Why it’s harder than ever to oust autocrats from power


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

Meanwhile, protests against the regime in Iran also continue steadily, although hundreds of protesters have been shot dead and many more have been arrested.

Even in China, protests against the government’s draconian Covid measures have erupted across the country in recent weeks.

“Authoritarian regimes are only impregnable until, well, they are not. History is littered with fallen emperors and czars,” wrote former Financial Times commentator Philip Stephens 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 must not bow our heads in despair. Yet we should also have no illusions about grassroots protests and what they can achieve at this point. Modern autocrats are not as easily ousted from power as those of generations before them.

Gone are the days when dictators would come to power through a coup and then establish a reign of terror based mainly on two pillars, generally despised by ordinary citizens: the security forces and the army. The only way to oust these dictators was to ensure the support of both the military leadership and the security chiefs. Having lost the loyalty of these two, the dictators no longer had a power base.

Today’s dictators, however, are more skilled.

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 no longer rule with the barrel of a gun, only rarely engaging in massacres or mowing down protesters right in front of CNN cameras.

These days, they quietly lift their opponents from their beds days after a protest or produce “evidence” of a sex crime, tax evasion or some other non-political offence.

Modern dictators wear suits instead of uniforms. They organize referendums and opinion polls and discuss with citizens. This democratic facade allows them to mingle with the Davos crowd, keep foreign investors in the country and, most importantly, generate economic growth for their citizens.

After Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew used this model to transform his country from a poor backwater into one of the most successful economies in the world, autocrats around the world copied or partly copied it.

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

At the height of the conflict between Poland and Brussels over the rule of law, before the war in Ukraine, European companies continued to invest in the country. Hungary still faces a multi-billion cut in EU 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 through a cynical combination of cronyism and modern technology, they largely determine what news their people read or watch.

For example, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán accuses financier George Soros of orchestrating the teachers’ protests. The loyal businessmen who own most of the media then ensure that the (rare) coverage of these protests gets the Soros effect.

Similarly, Chinese TV channels showing soccer matches in Qatar removed maskless fans from stadium footage. Clearly, the regime in Beijing did not want any Chinese to find out that a more flexible Covid policy than that in China is indeed possible.

Many modern dictators have carefully built popular support. This is why so many countries with autocratic rulers have become so polarized – Brazil under President Jair Bolsonaro, the United States under President Donald Trump and Hungary under Orbán.

Even if half 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 “false democratic” leader are six times less likely to succeed than they were in 2000.

Moreover, in the past, popular protest developed slowly and more at the base. This has fostered cohesion and solidarity. Nowadays, protesters are mainly mobilized via social networks.

Because of this, the “club spirit” is looser and street protests fade much faster.

Since authorities spend billions on cutting-edge technology for propaganda, infiltration and intimidation, they quickly outwit protesters by penetrating or sabotaging their networks.

It’s not just the Polish and Hungarian governments that have spied on opponents using Pegasus software, but even Greece and Spain – although the latter stubbornly denies this. According to Erica Chenowth, one of the Harvard professors involved in the study of street protests, we currently live in an age of “digital authoritarianism”.

During the era of the military dictatorship, the most successful street protests were massive and prolonged. This is no longer true – look at Iran.

If you want modern dictators to disappear, it is no longer enough to have the military and intelligence on your side, but you must also demolish their “popular” power base. As we see daily in Hungary, this is not an easy task.

Besides a good and coherent political narrative, it requires as much stamina, organizational skills and patience as the autocrat himself possessed when he began his slow rise to the top.

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