key political actors are as well as whose support they need to maintain power, as discussed in Chapter 1. The process of removing key political actors from power is generally clearly spelled out, giving observers insight into how one would play out.
In dictatorships, by contrast, basic features of the political system such as these are often unclear. Informal politics is the norm. Formal rules usually exist, but they often do not guide behaviors in practice. Many major decisions are made behind closed doors, making it difficult to recognize who key political actors are, precisely whose support they need to maintain their positions, and the protocols that are followed to select or remove them.
While identifying who the masses are is straightforward in dictatorships, identifying who elites are often amounts to a guessing game. Observers usually have a sense of the nature of the broader group from which elites are drawn (such as a specific political party or branch of the military) but know considerably less about precisely who these individuals are and how much influence they hold. Even identifying who the leader is can be challenging in dictatorships.
Take the example of Iran. Since the revolution in 1979, Iran’s official leader has been the supreme leader. The first supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, held this position until he died in 1989, after which the current supreme leader succeeded him, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Iran’s political system features a popularly elected president, in addition to the supreme leadership post, though electoral contests in Iran fall short of international standards of free and fair.2 During Khomeini’s tenure, the lines of authority were clearly drawn, with power unmistakably lying in the hands of the supreme leadership. Since his death, however, these lines have become blurrier. At various junctures, particularly during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency from 2005 to 2013, observers of Iranian politics raised questions p. 23↵ over whether the de facto leader was the supreme leader or the president, given that the president seemed to be the more powerful of the two.3
The nature of authoritarian rule can obscure lines of authority, so much that it can be difficult to identify basic things we would like to know about an authoritarian regime. Though we know that the leader, elites, and the masses are the three central actors in dictatorships in theory, we often do not know the identity of elites and even the leader in practice.
What Are the Major Goals of These Actors?
Leaders and elites in dictatorships want power and influence, just as they do in democracies. They are therefore engaged in a constant struggle for power, with each vying for greater political influence than the other. Not only do elites compete with the dictator, but they also compete with one another. Amid this cutthroat environment, leaders and elites have to secure and maintain the support of key segments of the masses, while ensuring that those who oppose them have not reached a critical size. What the masses want is more complicated, though it often boils down to the basics, such as whether they are better off today than they were yesterday. (Institutions work to shape these dynamics, a subject taken up in Chapter 5.)
The central motivation of authoritarian leaders is to stay in office. They resort to a variety of tactics to do so, including annulling elections, extending presidential term limits, and sidelining those who could seriously challenge them. Unlike democratic leaders, whose positions are protected by formal rules that make removing them before their time is up difficult, authoritarian leaders face a constant threat of overthrow, at the hands of both the elites and the masses.
Authoritarian leaders usually assess that the most imminent threat to their rule comes from elites. The group whose p. 24↵ support they require to stay in office is, ironically, also the group they must fear most. After all, the main goal of elites is to maximize power. Elites vie with one another for the most political influence, while also scheming to find ways that they themselves could secure the leadership. For this reason, the elite coalition poses a serious threat to the tenures of leaders. Indeed, the vast majority of dictators have been toppled by internal coups as opposed to popular uprisings.4 As Winston Churchill said many years ago, “Dictators ride to and fro upon tigers which they dare not dismount.”
Examples of elites playing a critical role in ousting dictators abound. In Nigeria in 1975, members of the Supreme Military Council ousted General Yakubu Gowon because they felt he was not consulting with them sufficiently. In Argentina in 1981, junta members overthrew General Roberto Viola because he chose to include civilians in the cabinet and started talks with union leaders. And in Ghana in 1978, Frederick Akuffo arrested and replaced Ignatius Kutu Acheampong, following a decline in Acheampong’s hold on power. Akuffo was Acheampong’s chief of staff.
Elites are the main political rivals of dictators and, consequently, the main source of their insecurities. Leaders engage in a variety of tactics to mitigate the threat elites pose to their rule, discussed in Chapter 4.
Mass-led overthrows of authoritarian leaders have historically been far less common than elite-driven ousters. For this reason, leaders tend to prioritize minimizing the likelihood elites will overthrow them. Yet, mass uprisings are not unheard of, as the wave of revolutions during the Arab Spring in 2011 illustrates. Authoritarian leaders therefore cannot afford to totally ignore mass sentiments. Because mass-led overthrows of leaders usually take entire regimes down with them, elites cannot afford to ignore the masses either.
The goals of the masses are often diverse, but they typically center on basic needs, such as the desire for mouths to be fed, roofs to sleep under, and security. This is not to say that mass p. 25↵ audiences in authoritarian regimes do not long for greater political rights, but simply that economic concerns often trump all others.
When assessing how to attract the support of mass audiences, leaders and elites are strategic. They do not need all members of the citizenry to like what they are doing, just key sectors. There will always be citizens who oppose them. Authoritarian regimes have a variety of tools at their disposal to silence and sideline such individuals (discussed in Chapter 7), as well as substantial resources to do so.
This is a brief and generalized summary of the goals of the major actors in authoritarian regimes. Not all authoritarian regimes will fit this mold, but it is a reasonably accurate portrayal of broad political dynamics in many of them.
What Is the Difference between an Authoritarian Leader and an Authoritarian Regime?
An authoritarian leader is the individual at the helm of the authoritarian regime. An authoritarian regime is a broader concept. As discussed in Chapter 1, it consists of the basic rules (whether formal and informal) that control leadership choice and policies.5 Sometimes, the leader and regime are indistinguishable, such as in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. But other times multiple leaders come and go during the lifetime of a single regime, such as in the Soviet Union.
It is important to differentiate authoritarian leaders from authoritarian regimes for two reasons. First, assuming that authoritarian leaders are synonymous with the regimes they rule masks the enormous variation that exists in the nature of leader‒elite relations in dictatorships. Though in some contexts the locus of power in the authoritarian regime is firmly in the hands of the leader, such as in Belarus under Alexander Lukashenko, in others leaders must share power with other members of the leadership group. In Vietnam, for example, General Secretary of the Communist Party Nguyen p. 26↵ Phu Trong exerts substantial influence over key choices, but members of the politburo still retain influence. To be clear, leaders nearly always wield disproportionately more power than elites do, but in some authoritarian environments this is more lopsided than in others. A focus on authoritarian leadership that ignores the broader concept of the authoritarian regime will miss these key variations.
Second, and in a somewhat similar vein, authoritarian regimes often last much longer than the tenure of any single leader. Despite this, observers often assume that the fall of the leader implies the fall of the regime. To be fair, there are a number of vivid examples that come to mind of a leader’s ouster ushering in a fundamental change of regime. In Iran, widespread protests in 1979 led to the Shah’s ouster. A group of Muslim clerics assumed control afterward, bringing to power a radically different group of elites and rules and norms for selecting leaders and policies. In Romania in 1989, security forces executed then-leader Nicolae Ceausescu, following weeks of unrest. This paved the way for democratic elections held the following year. In the first instance the leader’s overthrow led to the establishment of a new authoritarian regime, while in the latter it led to democratization.
Despite these famous cases, only half of all authoritarian leadership transitions result in authoritarian regime change (a dynamic discussed in greater detail in Chapter 8). The rest of the time, the leader leaves power but the regime remains intact.6 In Myanmar, for example, the military ousted General Saw Maung in 1992. General Than Shwe, also a military officer and member of the State Law and Order Restoration Council elite, replaced him soon thereafter. The same group of elites controlled Myanmar despite the leadership transition; there was no change in regime. Intraregime leadership changes, it turns out, are quite common.
The frequency with which authoritarian leaders leave power without destabilizing the regimes they once led suggests that conflating authoritarian leaders with authoritarian regimes p. 27↵ has the potential to distort our understanding of authoritarian regime vulnerabilities. This is important because it suggests that international efforts to destabilize dictatorships, pressure them to democratize, or otherwise change their behavior that focus on the leader as the unit of analysis may fail to bring about the intended effects.
What Is the Difference between an Authoritarian Regime and an Authoritarian Spell?
Authoritarian regimes and authoritarian spells are also distinct units of analysis. An authoritarian spell is a single continuous span of authoritarian governance. Just as authoritarian leaders can rise and fall within the same authoritarian regime, authoritarian regimes can rise and fall within the same authoritarian spell.
As an example, Nicaragua experienced a single authoritarian spell from 1936 to 1979, meaning that it had an authoritarian political system throughout the entire period. During this time, however, there were two unique authoritarian regimes. The first was the regime of the Somoza family, which governed Nicaragua from 1936 to 1979. The Somozas (whether directly or informally) were in charge of allocating political posts, doling out state resources, and managing the security sector. The leadership group consisted of members of the family, as well as a selection of their allies. The Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) toppled the Somoza regime in an uprising in 1979, the culmination of a guerilla war that it began in the 1960s. Once in power, the Sandinistas nationalized a number of industries and took control of most of the Somozas’ property. Many erstwhile supporters of the Somoza regime went into exile, while supporters of the FSLN found themselves in positions of power. The top leaders of the FSLN became the top leaders of the regime. Though these two regimes in Nicaragua are different from each other, they occurred during the same authoritarian spell.
p. 28↵Sometimes authoritarian regimes and authoritarian spells coincide, as occurred in the case of Brazil from 1964 to 1985. A single authoritarian regime governed Brazil during this period, and the country was democratic both before and after it. Often, however, multiple authoritarian regimes come to and leave power during the same authoritarian spell, as in the example from Nicaragua.
Authoritarian spells begin when a country transitions to dictatorship from a period of some other form of rule, whether it be foreign occupation, democracy, or state failure. Authoritarian spells end when the opposite occurs. Most frequently, democratic rule precedes and follows authoritarian spells, as in Brazil.
Why does any of this matter? For one, conflating authoritarian regimes with authoritarian spells risks ignoring the frequency with which authoritarian regime transitions lead to new authoritarian regimes. Observers often assume, for example, that the collapse of an authoritarian regime implies that democracy will follow it. Yet, the data indicate that from 1946 to 2010, just under half of authoritarian regimes that fell from power transitioned to democracy (discussed in greater detail in Chapter 8). The other half saw a new authoritarian regime assume control, or, in a handful of instances, the collapse of the state itself.
These statistics have clear foreign policy implications. Policymakers pursuing instruments designed to make an authoritarian regime vulnerable to overthrow should bear in mind the high likelihood with which such an overthrow will simply bring to power a new authoritarian regime (or, even worse, the state’s dissolution).
It is possible, of course, that the new authoritarian regime will be more benign than its predecessor. In Chad, Hissene Habre’s regime governed from 1982 to 1990. During that time, the regime was responsible for atrocities against citizens so serious that in 2016 an African Union‒backed court in Senegal convicted Habre of ordering the killing of 40,000 people.7 The p. 29↵ authoritarian regime of General Idriss Deby, which came to power following Habre’s ouster in 1990, is a far cry from “benign.” Human rights violations, nonetheless, are not as severe as they were under Habre.
More frequently, however, new authoritarian regimes simply lead to new manifestations of bad behavior. The Democratic Republic of Congo offers an example. When rebel forces led by Laurent Kabila ousted Mobutu Sese Seku in 1997, the country (then called Zaire) was in shambles. Besides committing widespread human rights violations, Mobutu single-handedly destroyed the country’s economy, all while amassing staggering sums of personal wealth. The Kabila regime (under Laurent and subsequently his son Joseph) has been no better, however. Human rights violations continue to be extensive, and economic problems remain serious. The Democratic Republic of Congo’s Gross National Income (GNI) per capita, for example, decreased by 46 percent from 1990 to 2015.8
And, of course, there are plenty of examples of things getting quite a bit worse under new authoritarian regimes. The authoritarian regime led by General Omar Torrijos in Panama, for example, was substantially less brutal than the regime that succeeded it led by General Manuel Noriega.9 Torrijos was fairly popular while in power, prompting many observers to refer to him as a “benevolent dictator.”10 This is in sharp contrast to Noriega, who was notoriously brutal and corrupt, prompting retired U.S. General and former Secretary of State Colin Powell to describe him as “pure evil.”11
As an extreme illustration, the overthrow of the regime of Lon Nol in Cambodia in 1975 brought to power a new authoritarian regime led by Pol Pot, under whose rule nearly two million Cambodians died. Perhaps, as the saying goes, better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.
These examples illustrate an additional reason why it is important to distinguish authoritarian regimes from authoritarian spells. Each authoritarian regime consists of a unique set of actors with distinct interests and norms of behavior. The p. 30↵ theocracy of Iran has little in common with the Shah’s regime that preceded it, for example. Using a spell as the unit of analysis in the case of Iran risks distorting our understanding of how authoritarianism works there. Spells can tell us quite a bit about a country’s experience with authoritarian rule, but at the expense of lumping together very different modes of authoritarian behavior.