Authoritarian rule has long been a mainstay of political life in Southeast Asia. Since most countries gained independence between the 1940s and 1960s, a string of personalist dictators, military juntas, royal families and single parties have flourished and faltered in the region. The very familiarity of authoritarian rule, however, has tended to promote ambiguity about whether that rule has actually changed.
In The Rise of Sophisticated Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia, I build a new theory and utilise a new dataset to describe how authoritarian rule in the region has evolved. I show:
- It is possible to distinguish between ‘retrograde’ and ‘sophisticated’ forms of authoritarian rule
- There is extraordinary variation in the quality of authoritarian rule both across and within countries
- The quality of authoritarian rule ebbs and flows – sophisticated authoritarianism is not a natural end point on some linear pathway
- There is an alarming trend towards more sophisticated authoritarianism in the region
1. It is possible to distinguish between ‘retrograde’ and ‘sophisticated’ forms of authoritarian rule
My approach places authoritarian regimes on a scale ranging from retrograde (0) to sophisticated (100). The score reflects how closely those in power mimic the fundamental attributes of a democracy, whilst still reconciling the known advantages, benefits and dividends of authoritarian politics.
A hypothetical pure “retrograde” regime with a score of 0 is one which completely fails to mimic any democratic attributes, while also practicing the known worst form of authoritarian rule. It might for example: forbid all elections, openly assassinate opponents, censor all forms of communication, deprive citizens of necessities and be the target of criticism from the United Nations Security Council. Myanmar in 1989 is a close example.
A hypothetical pure “sophisticated” regime with a score of 100 is one in which completely succeeds in mimicking democratic attributes, while also practicing the known best form of authoritarian rule. It would for example: permit competitive elections, co-opt opponents into the governing apparatus, promote self-censorship, provide citizens with a healthcare and avoid any criticism from the United Nations Security Council. Singapore in the early 2010s is a fine example.
Between retrograde and sophisticated authoritarianism, neither form is preferential for citizens. The former is less democratic and potentially less stable; while the latter is nominally more democratic but more stable. Everyday life under a highly sophisticated regime would be superior. But you would have much less hope of being truly free.
2. There’s extraordinary variation in the quality of authoritarian rule both across and within countries
I give 9 authoritarian regimes in Southeast Asia a score each year from 1975 to 2015. As of 2015, the scores for the nine remaining authoritarian regimes were:
- Vietnam under the Vietnamese Communist Party: 66.1
- Singapore under the People’s Action Party: 61.5
- Myanmar under the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party: 56.1
- Malaysia under the United Malay National Organisation: 53.5
- Cambodia under Hun Sen: 47.0
- Laos under the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party: 41.6
- Brunei under Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah: 35.6
This is an exceptional level of variation. It shows that authoritarian regimes bearing many superficial similarities – even those perhaps sharing a territorial border – often rule in vastly different ways.
In the case of Laos and Vietnam, for example, the only notable similarity was their development, including how they manage corruption, stimulate growth, pursue clientelism and provide welfare. Beyond that, how they configured institutions, implemented control, managed information and conducted themselves internationally all differed.
3. Authoritarianism ebbs and flows – sophisticated authoritarianism is not a natural end point on some linear pathway
Looking at the data over time, a clear finding is that sophisticated authoritarianism – like democracy – is not a natural end point on some linear pathway.
In Malaysia, for example, Abdullah Badawi (2003-2009) left office with the quality of authoritarian rule at 66.4 points. But his replacement, Najib Razak, had tendencies towards the retrograde brand of authoritarian rule:
- There were increases in high-intensity political coercion, defections from the ruling coalition, imprisonment of opposition leaders, voter intimidation, and postelection protests relying on repressive crackdowns to resolve them.
- Simultaneously, there were decreases in the co-optation of opposition leaders and vote buying, but also no tangible innovation on how civil society actors advocating for democracy could be curtailed within the political system.
Under Najib Razak’s leadership, Malaysia’s score dropped to 53.3 points by 2015.
4. There is however an alarming trend towards more sophisticated authoritarianism in the region
The data shows the presence of retrograde authoritarianism in Southeast Asia from 1975 to 2011, but then the onset of sophisticated authoritarianism from 2012 to 2015. This regional-level trend likely continues today.
What it reflects is that Southeast Asia’s motley crew of authoritarian regimes have over time learnt to practice a form of rule that explicitly adopts advantageous features and techniques as well as implicitly mimics the fundamental attributes of democracy. To ensure their own survival, it is clear they have implemented a more agile, effective and hospitable version of authoritarian rule.
This trend makes it urgent for civil society groups, opposition movements and democracy promotion stakeholders to face up to the rise of sophisticated authoritarianism in Southeast Asia. They should:
- Identify distinct authoritarian forms: Authoritarian regimes traditionally characterised as being similar – e.g., the one-party states in Laos and Vietnam – exhibit significant behavioural variation. This difference has a bearing on the likelihood of democratic openings within specific countries in Southeast Asia. More opportunities for change are likely to present amongst the less stable, retrograde regimes.
- Pay close attention to leadership changes – and how new leaders position themselves: Individual leaders have a significant impact on the nature of authoritarian rule. Across Southeast Asia from 1975 to 2015, six leaders oversaw a downturn toward retrograde authoritarianism and eighteen headed an upswing toward sophisticated authoritarianism. The key factor to watch is to what extent new leaders appear to value the facade of democracy.
- Watch for innovation globally: Southeast Asia’s authoritarian regimes have tended to practice what they observe outside the region. Whether it is the mobilization of auxiliary groups as agents of repression or employment of zombie election monitors, authentic innovation has been rare. By watching how authoritarian regimes elsewhere hone new methods of survival, it is possible to anticipate emulation in Southeast Asia.
- Understand that sophisticated authoritarianism is on the rise: while the likes of Eritrea, North Korea and Turkmenistan do not pretend to be anything other than full dictatorships, most other authoritarian regimes pursue sophistication. The examples of Hungary, Russia, Rwanda and Turkey are symptomatic of this transformation.
Across Southeast Asia, at least, it is time to face up to the rise of sophisticated authoritarianism. The risk of turning away is that we ignore an inescapable fact: authoritarian regimes are still more likely than democratic regimes to become failed states, develop nuclear weapons, experience famine, initiate interstate war, succumb to civil war and undertake repression. Sophisticated authoritarianism should not be treated as a substitute for liberal democracy.
Lee Morgenbesser is a senior lecturer at the School of Government and International Relations (Griffith University) and an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Research Award Fellow (2018-2020). His latest book is The Rise of Sophisticated Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020).