♟️ Why autocrats’ strategies of legitimation are worth studying

Legitimacy is as vital to the consolidation of authoritarian regimes as it is in democracies. Nahla El-Menshawy illustrates how regime type, ideology, and historical legacies influence autocratic legitimation strategies

For the first time since 2001, around 54% of the world's population lives under autocratic systems. Occasionally, autocratic regimes pledge to democratise, but go on to maintain their stable autocratic grip. Autocrats invest substantial amounts of time, resources, and personnel in an effort to manipulate the public, signal strength, and gain widespread acceptance. Every autocratic regime differs in its justification for political rule; their so-called claim to legitimacy.

Innovative legitimation practices are a key reason why new autocracies consolidated during the recent authoritarian surge. Hager Ali stresses the importance of studying autocratic regimes, because it allows us to dissect their broad spectrum. Studying autocratic legitimacy, however, will enhance our understanding of how and why people (un-)willingly live under autocratic rule.

Legitimation as the bedrock of governance

Can autocratic regimes even be legitimate? If we understand the term in an empirical and processual manner, as Weber suggested, then, yes, they absolutely can be. Legitimacy does not require the fulfilment of normative expectations regarding ideal forms of government as moral, just and egalitarian.

Autocracies cannot rely on repression to maintain their authority, and use legitimation as a crucial pillar for regime stability and persistence

Instead, empirical approaches measure the behaviour of political authorities contextually. Such approaches argue their ‘right to rule’ and sway the perception of their populace and their relevant elites to recognise such authority. However, we must remember that the necessary data to measure such attitudes remains skewed. This is a result of difficult field access and autocratic surveillance, which leads survey respondents to self-censor.

Authoritarian regimes constantly reformulate new missions to generate loyalties. They cannot merely rely on co-optation and repression to maintain their authority. On the contrary, as part of their ‘toolbox’, legitimation is a crucial pillar for regime stability and persistence. According to some scholars, it is the primary mechanism for regime survival. Legitimation, for autocracies, is cost-effective, creates dependencies, and works to maintain political control in the longer run.

Performance or identity

Scholars generally distinguish between diffuse and specific forms of legitimacy. The former incorporates institutional and performance-based factors that relate to the satisfaction of social and material needs. The latter alludes to affective attitudes and identifications with the political system. These include nationalism, the reiteration of political myths, or religious and political ideologies. Generally, regimes combine and incorporate these two forms of legitimacy depending on the current needs of the political context.

The V-Dem Institute has summarised central concepts and mechanisms of empirical legitimacy into four so-called Regime Legitimation Strategies. This allows scholars to compare different countries in their ideological, personalist, rational-legal, and performance-based strategies, and is the first attempt to code various legitimation claims. As a result, we can refine typologies of autocracies and track changes in legitimation strategies.

Legitimation and regime type matter

Electoral autocracies are the most durable and common type of autocracy. They are also the most studied type of autocracy. Elections under autocratic regimes serve a multitude of objectives. Among these are the co-optation of strategic elites, the redistribution of privileges, the identification of allies, but most importantly, the elevation of the incumbent.

Election campaigns are an opportunity for the ruling party or president to demonstrate their power and boost their profile. Hence, they are a major source of legitimacy. Under certain electoral autocracies, such as Russia, voting is considered a civic national duty. But even where this is not the case, electoral campaigns present autocratic rulers with the ideal opportunity to spread their propaganda.

If the regime derives the majority of its legitimacy from its charismatic leader, it will be particularly sensitive to dissent; it also becomes vulnerable to economic crisis, because blame is harder to deflect

Contrary to popular belief, autocratic regimes do not use repression by default. They constantly mobilise support and use a variety of methods to influence citizens. These include social media, the provision of social services, and infrastructural megaprojects.

However, if the regime derives the majority of its legitimacy from its charismatic leader, it will be particularly sensitive to dissent. Personalist autocracies tend to counter protest with more violence, since such protests undermine the regime's core. Personalist autocracies’ dependence on economic development as a central source of legitimacy also makes them particularly vulnerable to economic crises, especially because incumbents cannot deflect blame onto specific members of a rational-legal administration.

Legacies shape legitimation strategies

Legitimation strategies in autocracies also depend on certain legacies that have been passed down to the new leadership. Unlike new democracies, where certain ideologies and beliefs from autocratic pasts are met with refusal, autocracies tailor their historical and national legacies and their current rule around each other. A case in point is the socialist ideology that shapes the one-party system in Vietnam and China. Another concerns the theological doctrines of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, which serve as a reference point for Iran's current autocratic regime. In other cases, colonial legacies have influenced national identities.

Autocracies tailor their historical and national legacies and their current rule around each other, and establish new ones where possible

Legacies can also be established. In Ethiopia, under the former administration of Meles Zenawi, a new vision of a ‘development state’ was created. This placed the alleviation of poverty and the realisation of a new economic boom at the centre of the regime’s performance-based legitimacy claim. As part of this grand vision, Zenawi commissioned the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Dam (GERD). This legacy of African Renaissance reverberated from Zenawi's presidency into succeeding administrations. The GERD quickly became a flagship project symbolising national prosperity. Current prime minister Abiy Ahmed inherited this national vision, and combined it with his ideological personality cult that emphasises a new united pan-Ethiopian identity.

Creative claims, creative research

Compared to democracies, autocrats go to great lengths to persuade the public why they are fit to rule, and they find creative and unique ways to express it. The abovementioned reasons are only the tip of the iceberg; legitimacy claims and beliefs rest on a huge diversity of factors.

Autocratic legitimation strategies are creative and, as researchers, so should we be. Studying autocratic legitimation allows us to immerse ourselves in the workings of such regimes, and get to their heart. We must be able to compare and classify these various legitimation mechanisms, to better evaluate whether and why their recipients accept autocratic claims. To do this, we need better tools that are just as creative and experimental as the strategies themselves.

♟️ No.8 in The Loop's Autocracies with Adjectives series examining the nuanced differences between autocratic regimes around the world

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Nahla El-Menshawy
Nahla El-Menshawy
PhD Candidate, Research Initiative ConTrust, Goethe University of Frankfurt

Nahla is a research associate at the Chair of Political Science at Goethe University Frankfurt and a doctoral candidate in the cluster initiative ConTrust.

She is also is an associated researcher at the Peace Research Institute in Frankfurt (PRIF).

Her research interests are autocracies and legitimation processes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

In her dissertation project she focuses on trust dynamics and conflict in Yemen, where she studies trust-building processes, especially in the informal sector.

Nahla holds a bachelor degree in Social Sciences from Humboldt University Berlin and a master’s degree in Political Science and Geography from the University of Heidelberg.

She tweets @nahla_e

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