Thematisches Piktogramm

Authoritarian Regimes

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The term 'authoritarian regimes' ('a.r.') in its broadest sense encompasses all forms of undemocratic rule. Compared to democracies, an a.r. does not maintain the institutions and procedures of participation and political competition, fundamental rights and control of power (separation of powers, parliaments, elections, plurality of parties, etc.) characteristic of a democracy, and thus does not possess democratic legitimacy. In a more narrow view of the term, a.r. represents a specific form of autocratic rule which has been especially distinguished from totalitarian regimes ('t.r.', also totalitarian states) (Arendt 1951, Friedrich/ Brzezinski 1956).

Juan Linz's frequently applied definition (1975: 264) of a.r. names three characteristics through which a.r. can be differentiated both from democratic systems and from t.r.: (1) limited pluralism contrasted with the principally unlimited pluralism of democracies and monism of t.r.; (2) limited political participation (de-politicization) and (except for in limited phases) neither an extensive nor an intensive mobilization; (3) in contrast to totalitarianism there is no legitimation of the system through a common and dominating ideology, but rather through mentalities, psychological predispositions and values in general (patriotism, nationalism, modernization, order, etc.). Polity IV defines a.r. (without differentiating it from t.r.) through stronger restrictions on political participation, a completely exclusive restriction in the selection of the heads of the executive and very sparse limitations on the executive.

A precise distinction of a.r. from t.r. is often made more difficult by the fact that the individual definitions take different characteristics or levels of characteristics into account. These days it has become broadly accepted that in order to differentiate between a.r., t.r. and democratic regimes, the same categories or dimensions should be used; e.g. degree of freedoms, political equality and control (Lauth 2004). When distinguishing, the different forms within this category should be noted, which in turn serve in the identification of the individual regimes (basic types), where t.r. and democratic regimes mark opposite ends of a polar scale. A.r. lies in between and forms an area with a much more clearly distinctive functional logic. A.r.s should not be confused with hybrid regimes, which display characteristics of different basic types.


The three central dimensions pinpointed by Linz facilitate a typology of a.r., which in Linz's view encompasses seven types of authoritarian rule: (1) bureaucratic-military a.r., (2) authoritarian corporatism, (3) mobilizing a.r., (4) postcolonial a.r., (5) racial and ethnic "democracies", (6) incomplete totalitarian and pre-totalitarian regime, (7) post-totalitarian authoritarian regime. This proposition is not without its problems, as, among other things, some types of a.r. are indeed involved in a considerable mobilization, despite the fundamental idea of demobilization (e.g. subtype 3). Furthermore, this characteristic is not particularly helpful in distinguishing a.r. from t.r.

Nohlen (1987) identified six characteristic areas (social and political basis, patterns of legitimation and ideology, internal structures of the apparatus of rule, patterns of relationships between the ruler and the ruled, historical location / sequence and policy orientation), through which different types of a.r. can be distinguished. Another suggestion comes from Merkel (2010), who uses the combination of two characteristics (legitimation and owner of power) to distinguish nine subtypes of authoritarian rule. Barbara Geddes (1999) names three forms of authoritarian rule (military rule, single-party rule and personal rule / dictatorship), which can also manifest themselves as combinations of those forms. Wintrobe (2007) distinguishes dictatorships through their power with the opposite poles of tinpot regime vs. totalitarian Regime. Two further concepts ("patrimonial rule" and "rentier states") are also understood as fundamental forms of authoritarian rule. Both suggestions can, however, also be understood in a weaker form as malfunctioning democracies. In principle, they combine clientele regimes, cliquey setups and abuse of resources. The modification "neo-patrimonial rule" includes the additional characteristic of a bureaucracy purporting to be rational (Erdmann / Engel 2007).

Other types of a.r. were also drafted in the discussion of systems of rule in developing countries. The concept of the bureaucratic-authoritarian state (O'Donnell 1973; Collier 1979) gained importance in a critical contention with the modernization theory and its optimistic assumptions of the link between economic development and democracy. As this example demonstrates, configurations on individual nations often seem to be responsible for the development of a new type and less logically-designed patterns based on fixed characteristics. Thus, the creation of an appropriate typology of the variety of authoritarian systems remains a research task. Among other things, it must be established to what extent informality is a specific characteristic of a.r. The relevance of the creation of subtypes is stressed through the empirical findings, in which the subtypes are each assigned specific functionalities (mechanisms of rule and performance), which also substantially limit the stability and dynamics of authoritarian rule.

Stability and Dynamics

A.r. is the dominant form of rule in modern times despite the dip in democratization especially outside the OECD. Weber already pointed out that a continual stability could not be explained simply by repression, but required legitimation (in the sense of belief in legitimation). Here, he distinguishes between traditional rule, charismatic rule and bureaucratic rule, three forms of rule legitimation which can all be linked to a.r. The cultural integration of rule and the psychological disposition are considered relevant for the acceptance of such patterns of legitimation (Adorno 1950; Huntington/Moore 1970). In such societies, authoritarian attitudes and behavioral patterns which are influenced by social institutions composed in an authoritarian style (family, religious communities, companies, trade unions, etc.) live on and ultimately promote a "culture of authoritarianism" (Mansilla 1995). A.r.s can establish their legitimation through discourse in such a context.

Another central foundation for legitimation lies in its performance. The achievements can refer to indicators of modernization – there are countless studies in this area which compare the achievements of democracies and a.r.s – or in the care taken of religious and cultural traditions. The relevance of the single aspects becomes clear in their compatibility to the respective societal environment. A further chance for legitimation is offered through strongly regimented elections which protect the appearance of participation (key word: electoral authoritarianism, Schedler 2006). Alongside these various forms of legitimation, repressive mechanisms (censorship, imprisonment, torture, etc.) are a lasting form of authoritarian rule, even if they are practiced in different ways. Generally, it is thus assumed that a.r.s are indeed responsive. However, they also try to increase responsiveness by manipulating public communications in their favor.

The stability of a.r. is exposed to various dangers in the process of modernization. Changes to the political culture and the changes in behavior by its actors (organisations, civil society) also play as large a role as shifts in the (political) elite of the nation. The use of available communications systems (especially social media), which can undermine the ruling discourse, is of particular relevance. The dissolution of a.r. is treated with importance in transformation research (Merkel 2010).

Hans-Joachim Lauth

Please cite as:
Lauth, Hans-Joachim. 2012. “Authoritharian Regimes.” InterAmerican Wiki: Terms - Concepts - Critical Perspectives.


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Erdmann, G. / Engel, U. 2007: "Neopatrimonialism Reconsidered: Critical Review and Elaboration of an Elusive Concept", in: Commonwealth & Comparative Politics Vol. 45, No. 1, 95–119

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Merkel, W. 2010: Systemtransformation. Eine Einführung in die Theorie und Empirie der Transformationsforschung, 2nd Edition, Wiesbaden.

Nohlen, D. 1987: "Autoritäre Systeme", in: Nohlen, D./Waldmann, P. (Ed.): Dritte Welt, Munich / Zurich, 64–84.

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Schedler, A. (Ed.) 2006: Electoral Authoritarianism: The Dynamics of Unfree Competition, Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Wintrobe, R. 2007: Dictatorship: Analytical Approaches, in: Oxford Handbook of Comparative Politics, Oxford University Press: 363-394

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