Fragile Autocracies

Fragile Autocracies
An election campaign poster featuring Erdoğan: “Istanbul is Ready, Target 2023”, Taksim Square, Istanbul. Erdoğan is widely considered an autocrat, but faces a difficult election in 2023. Photo by Myrat.

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Fragile Autocracies

Many writers (including myself) refer to democracy as fragile. Even the most consolidated democracies face numerous threats from within and without its borders. However, the idea of democracy as fragile gives a false impression of authoritarianism as durable. In reality every regime has numerous internal and external threats to its stability. Moreover, some regimes are more stable or consolidated than others. This is true for both democracies and autocracies. Nonetheless, many autocracies face specific challenges that make them more particularly fragile today.

Modern autocracies work hard to incorporate the trappings of democratic government. They hold elections, form representative assemblies, and even have constitutions. Indeed, many of today’s most infamous autocracies like Turkey, Venezuela, and Russia have democratic legacies. Their leaders arose from democratic elections, but over time closed down opportunities for participation particularly from the opposition. Unlike a country like China that never had a democratic government, a country like Venezuela simply needs to open opportunities for the opposition to participate. It does not need to completely transform its institutions to make democracy work. Rather, authoritarianism fits awkwardly within its institutional framework. The opposition continues to find opportunities to either win elections or express discontent through legacies leftover from the democratic regime.

Next year Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey faces a difficult election. Turkey has slipped from what many considered a flawed or fragile democracy into an autocracy over the past twenty years. Freedom House rates Turkey in its most recent report as Not Free. However, its elections still show opportunities for the opposition to win like in Istanbul’s mayoral election in 2019. Turkey is what I would call a fragile autocracy. Its democratic legacies create problems for autocrats. The fragility of so many autocracies is also a positive sign for the next wave of democratization.

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