Zack Blumberg: Authoritarianism, rebranded for the 21st century

Wednesday, May 29, 2019 - 2:59pm

Authoritarianism is a term that, historically, has evoked images of violent oppression and chaotic military coups, and with good reason. From Stalin’s Soviet gulags to Augusto Pinochets militaristic takeover of the Chilean government, authoritarians have traditionally used violence, power and strength to forcefully secure power and, subsequently, to silence dissenters and maintain a firm grip on this power. While these types of brutal regimes still exist today in places such as North Korea, they are less common than they once were.

In place of the traditional authoritarian regime, the 21st century has seen the rise of a less extreme, but more sophisticated, style of subtle authoritarianism. Often dubbed “illiberal democracies,” these regimes take hold in democratic countries and rely on coercion, corruption and the rage of the electorate to gnaw away at the liberties and freedoms that are essential for a functioning democracy. Using this softer approach, leaders in theoretically democratic countries such as Turkey and Hungary have been able to push their respective nations towards authoritarianism, without the violence traditionally associated with it.

In their quest towards authoritarianism, most illiberal democracies follow a relatively similar path. First, most rely on a central figure — usually a charismatic speaker — who declares that there is a fundamental problem in the country which they alone can fix, while whipping up rage among voters. In 1999, an upstart politician in Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was jailed for four months after publicly reading a nationalist, Islam-themed poem. Two years later, Erdogan founded his Islamist AK Parti on the values of Turkish nationalism and devotion to Islam, and by 2003 the AK had a majority in Parliament. In Hungary, Viktor Orban’s rise was quite similar. His Fidesz Party came into power in 2010, with a similar focus on nationalism and the “Hungarian” people. “I love Hungary, I love Hungarians, and I prefer Hungarian interests to global financial capital, or Jewish capital, if you like,” said one Fidesz parliament member in 2009, explaining the views that propelled Orban into office. 

However, being elected is just the beginning. What separates wannabe-authoritarians from principled democratic leaders is their devotion to systematically dismantling institutions which protect democracy and limit their power. Within the government offices, this usually entails replacing qualified bureaucrats, who will stand up for democratic principles, with loyalists who will rubber-stamp whatever the leader asks for. Beyond that, it also includes making legal changes to expand the leader’s power. In 2017, a highly controversial public referendum orchestrated by Erdogan allowed unstamped ballots to be counted as valid, expanding his powers massively. The referendum gave Erdogan the ability to directly appoint top officials, intervene in the country’s legal system and declare a state of emergency.

In Hungary, Orban set out to enact a similar set of power-concentrating reforms. After Fidesz’s 2010 parliamentary victory, Orban immediately gerrymandered districts to increase his vote share going forward. Since then, he has expanded Hungary’s highest court in order to pack it with loyalist judges, fired civil servants in order to replace them with Fidesz loyalists and installed partisan supporters into crucial roles such as election overseers.

In tandem with this, another crucial feature of illiberal democracy is a shift towards authoritarian public oversight. This includes using various tactics to censor the press, demonize dissenters and ensure it is essentially impossible to lose power through democratic channels. For Erdogan, who has held power as Prime Minister since 2003, creating laws to silence dissenting voices in the press has been an essential component of maintaining power. As part of his campaign for total control over the press, Erdogan has jailed 319 journalists and shut down 189 media outlets. If stifling the media isn’t enough to ensure complete control, sometimes illiberal democrats decide to simply not accept democratic outcomes — something Erdogan has done. After a stuttering Turkish economy propelled an opposition candidate into the Istanbul mayoral office earlier this year (this was particularly painful for Erdogan, who traditionally has had a strong base of support in Istanbul), Erdogan eventually ordered a recount. He cited vote-counting irregularities, yet the case for this being legitimate is beyond flimsy.   

Orban has followed suit with attacks on independent media outlets and democratic channels in Hungary. By 2017, it was estimated that 90 percent of Hungarian media outlets were controlled either by the government itself or by Fidesz supporters. Orban accomplished this by using his governmental powers to pressure independent news organizations into selling their companies, primarily through financial and bureaucratic coercion withholding advertising dollars, threatening to approve mergers that would hurt them, etc. Electorally, Fidesz has gone as far as creating fake opposition parties in order to splinter support among their opponents and retain power.

While these countries may not utilize the same overt, militaristic tactics that many 20th century authoritarian governments used, that does not make their end goals any less dangerous. In tandem with their repressive policies, illiberal democracies are also careful to cultivate the appearance of at least moderate  fairness. For instance, Erdogan’s aforementioned 2017 presidential powers referendum didn’t pass with 90 percent of the vote, as often happens in authoritarian regimes, but instead a mere 53 percent. This is exactly what makes illiberal democracies so hard to push back against: Theoretically, it is possible an opposition party could win elections in either Turkey or Hungary, even if it clearly won’t happen. Furthermore, this movement has been empowered by a global expansion of illiberal democracy with varying levels of success by state. However, as long as prominent global leaders like President Donald Trump say “People have a lot of respect for this prime minister (Orban),” it’s exceedingly unlikely that the powers of illiberal democracy will be effectively reigned in.  

Zack Blumberg can be reached at zblumber@umich.edu.