The dangerous long-term weakness of authoritarian leadership

A strong leader can put the house in order. Authoritarian figures with a vision have some successes on their names, notably in East Asia. But their cheerleaders often underestimate how much their achievements were possible because of broad support. As Paul Krugman pointed out in his 1994 Foreign Affaris article debunking uncritical celebration of the ‘Asian miracle’, in the short run, authoritarian leadership allows quick mobilisation of previously under-utilised production factors. For more complicated reforms you need more complicated power structures.

In the long run, authoritarianism is a recipe for weak and feeble regimes. When a regime gets power, it is sure of its hold and can act boldly. It has just managed to build a coalition among the groups that hold power with enough support to bring it firmly into power. However, as time goes on, that mandate is not renewed. Still, society is not frozen in time and, especially when you rapidly modernise your country, the balance of power shifts. Since civic society has been muzzled, it is not a reliable source of information. As the grounds shift under you, as the distance to the moment of ascension to power grows, the regime’s feeling that it is in full command shrinks. Insecurity grows.

In fact, insecurity is the hallmark of authoritarian regimes.

The initial leader is strong in his mandate. Often he may have won the support of genuine elections. This changes once the time for successors comes. These people do not have an individual mandate. They therefore often lack the power to make bold moves. If you emerge from the party establishment, what exactly is your mandate for rapid reform? The point is not that this mandate is absent—it may very well be there—but that you do not know what mandate you have.

Heng Swee Keat will never be as free to push through controversial policies as Lee Kuan Yew, who won real elections against outside opponents, not just a closed-doors contest within the regime. Xi Jinping’s ‘personality cult’ has been instigated precisely to solve that problem: he was put in his position by party elites, his ‘selectorate’, and his grand schemes make him acutely aware that he needs a broad popular mandate to be effective. To the extent that Emmanuel Macron came to power out of a intra-elite contest in France, his ability to enact his big reforms is also limited by the lack of popular participation in ‘his’ power bargain.

Holding the reins of power depends on a bargain with those factions who hold the keys to power. To make sure that this configuration remains up to date, regular bargaining is necessary. In liberal democracies, elections fulfil this role—even when increasingly imperfectly. In authoritarian states proper power bargaining is impossible, because the question of who is in charge has already been answered. When the leader cannot change, in democracy or dictatorship, the game of politics is about not who will get power, but who will support power. Theresa May should go, because her insecurity means that by now her attention is absorbed by that game. To an extent it is possible to play this game, but over time it creeps into every policy-decision. The act of governing is subsumed by the pursuit of power, and the ruler’s efficiency dissipates until the bargain is renewed.