Identity, procedures and performance: how authoritarian regimes legitimize their rule

Christian von Soest and Julia Grauvogel: GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies, Hamburg, Germany 2017 Full PDF here to Read in New Window

ABSTRACT Constructing convincing legitimacy claims is important for securing the stability of authoritarian regimes. However, extant research has struggled to systematically analyse how authoritarians substantiate their right to rule. We analyse a novel data set on authoritarian regimes’ claims to legitimacy that is based on leading country experts’ assessments of 98 states for the period 1991–2010. This analysis provides key new insights into the inner workings and legitimation strategies of current non-democratic regimes. Closed authoritarian regimes predominately rely on identity-based legitimacy claims (foundational myth, ideology and personalism). In contrast, elections fundamentally change how authoritarian rulers relate to society. In their legitimacy claims, electoral authoritarian regimes focus on their ‘adequate’ procedures, thereby mimicking democracies. All regimes also stress their purported success in proving material welfare and security to their citizens

The current research on authoritarianism has provided fundamental insights into the inner workings of non-democratic polities (for recent overviews see Art, 2012; Köllner & Kailitz, 2013; Pepinsky, 2014). However, even the growing body of research that differentiates between authoritarian subtypes focuses disproportionally on institutional features but largely ignores these regimes’ different legitimation patterns (for an exception see Kailitz, 2013), despite the fact that ‘even very coercive regimes cannot survive without some support’ (Geddes, 1999b, p. 125). Only recently have studies examined authoritarian regimes’ different legitimation strategies (Burnell, 2006; Kailitz, 2013). Moreover, research on authoritarian regimes has tended to rely on general assumptions about autocrats’ different claims to legitimacy that are insufficiently backed by systematic analyses. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, scholars have asserted that current-day authoritarian regimes have faced a fundamental ‘crisis of ideology’ (Linz, 2000, pp. 36–37), which, however, does not uniformly apply to all authoritarian regimes (see for example Holbig, 2013).

Likewise, the claim that autocracies ‘lack the procedures which link political decisions to citizens’ preferences’ and are thus ‘structurally disadvantaged’ to claim procedure-based legitimacy (Croissant & Wurster, 2013, p. 7) could be oversimplified, particularly with respect to electoral authoritarian regimes (Schedler, 2006). In order to address these gaps and to systematically study authoritarian legitimation strategies, we focus on regimes’ claims to legitimacy as a domestic means – vis-à-vis the ruling elite, the general population and the opposition – of securing authoritarian rule.

Six claims to legitimacy: Types of claims


    1. Foundational myth
    2. Ideology
    3. Personalism
  1. Procedures
  2. Performance
  3. International engagement

Foundational myth: Incumbents, ruling elites, and parties all refer to their role in the state-building process in order to legitimate their rule: ‘historical accounts are significant and contentious precisely because of their relationship to the legitimacy of power in the present’ (Beetham, 1991, p. 103). Particularly strong solidarity ties are established during periods of violent struggle such as war, revolutions, and liberation movements (Levitsky & Way, 2013, p. 5), which are often used as powerful legitimation narratives. Moreover, parties that emerge from a successful national liberation struggle often claim an entitlement to steer the country’s future based on past achievements and a fusion of the (former) liberation movement and the state (Clapham, 2012; Schedler, 2013, p. 227). Hence, this dimension does not simply focus on the fact that the politicians or parties were involved in the establishment of a polity but their recurrent and prominent reference to it in order to boost their domestic legitimacy. Former liberation movements in Africa have, for instance, strongly invoked this foundational myth (Schatzberg, 2001).

Ideology: In line with Easton (1975), we understand ideology-based legitimacy claims as narratives regarding the righteousness of a given political order. In this sense, ideology denotes a belief system intended to create a collective identity and, in some cases, a specific societal order (Linz, 2000). The main point from this paper’s perspective is not a specific content of the ideology invoked, but the regime’s teleological proclamation of an ‘official’ belief system against which all political behaviour is assessed. This ideology can comprise ‘macro’ or ‘micro’ claims and also encompasses narratives other than grand ideologies such as communism. Ideological claims, as understood here, may therefore include references to nationalism and religion. Post-independence regimes often rely strongly on nationalism as a legitimation strategy (Linz, 2000, p. 227). Likewise, nationalism can be particularly pronounced following a change of government, with the new leadership seeking to strengthen national consciousness (Krastev, 2011). Religion (Albrecht & Schlumberger, 2004; Wintrobe & Ferrero, 2009) is regularly discussed as a major source of legitimacy claims, also in conjunction with nationalism (Mansfield & Snyder, 1995; Razi, 1990).

Personalism: Authoritarian regimes frequently focus on the person of the ruler to boost their appeal among both the population and the political elite. Personalism comprises two aspects: Weber (1980, pp. 133–136) refers to charismatic authority as an important source of legitimacy, which stems from the ‘extraordinary personality’ and leadership qualities of an individual. Charismatic leaders portray themselves as chosen ‘from above’ to fulfil a certain mission (Fagen, 1965, pp. 275–277) and as having traditional authority through hereditary succession (Brownlee, 2007; Herb, 1999). Personalism-based claims may also represent a discursive mechanism that emphasizes the ruler’s centrality to certain achievements such as the nation’s unity, prosperity, and stability (Isaacs, 2010; Nelson, 1984).

Procedures: Attempts to create procedural legitimacy can be based on the carrying out of elections and other rule-based mechanisms for handing over power through ‘orderly’ process, be it nominally democratic through elections, hereditary power transfer (Yom & Gause, 2012), within a ruling party or based on mechanisms for the implementation of policies. This applies to more than just democracies. Bureaucratic–military authoritarian regimes, for example, go to considerable lengths to operate within a legalistic framework despite the many arbitrary elements in their exercise of authority (Linz, 2000, p. 186).

Performance: Our take on performance-related narratives is based on Easton’s (1965) notion of specific support, which refers to regime legitimacy that stems from success in satisfying citizens’ needs. We hence focus on the extent to which the regime either deliberately cites its achievements in fulfilling societal demands such as material welfare and security or, alternately, employs claims of achievements in the absence of real improvements (see Dimitrov, 2009 on economic populism). Hence, different components can comprise the notion of ‘performance’, among them the claim that the state organizes equal redistribution and access to certain public goods, such as healthcare and education (von Soest & Grauvogel, 2015), as well as the presentation of a regime as a guarantor of stability, territorial integrity or state building after a civil war (Radnitz, 2012). Instead of, as is common practice, using proxies such as economic growth, inflation, and unemployment to measure a regime’s performance-based support we ask to what extent a regime explicitly invokes such performance-related claims.

International engagement: Lastly, autocrats also use international engagement to bolster their domestic legitimation narrative. This has hardly been considered in a systematic fashion by the extant research on authoritarian attempts to gain legitimacy. In contrast to ‘external legitimacy’, i.e. recognition from other states (Burnell, 2006; Jackson & Rosberg, 1982), we focus on the extent to which a regime refers to its international role in order to legitimate its rule domestically. Disproportionate international engagement – for instance, in international negotiations or regional organizations but also in providing global public goods and acting as an ideological ‘model exporter’, as in the case of Venezuela or Iran (von Soest, 2015; Whitehead, 2015) – may serve to strengthen the legitimation of regimes, especially those that can hardly draw on domestic sources of legitimation (Schatz, 2006). Using the term ‘externalization’, Dzhuraev (2012, p. 2) describes how political leaders leverage their country’s role in international arenas ‘as tools in manufacturing domestic legitimation’ (see also Koesel & Bunce, 2013). Furthermore, the need to defend the country against an external enemy can also be used to claim domestic legitimacy