4th Feb 2023


Why it's harder than ever to chase autocrats from power

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Since September, teachers across Hungary have taken to the streets to demand higher wages. Although several teachers have been fired after having participated, many still formed a 10km chain in Budapest recently.

Meanwhile, demonstrations against the regime in Iran are also continuing steadily, even though hundreds of protesters have been shot and many more have been arrested.

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Even in China, protests against the government's draconian Covid measures have erupted all over the country in recent weeks.

"Authoritarian regimes are impregnable only until the moment, well, when they are not. History is littered with deposed emperors and tsars," former Financial Times commentator Philip Stephens wrote in a blog under the hopeful title 'A bad year for autocrats. Xi and Putin are the big losers of 2022'.

He is right: we should not hang our heads in despair. Yet, neither should we be under any illusions about popular protests and what they can accomplish at this point in time. Modern autocrats do not allow themselves to be chased out of power as easily as those of the generations before them did.

Gone are the days when dictators came to power through a coup d'état and then established a reign of terror mostly based on two pillars, generally despised by ordinary citizens: the security forces and the army. The only way to evict these dictators was to make sure to have the support of both the army leadership and security chiefs. Having lost the loyalty of those two, the dictators no longer had any power base left.

Today's dictators, however, are slicker.

As Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman explain in their book Spin Dictators, they consciously try to maintain popular support. Unlike many of their predecessors, many do not govern from the barrel of a gun anymore, only seldom engaging in mass killings or mowing down protesters right in front of CNN cameras.

Nowadays, they lift their opponents quietly from their beds a few days after a demonstration or produce 'evidence' of a sex crime, tax evasion or some other non-political offence.

Modern dictators wear suits instead of uniforms. They hold referendums and opinion polls, and chat with citizens. This democratic façade allows them to mingle with the Davos crowd, keep foreign investors in the country, and, crucially, deliver economic growth for their citizens.

After Singapore's prime minister Lee Kuan Yew used this model to turn his country from a poor backwater into one of the highest-performing economies in the world, autocrats all over the world have copied it or part of it.

We see it in China, in the Arab world and Latin America, but also in Europe.

At the height of Poland's conflict with Brussels over the rule of law, before the war in Ukraine, European companies continued to invest in the country. Hungary is still risking a multi-billion cut in European subsidies because it has become — according to MEPs — an "electoral autocracy", but not a single German car factory has left the country because of it.

Since dictators control most of the media thanks to a cynical combination of cronyism and modern technology, they largely determine which news their people read or watch.

For example, Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán accuses the financier George Soros of masterminding the teachers' demos. Loyal businessmen who own most of the media then make sure the (scarce) coverage of these demonstrations get the Soros spin.

Likewise, Chinese TV channels broadcasting football matches in Qatar cut out supporters without face masks from the stadium's footage. Clearly, the regime in Beijing did not want any Chinese to discover that a more flexible Covid policy than the one in China is indeed possible.

Many modern dictators have carefully built up popular support. That's why so many countries with autocratic rulers became so polarised — Brazil under president Jair Bolsonaro, the US under president Donald Trump, and Hungary under Orbán.

Even if half of the country takes to the streets, the other half still supports the dictator.

According to researchers at Harvard university, this partly explains why popular uprisings under this new type of 'fake-democratic' ruler are six times less likely to succeed than they were in 2000.

Moreover, in the past, popular protest used to be built up slowly and more grassroots. That fostered cohesion and solidarity. Nowadays, protesters are mostly mobilised through social media.

Because of this, the 'club spirit' is more loose and street protests wither much faster.

Since the authorities are spending billions on advanced technology for propaganda, infiltration and intimidation, they quickly outwit protesters by penetrating or sabotaging their networks.

It is not just governments in Poland and Hungary that have spied on opponents using Pegasus software, but even Greece and Spain — although the latter stubbornly deny it. According to Erica Chenowth, one of the Harvard professors involved in the street-protest study, we are currently living in an age of "digital authoritarianism".

In the old days of military dictatorship, the most successful street protests were massive and prolonged. This is no longer true — look at Iran.

If you want modern dictators gone, it is not enough anymore to get the army and intelligence services on your side but you must also tear down their "popular" power base. As we see daily in Hungary, this is not an easy task.

Apart from a good and consistent political narrative, this requires as much stamina, organisational skill and patience as the autocrat possessed himself when he started his slow ascendance to the top.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC. She is also a columnist for Foreign Policy and De Standaard. This piece is adapted from a recent column in NRC.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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