What is an authoritarian government?
The principal difference between a democracy and an authoritarian government is that in the former, people have a greater say in political affairs, get to choose who leads them, and there are checks and balances on executive power. In the latter, power is more closely tied to one person or group of people who restrict the ability of the population to decide their own future. Typically, the state places limits on the free press, on the judiciary's independence, or on the powers of the parliament. Where democracy represents pluralism, authoritarianism typifies repression.
Elections in a democracy are freer, involve choice between different options, and the government does not interfere in the outcome. In an authoritarian style of government, there may or may not be elections, but the choice will inevitably be more limited, be subject to more interference from the incumbent government, and it may not accept to leave if it loses.
A free press, an independent judiciary, the ability for civil society to get organised, and free speech are all pillars of democracy. Each of these aspects is crucial to allow scrutiny of the government’s actions. In a democracy, the ability to criticise the government makes it possible for people to speak their mind, which in turn encourages creativity, innovation and improvement.
When an authoritarian government makes it harder for journalists to do their job, for example by restricting their ability to operate or by encouraging attacks against the media, it inevitably makes it harder for a narrative different from the government’s to emerge. That means people are more likely to only get the ruling party’s version of an event. In other words, the government can manipulate the population through propaganda.
Why they inevitably slow down progress
Authoritarian governments inevitably limit a society’s progress because they impose limits on the say people have in the direction of the country. By impeding inclusive political institutions, they will also impede economic ones in time.
That does not mean a country can not experience economic advances, even wild ones with a “strongman” leader at the helm or through a one-party state. China is the perfect example of that. China has made its institutions inclusive, encouraging entrepreneurship, property rights and wealth creation. On a political level, however, it is not willing to share power with this new class, and it intervenes and directs companies as to what is possible and what is not, placing limits on people’s ability to thrive. At some point, the path towards further economic progress and that of continued political control are likely to meet head-on. The protests in Hong Kong are a forerunner of what will probably happen in future.At some point, an authoritarian government places limits on people’s economic opportunities because they clash with those of political control. For example, the oligarchy in place in Hungary prevents other citizens from participating fully in the economy and creating competitors to the large ventures run by Orban’s cronies. Meanwhile, Orban limits the possibilities to criticise his government at a political level.
What’s the situation in the EU?
The EU made it clear from the start – it was going to be a club of democracies that respected concepts like fair elections, the rule of law, or the free press. Unfortunately, its architecture contains a fundamental flaw on this point. If one or several of its members start backsliding on democracy once they are inside the EU, until recently there have been limited options for the Commission to take action.
Take Hungary, which is the most worrying example. Viktor Orban, once a promoter of democracy, civil liberties and property rights at the end of the Soviet period, has progressively turned Hungary into a semi-authoritarian state, which forces independent media to close down and has limited the ability of NGOs to criticise the government.
Poland has also taken an authoritarian turn, by turning the courts into allies of the government and making life harder for media that is critical. Slovenia is the latest country to take an increasingly authoritarian turn.
What can the EU do?
The EU does have weapons in its arsenal, including some newly created ones, and it needs to start using them if it doesn’t want its democratic ideal to fall apart.
For one, the EU could take countries to court more frequently when they break EU laws that help to protect an independent media or stop corruption. At the moment, the European Commission does not always start these cases, even though it has the power to do so.
The EU could also put more political pressure on governments that deliberately attack democracy and rights. One way to do that is to stop funds from being dished out to those countries. When the money dries up, it will probably force some of those governments into a rethink. The EU has just created a mechanism, referred to as “rule of law conditionality”, that would allow it to do this.
The EU has also just created a fund to make sure that rights and democracy groups have enough money. They are important to make sure the public can have a well-informed debate about what the government is doing, help the public speak to politicians about their concerns and bring court cases when governments ignore the law. We don’t yet know how good a job the Commission will do of making sure this financial support gets to the right organisations. For example, those in countries where human rights NGOs in the human rights sector have been strangled, like Hungary and Poland.
What does authoritarianism mean?
An authoritarian government has greater control over its population, restricting their freedoms, the country’s institutions, and limiting the say people have in their own future.
Which are Europe’s most authoritarian regimes?
The EU has only semi-authoritarian regimes, and these include Hungary and Poland.
Previously on Liberties
Elections Increase Grip of Anti-Values Parties Over Political Mainstream
It's Time for Some Answers on Populist Authoritarians
Can Human Rights Torpedo the Rise of Authoritarians?