Why Do Authoritarian Regimes Stay in Power?

For one to understand why authoritarian regimes stay in power, first it must be said that not all regimes are the same and what causes them to stay in power is inherently different, but there are a few analogous factors explaining why these authoritarian regimes stay in power. These factors are uneven or the lack of modernization, severe inequality (absence of a middle class), little or no civil society, and nondemocratic culture. O’Neil mentions all of these factors, but one factor he omits is legitimacy. If the citizens of a country find the government to be legitimate then there is no reason for a change in political structure. When I suggest legitimacy as a factor I am suggesting traditional legitimacy. This type of legitimacy is only achieved after a prolonged period of time in which there is a successful regime. Legitimacy at that point essentially assures the stability of the regime.

An example of an authoritarian regime that has enjoyed prolonged power is the regime now present in China. China has many of the preceding factors that are necessary in keeping an authoritarian regime in power. A large factor in the longevity of the authoritarian regime in China is the income inequality due to uneven modernization. This inequality has slowed the growth of the middle class, which has kept separation between the few in power and the weakly organized lower class. Another factor is the lack of civil society; all organizations are either suppressed or controlled by the government, which restricts citizens from organizing and voicing their criticisms of the government. Also China’s Confucian tradition, which highlights obedience to hierarchy, may also play a small role in the longevity of the regime by suggesting a culture of authoritarian rule. China possesses all of these factors similar to other authoritarian countries, which make it prone to extended authoritarian rule, but China is different from many other countries with authoritarian regimes in the fact that they have a strong economy with a high GDP.

China is one of the exceptions to the belief that a strong economy is the product of a democracy or vice versa. This is where China has been gaining some legitimacy among its people, through a long period in power in which there has been a strong economy. If China stays on this path of economic success while still keeping the other factors in place it may allow the country to develop a level of legitimacy in which the regime has been successful for so long that no one would dare to challenge it. A quote from president Xi Jinping’s right hand man Wang Qishan shows the legitimacy believed to be present by the regime, “The CCP’s (Chinese Communist Party) legitimacy lies in history and popular support from the people. The Party is the choice by the people” (Ruan, Par.1) The only issue with an authoritarian regime’s legitimacy is that it must maintain its success for the people to still see the regime as right and proper. So for an authoritarian regime to stay in power for a long period of time it must possess these factors and maintain some kind of success whether it be economically or militarily.


Ruan, Lotus. “The Chinese Communist Party and Legitimacy.” The Diplomat. September 30, 2015. Accessed October 2, 2015. http://thediplomat.com/2015/09/the-chinese-communist-party-and-legitimacy/.

O’Neil, Patrick H. Essentials of Comparative Politics. 5th ed. S.l.: W W Norton, 2015.

Gat, Azar “The Return of Authoritarian Great Powers.” Foreign Affairs July/August 2007. http://www.jstor.org/stable/i20032409

One thought on “Why Do Authoritarian Regimes Stay in Power?

  1. I think you make an interesting point about the connection between economic growth and authoritarianism. As Gat discusses in “The Return of Authoritarian Great Powers”, capitalist economic systems coupled with authoritarianism could present a serious challenge to liberal democracies today. The success of such systems would provide developing nations a viable alternative to liberal democracy. I would like to link this to your argument and suggest that capitalism within authoritarian regimes actually contributes to their legitimization. You claim that a successful economy will broker a more content population, and capitalism provides this potential, at least according to Gat. However, though I agree that the economy can add to legitimization, I do not think maintaining a successful economy is the only legitimizing factor, and that this alone would ensure an authoritarian regimes power.

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