Autocracies that look like democracies are a threat across the globe

Russia’s successful interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election may inspire other countries to do the same.

These other countries don’t look threatening. They look like democracies. But they’re not.

They’re a special kind of autocratic regime that masquerades as a democracy. And what looks like benevolent conduct by these countries can quickly change into aggressive, politically charged behavior.

Autocracies, often known as “authoritarian regimes,” maintain power through centralized control over information and resources. Political opposition is either forbidden or strongly curtailed and individual freedom is limited by the state.

Autocracies that look like democracies are different because their leaders permit political opponents to run for election – even though they rarely win.

These countries’ capitalist systems have some of the trappings of liberal democracies in the West. But these regimes use capitalism to further their authoritarian rule.

These so-called “dominant party authoritarian regimes” have surged in number from around 13 percent of all countries before the end of the Cold War to around 33 percent today.

Most are located in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. They are also present in Eastern Europe and in the Americas. Russia is one of them; so are Turkey, Malaysia, Singapore and Venezuela.

These regimes often engage in the same kinds of bad behavior as other autocracies. But their behavior is critically different in both the motivations and methods used to further authoritarian ends, as detailed in my new book “Authoritarian Capitalism.”

The Russian military intelligence service building; 12 of its officers hacked into the Clinton presidential campaign. AP/Pavel Golovkin

Political control

Part of the danger with dominant party authoritarian regimes is that their veneer of democracy permits political opponents to run for election. But when incumbent rulers face a threat to their power, the autocrats often respond by targeting political dissidents and taking aggressive actions toward foreign enemies to bolster popular support.

For example, Russian leader Vladimir Putin faced an unprecedented challenge from citizen protests during the 2012 presidential election. The protests continued into 2013.

Putin punished the protesters. New York Times correspondent Ellen Barry reported in 2013 that “new laws prescribe draconian punishments for acts of dissent. … Mr. Putin … embraced a new, sharply conservative rhetoric, dismissing the urban protesters as traitors and blasphemers, enemies of Russia.”

Shortly afterward, Russia’s foreign activities became even more belligerent than during the Soviet period. This accomplished just what Putin wanted: Following his annexation of Crimea in 2014, his approval ratings skyrocketed.

Another recent example is Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s repression of domestic political dissidents following the failed July 2016 coup against him. According to The Guardian, the regime arrested or suspended “more than 110,000 officials, including judges, teachers, police and civil servants.”

Erdogan went after foreign-based dissidents too, allegedly orchestrating a plot to kidnap opposition leader Fetullah Gulen from Pennsylvania.

And while he won the presidential election in June 2018, Erdogan’s foreign-based critics remain concerned about his threats. Enes Kanter, a Turkish NBA star, declined to travel to London in January 2019 out of fear that Turkish spies might kill him.

Turkish NBA star Enes Kanter curtails foreign travel for fear of kidnapping by the Turkish government. AP/Kathy Willens

Information control

Another distinction that characterizes dominant party authoritarian regimes is how they exploit Western legal and financial systems against Western media outlets critical of the regime.

Normally, autocrats control information and resources to retain power. But rather than relying on the typical autocrat’s crude hostile attacks or outright censorship, dominant party authoritarian regimes use legal or financial methods regarded as legitimate by the West.

In other words, they sue the media or they buy them.

A slew of foreign news organizations – including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and The Economist – were sued by the Lee family, autocratic rulers of Singapore, for political and financial reporting after the 2008 global financial crisis.

The family maintained the coverage defamed them. As the Wall Street Journal’s editors wrote in 2008, “We know of no foreign publication that has ever won in a Singapore court of law. Virtually every Western publication that circulates in the city-state has faced a lawsuit, or the threat of one.”

Malaysian political authorities deployed similar tactics when their rulers felt threatened.