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The Authoritarian's New Clothes: Tendencies Away from Constitutional Democracy

The Authoritarian's New Clothes
Gábor Attila Tóth
Publication date: 
Mon, 15 May 2017

In this policy brief, constitutional law and human rights expert Gábor Tóth examines the changing face of authoritarianism, warning that this could become known as the century of authoritarianism as a result of the institutional erosion of democracies around the world.

The author argues that modern populist leaders have increasingly sought to impose authoritarian rule under the façade of constitutionalism, legitimizing themselves through popular elections and referenda. Yet these seemingly democratic constitutional norms are merely protective camouflage, designed to create systematic advantages for the incumbents.

Toth examines the typical tactics of the modern authoritarian leader, including:

  • fierce control of elections;
  • harsh constraints imposed on rival political parties and civil society;
  •  the erosion of institutional checks and balances within the legislature and judiciary;
  • curtailing civil liberties and freedom of the press;
  • and introducing arbitrary emergency measures by invoking threats posed by financial crisis or terrorism.

In a wide-ranging indictment of regimes across five continents including the cases of Russia, Turkey, Hungary, and Poland, Toth shows that, when a populist leader gains concentrated power, referendums and reshaped constitutions are increasingly being manipulated to present a façade of democracy that cloaks purely authoritarian aspirations.

The policy brief concludes with the prospects for the culture of constitutional democracy currently in peril, which, it is argued, depend not only on institutional checks and balances but also on the dynamic of a strong civil society to recognize the authoritarian’s new clothes and resist these efforts to invoke the will of the people, only in order to oppress them.