The road to authoritarianism

Many people see the current political atmosphere in Europe as a storm to weather away. Populists might reach power, the thinking goes, but they will be removed from office at the next election. France is not Russia and Germany is not Turkey: We surely have democratic traditions that have survived worse situations. Plus, international organizations would not let a country drift toward authoritarianism.

Such thinking is wrong. Authoritarianism can creep in any healthy democracy, in a slow and irreversible process. This essay argues that democratic history offers no protection against authoritarianism and goes on to show how authoritarian regimes feel perfectly at home in the institutions of the democracies they take control of.

History offers no protection

For some, democratic institutions are safe when the population of a country grew up in a democratic framework. The argument makes one assumption: that someone who was raised under a certain system will not want it to change. By virtue of habit, a population that has known only one regime will not be able to operate in a new one. It makes sense if inertia is all that is needed to sustain a political system.

However, the sheer fact that political systems have changed should prove the argument wrong. Virtually all Soviet citizens had lived under a Marxist-Leninist rule when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Not to talk of the subjects of royal France, who had known only monarchy, when they suddenly had to work their way through a Republican system in 1792.

Such regime changes can lead from democracy to authoritarianism. As is well known, the Weimar Republic accepted Hitler as its Chancellor in 1933, fourteen years after it was created. The same happened in Romania, where, in 1938, the King canceled the constitution after fifteen years of democracy. In the 21st century, some link the authoritarian tendencies of Poland and Hungary with the young age of their institutions1. Young democracies are often thought to be more likely to shift towards non-democratic regimes than older ones.

At least two examples show that old democracies (where all politicians started their career in a democratic system) can also make the shift towards authoritarianism. The first is 1940 France, where the legitimate parliament voted to abolish democracy, 70 years after the creation of the Third Republic. Granted, this was in the midst of a German invasion, but the sheer fact that none of the parliaments of the other invaded countries took such a step shows that the French did not act purely under German pressure. The second example is 1922 Italy, where Benito Mussolini took power after 61 years of constitutional monarchy (I’ll come back to this example later).

There is no milestone at which a country’s institutions can be declared safe from change. Even the United States, with its 230-year-old institutions, is not immune to political upheavals.

External forces

Regime changes rarely happen from within. Most of the time, external factors play the main part, either through invasion and violence or soft power and incentives. Democracy was imposed on Germany against popular will in 1945, just as Germany had destroyed democracy in the Czech Republic, Belgium and the Netherlands six years before.

Soft power can also steer politicians towards democratic norms. The power of attraction of the European Union is widely credited for the transition to democracy of Spain, Portugal, the Czech Republic and others. Surely, if external forces can bring politicians towards democracy, they can also keep them within democracy, can’t they?

Numerous forums exist that aim at detecting drifts from democracy among their members and summon them back in. The Council of Europe, created in 1949, is the best example of such an institution. It pushed its members to adopt over 200 treaties strengthening fundamental freedoms and its court of justice (the European Court of Human Rights) lets citizens of member countries sue their governments when they impede on their basic rights.

While the Council of Europe certainly helps functioning democracies, it does nothing to deter politicians from taking a resolute authoritarian course. Russia under Vladimir Putin, Hungary under Viktor Orbán, Poland under the Law and Justice governments are all full members of the Council of Europe. Even in countries regarded as full-fledged democracies, the Council remains toothless.

In Belgium, the Flemish government refused to allow the democratically elected mayors of three francophone cities to be sworn in office, citing bogus reasons. This happened in 2008 and was followed by a report from the Council of Europe condemning Flanders2. Eight years later, the situation has not changed and the Flemish government continues to deny some of its citizens the right to a democratically elected mayor3.

Other institutions (European Union) and clubs (OECD), proved as ineffective in preventing members from leaving democracy.

Without power to enforce decisions or international treaties, the Council of Europe and others can only rely on shaming politicians that do not follow democratic rules. This works only when national politicians and the national institutions that keep them in check (journalists, prosecutors) agree that democratic rules should be followed. When this ceases to be the case, as it is today in many European countries, the Council becomes cruelly anachronistic4.

Legalism and authoritarianism

Neither international institutions nor a democratic heritage can protect from authoritarianism. One reason this could be the case is that both the population and external players can pretend not to see authoritarianism when it creeps in, because authoritarianism revels in democratic institutions.

It is good to know that Benito Mussolini took power in 1922 and did not change the Italian constitution or the Italian institutions before 1943 and the creation of the Italian Social Republic in Northern Italy. All the fascist program, whether it was the jailing of political opponents, the annexation of Libya or the racial laws, happened within the same set of institutions that operated before Mussolini.

What Mussolini achieved in the 20th century has been replicated many times since the end of the Cold War. Because international organizations made aid dependent on democratic institutions, almost all authoritarian leaders around the world changed their constitutions to adopt all the institutions of democracy (multi-party elections, parliaments, independent judiciary) but made sure to keep control of every aspect of power5. Others conquered power within democratic frameworks and turned them into authoritarian regimes. Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus and, above all, Vladimir Putin in Russia are just two examples. They both started as democratic politicians who infiltrated institutions one after the other and sucked any democratic life out of them. They consolidated their power in less than a decade, but the process can be longer.

The white population of South Africa went from democracy to authoritarianism over several decades. The National Party won the elections of 1948 and remained in power until 1994. Inheriting a set of institutions offering democracy to whites after World War II, the National Party passed a series of successive laws that allowed censorship, extrajudicial killings and private militias. The change occurred gradually, without a milestone that indicated a shift from a white-only democracy to a National Party authoritarian regime6.

Such regime changes are strongly committed to legalism. They make sure to respect the letter of the legislation - never mind if the legislation itself is bogus. The steps towards authoritarianism are always the same. Governments pass laws with vaguely defined terms, so that prosecutors can go after anyone, anytime (“hooliganism” is a Russian favorite, “insulting the government’s institutions” is a penal offense in Turkey but “terrorism” is most often used). They direct tax authorities to probe the accounts of companies critical of the regime to force them to fall into line or go out of business. They finally take control of nominally independent state-related institutions (state media, court of auditors, supreme court) by passing decrees or laws that let them choose their top executives.

Once the determination of an authoritarian government is clear (because it crushed enemies) and its momentum growing, most politicians and businesses join in. The government does not have to enforce its might anymore: Prosecutors know who to go after, tax inspectors know which business to probe, civil servants know how to behave if they want to advance their careers.

Know where the red lines are

Most people fail to distinguish between authoritarian regimes and totalitarianism. A totalitarian regime lives for an ideology. An authoritarian one is simply a non-democratic regime - it does not need an ideology. The distinction has profound implications in daily life. In a totalitarian regime, every aspect of everyone’s life must abide by a set of ideological rules. Any shift from the ideology, even in the most mundane way, is a political statement. This is why environmentalism was such a big thing in the Soviet bloc in the 1980’s. By caring about the environment, many young East-Germans, Poles and Soviet citizens implicitly criticized the productivist ideology typical of Marxism-Leninism. The same was true of nudism in East-Germany: It was above all a way to disobey the regime’s desire to rule over the bodies of its citizens7.

In an authoritarian regime, the government cares little about the behavior of the people it rules - as long as it does not feel threatened. Political debate is tolerated or even encouraged in all domains that do not directly concern the power of the ruling elite.

In Putin’s Russia, institutions such as the national parliament and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can and do play a role in the legislative process. DisLife, a Russian NGO, mixes lobbying in parliament, guerrilla advertising and political alliances to push for equal access for people with disabilities. What can be done on the issue of handicapped people certainly could not happen on an issue such as the role of Putin in the 1999 apartment bombings. (All the journalists, lawyers or prosecutors who tried to investigate were murdered8).

To be politically active in an authoritarian regime means to know where the red lines are. A red line is an issue that cannot be tackled without provoking the ire of the regime, which can lead to professional trouble (a tax probe, for instance), arrest or murder. Of course, such red lines are never written out ; one must pay attention to the signals sent by the government.

Of course, red lines exist in countries we think of as democracies. François Renaud, a French judge, was killed in 1975 in Lyons as he was investigating a case involving gangsters working for politicians9. Jörg Hillinger, a German prosecutor, died in 1999 when the brakes of his car failed. He was about to indict politicians in the CDU donations scandal10. In Argentina, Alberto Nisman is another prosecutor who crossed a red line: he was found dead in his apartment in 2015. He had just drafted the arrest warrant for the ruling president11.

The existence of red lines in themselves do not make a democracy an authoritarian regime. In affairs above, even if no senior politician went to jail, power changed hands shortly after. What really matters is where the red lines are.

The ultimate red line

Democracy has finally lost all hope at making a comeback when discussing who shall exercise power becomes a red line. For this to happen, the ruling government must offer an undisputed leader and have gained enough control to discourage potential candidates. Russia, Belarus and Turkey offer examples where the undisputed leader preexisted the takeover of democratic institutions. However, the South African precedent shows that the undisputed leader can just be the head of the ruling party and consolidate his or her power after democratic institutions have been compromised.

The situation in the European Union of 2016 is similar to the South African example. Many of the steps leading to durable authoritarianism have already been taken: The widespread acceptance that human rights and checks-and-balances are not the most adapted form of governance, the vague criminal legislation that let prosecutors go after anyone (remember that the British police arrested journalists under terrorism charges and that the French put environment activists under house arrest12), a wide online censorship apparatus is in place in most countries and many institutional counterweights to the executive voluntary stepped back so that governments could fight terrorism more effectively.

The only brick lacking are undisputed leaders. So far, only Hungary has one, and Viktor Orbán made clear his intention to keep the country an “illiberal democracy”. Any politician with authoritarian tendencies that can build momentum to win an election could seal the lid on democratic institutions. He or she would just have to equate criticism of the government with praising terrorism and let the police and the judiciary do the rest.


1. I wrote on the topic in a previous essay, Eastern Europe.

2. The report lives here.

3. Elections à Linkebeek: la ministre Homans a refusé de nommer Damien Thiéry bourgmestre.

4. In the United Kingdom, prime minister (then home secretary) Theresa May called for withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights, the cornerstone of the Council of Europe, in 2013. In France, while several politicians have called for a new appraisal of human rights, a group of high-ranking civil servants called withdrawing from the Convention a ‘democratic necessity’ in 2016.

5. On what some scholars called competitive authoritarianism, read Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes after the Cold War by Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way.

6. To my knowledge, there is no book or article that tells the story of South African institutions under the National Party. If you know of one, please send me an email at

7. A good article on the link between nudism and politics in East Germany: Aufstand der Nackten.

8. On the issue of the bombings, I highly recommand Edward Lucas’ The New Cold War or The Unsolved Mystery Behind the Act of Terror That Brought Putin to Power.

9. Read La Mort d’un Juge by Benoît Collombat and Étienne Davodeau.

10. One of the very few articles on the topic in the German press: „Bankrott der Justiz“.

11. Draft of Arrest Request for Argentine President Found at Dead Prosecutor’s Home.

12. I wrote about this in Confronting Authoritarianism.