The Authoritarian Appeal in Backsliding Democracies

Authoritarian Appeal
Russian president Vladimir Putin and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at the opening of the Blue Stream Gas Pipeline. Picture from the Presidential Press Service at

The Authoritarian Appeal in Backsliding Democracies

By Dean Schafer

Authoritarian Appeal

Why do some authoritarian leaders appear to inspire genuine popular support? In the past decade, authoritarian strongmen have won elections in countries as different as Brazil, Hungary, the Philippines, Turkey, and the United States. Electoral autocracies—countries where elections happen, but serious concerns exist about the rule of law, respect for civil liberties, media freedom, and equal access to power—is now the most common kind of political regime in the world.

Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman argue that in this new style of electoral authoritarian regime, “spin dictators” have gotten better at manipulating information. Similarly, Anne Applebaum documents how intellectuals in Poland and Hungary reinforce the legitimacy of Kaczyński and Orban by flooding public discourse with Medium-Size Lies about shadowy, outside forces trying to undermine the country. But what if, rather than through deception, authoritarian leaders can count on the support of citizens who care about policy and have accurate information about the regime’s performance? Further, “strongman” leadership—that is, leaders who project a macho, tough-mannered, and decisive persona—might carry an inherent appeal for some citizens. More broadly, repression, usually of ethnic minorities, can strengthen the support for authoritarian leaders among in-groups that were already supportive of the regime.

Crisis creates conditions ripe for strongman leadership. Experiences of political, economic, and physical insecurity predispose people towards supporting leaders who promise to restore stability, order, and national pride, often through uncompromising, authoritarian means. Therefore, to provide order, the restriction of civil liberties, repression, and the suspension of checks and balances can appear to be necessary, and even preferable. Frequently, strongman leaders have come into power on the heals of crises such as prolonged political instability or an economic crash.

Positive political and economic performance can reinforce support for authoritarian strongmen, even after the crisis that propelled them into power has dissipated. Visible infrastructure projects—like the Autobahn network in Nazi Germany—demonstrate economic progress and political stability that can increase support for autocracy. Control of corruption and government effectiveness deepen support for authoritarian regimes in East and Southeast Asia. Enduring political stability and the restoration of timely salary payments for civil servants shored up support for Putin in Russia. In short, authoritarians govern. Citizens—even if they do not have reliable mechanisms to hold authoritarians accountable—expect their governments to act effectively and fairly.

Strongman Politics and Democratic Backsliding in Turkey

The case of democratic backsliding in Turkey illustrates how crisis, government performance, and group identity can generate support for an authoritarian strongman.

During the 1990s, Turkey was defined by political and economic instability and a series of short-lived coalition governments (seven in total) where no party managed to get more than 27 percent of the vote. The decade culminated in the 2000-2001 economic crisis. February of 2001 saw a cascade of payment defaults by most banks. That year, GDP per capita dropped by roughly 25 percent and a million people lost their jobs. Public survey data from 2001 shows that popular support for an authoritarian strongman nearly doubled, from 36 to 63 percent of the population.

That next year, in 2002, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his newly formed party, the AKP, won their first election with a super majority. No party from the previous government gained a single seat in parliament. Economic growth was robust over the next ten years and Erdogan took credit for the recovery. Survey data shows that aggregate support for an authoritarian strongman has since stabilized at around 50 percent. However, the aggregate numbers disguise how the composition of that support has changed. In 2001, just after the crisis, support for a strongman was highest among the poor and people who were dissatisfied with their financial situation. Ten years later, after the economic recovery, support for an authoritarian strongman was concentrated among those populations—regardless of party identity—who had benefited the most economically: the middle class and economic elites.

The Kurdish issue gave Erdogan the opportunity to bring nationalists into his authoritarian coalition. In 2015, the Turkish government abandoned its previous overtures for a Kurdish peace process and intensified the civil conflict. In response, nationalist voters from the opposition—who had always exhibited high levels of support for strongman leaders—gravitated toward the AKP and supported Erdogan’s push for an executive presidential system that would institutionalize his personal hold over the political system.

The Importance of Effective Governance

Crises can generate majority support for strongman leadership. Afterwards, however, that support is not guaranteed. Citizens assess authoritarians’ performance and adjust their beliefs accordingly. If authoritarian strongmen like Orban, Putin, or Erdogan can deliver on political stability, economic growth, and national pride, then citizens will be averse to any alternatives that risk instability. If small-d democrats want to appear credible, they will need to do more than appeal to democratic values. They will need to deliver on economic distribution and competent governance.

Dean Schafer is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. His research focuses on the values and incentives that shape coalition formation in backsliding democracies. His most recent article “A Popular Mandate for Strongmen” looks at the sources of support for authoritarian leaders in Turkey.

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