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Democracy vs. Authoritarianism: What Are the Differences?

Democracy vs. Authoritarianism

The pandemic coupled with an accompanying economic downturn and military conflicts around the globe have all contributed to an uptick in authoritarianism around the world. Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World” report is perhaps the leading authority in tracking political trends and civil rights worldwide, and its 2021 report found that democracy continued its decline, being replaced by a new authoritarianism. The report shows that less than twenty percent of the world’s population lives in what they term “fully free” countries, which is part of an overall trend toward authoritarian governments that has been taking place for the past thirty years. Upon learning this, it is very natural to wonder exactly what are the differences between democracy vs. authoritarianism.

In a democracy, citizens choose elected representatives through free and fair elections and under which the governed have individual freedoms and rights under the law. In an authoritarian regime, political power is concentrated among a small elite, or even one ruler, who are not bound to be responsible to the people they govern.  Individual freedoms are diminished under an authoritarian government when compared to a democratic one.

What are the Types of Democracies?

It is important to recognize that there is no universal definition of what a democracy actually is. The term is dependent on the time in history for which the government is being defined. What was a democracy 200 years ago may not fit the modern definition. The key is that the governed have some degree of control over the government. 

Most scholars agree that there are two types of democracies: direct and representative. A direct democracy is one where the people run everything. They are responsible for coming up with the laws that govern society and do need have elected officials whose job it is to “represent” their interests. Ancient Athens is an example of a direct democracy as male citizens could take part in the decision-making process as part of an assembly. There are no countries that are true direct democracies today, but direct democracy does take place on a smaller scale. Brexit, England leaving the EU via referendum, was an example of modern direct democracy in action. State referendums in the U.S. are more examples, such as those that legalize marijuana.

But almost every democracy today is a representative democracy. These are indirect democracies since the citizens don’t make law or govern themselves. Rather, they elect people to represent their interests and make the laws. The most common types of these democracies are constitutional republics which have presidents and a legislative body, like the United States, or those that have a parliament usually headed by a prime minister as found in the United Kingdom and Canada. Others combine both and are hybrids that elect both presidents and prime ministers, such as India.

Related: 9 of the Most Common Types of Government Systems Explained

What are the Characteristics of an Authoritarian Regime?

What are the Characteristics of an Authoritarian Regime?

Although the key characteristic in authoritarian regimes is that the political power rests among a small number of elites or even a single ruler, there are many different variations. There are no checks or balances in authoritarian regimes and all power rests at the top. There are no separation of powers like you find with the three branches of government in the United States.

The regime makes the rules, enforces the rules, and punishes those that break the rules. They keep power by trying to eliminate all forms of organized political opposition. Rival political parties are forbidden or extremely hampered and freedom of the press is curtailed, with only propaganda networks being deemed useful to the regime.

Free speech and religious freedoms are often also curtailed as they interfere with a total devotion by the people to the state. Elections may exist in authoritarian regimes, but with opposing political parties being curtailed as well as no real press freedom, they are most often sham elections rigged to ensure that the regime is overwhelmingly reelected. 

What are some Countries with Authoritarian Governments?

According to the World Population Review’s 2020 report, the countries that are most democratic include Norway, Canada and Australia. They all rank in the top ten of the list. The United States ranked 25th, right behind France. North Korea was rated as the least democratic country for 2020. Being a communist dictatorship, that’s not a hard rating to understand. Other large countries that ranked low on the democracy list were Russia, China, Syria and Venezuela. They were all rated in or near the bottom 30 of the list. I chose to list these four since each represents a different form of authoritarian regime.

Russia is an oligarchy where a small number of elites, under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, run the country. China is a communist state under the control of the Chinese Communist Party. Syria is controlled by the Baath party under the leadership of Bashar al-Assad and borders on being a totalitarian dictatorship. Meanwhile, Venezuela has slid into being the least democratic country in Latin America and the Caribbean under the leadership of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro. 

Related: What’s the Difference Between Totalitarianism vs Authoritarianism?

Can a Democracy be Authoritarian?

There are democratic authoritarian regimes that exist around the globe. This terms used to describe this form of government are “competitive authoritarianism” or “illiberal democracy.” Basically, the leaders of these governments came to power through an election but then went on to consolidate their power through undemocratic means.

People can vote in these pseudo-democracies, but the elections are not fairly conducted after the ruling party comes to power. They curb the civil rights of the people they govern to ensure there is no room for dissent. If there is a constitution in place, the illiberal democracy will ignore it or pass laws to work around it. Illiberal democracies often do not allow a free press. They don’t have truly independent judiciaries. They don’t have free universities where curricula can be chosen without government oversight.

These countries are not categorized as free or not free. They may be in transition to totalitarian rule but the ruling power is often not well enough entrenched that a return to democracy cannot be achieved in the future. Examples of these “authoritarian democracies” are Turkey, Russia, Poland, Venezuela and Hungary. The leaders of these illiberal democracies often cloak themselves with the armor of populism. They win elections running as populists but then manipulate the system to make it nearly impossible for any opposition to challenge their rule.

Hungary’s right-wing leader Viktor Orbán publicly stated in a 2014 speech that, “the new state that we are building is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state. It does not deny foundational values of liberalism, as freedom, etc. But it does not make this ideology a central element of state organization, but applies a specific, national, particular approach in its stead.”

Why is Authoritarianism on the Rise?

Why is Authoritarianism on the Rise?

In times of destabilization and crisis, like those brought on by the global economic collapse of 2008 or the Covid crisis, people feel insecure, threatened and afraid. Also, violence, diversity or the influx of outsiders into their country often threatens large portions of a nation’s population and they are attracted to leaders who promise to shield them from these threats. Candidates who promise to lock down borders and keep out people who are different are often elected to office. They promise to take the country back to earlier eras where things were simpler and better and the people weren’t afraid of intruders entering their borders from other countries. Examples of this trend can be found in countries ranging from the United States all the way to Hungary and Poland in Europe and Thailand in Asia.

Also, the pandemic has intensified the move to authoritarianism in many countries. Certain leaders have used the pandemic as an excuse to crack down on the freedoms of speech, the press, and lawful protest and dissent. They claim they are doing it to protect the population in a time of medical crisis, but the crackdowns have the advantage of stifling political opposition and solidifying their hold on power, which is exactly what they want. People are more open to these ideas because they are drawn to strong leaders in times of crisis, but many leaders have used the Covid pandemic to take advantage of their citizens’ fears and consolidate their power. 

One example of a government trying to abuse its power and suppress rights during the pandemic can be found in Poland. The country’s parliament passed a media bill whose intention was to damage the TVN news network, which is the news network that has been most critical of the ruling right-wing Law and Justice party. Polish President Andrzej Duda ultimately vetoed the bill, but only after numerous large protests erupted across the country, as the bill was viewed as an attempt to curb freedom of the press.

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