by Sanan Zaman

This paper discusses how authoritarian regimes prevent instructional reform and offers decentralization as a solution for better institutions and to lead to democratization. The paper will explore three country cases – Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand, to support this thesis. Authoritarian regimes can bring about economic development. However, in the long-term, there needs to be deliberative democracy to achieve economic, political and social progress. Thus, decentralization is key.  The paper will begin with discussing how Authoritarian regimes endure and military regimes provide a breeding ground for institutional inefficiencies and prevent democratization, especially due to patron-client ties. Next, it will talk about economic development, how that is affected by authoritarian regimes and how that affects institutional reform. Finally, the benefits and drawbacks of decentralization will be discussed.

How do authoritarian regimes endure?

Authoritarianism is defined as a form of government characterized by strong central power and limited political freedoms. Individual freedoms are subordinate to the state and there is no constitutional accountability under an authoritarian regime[1]. Authoritarian regimes endure due to small, shallow ruling elite that is able to forestall mass political participation through alliance with the military. As a result, many countries, such as Indonesia and Philippines, came out of the colonial era possessing weak states and lapsed into authoritarian rule. Authoritarian regimes are also more stable and than democracies which is why Suharto, second president of Indonesia and Ferdinand Marcos, president of Philippines during the same time as Suharto, were able to stay in power for so long. They were able to do this because of a lack of constitutional accountability.

Despite his strict authoritarian regime, Suharto had been elected six times as president because of the economic developments he made in the country after the coup against the last president. Suharto was able to maintain his authoritarian regime by increasing the power of the militantly who helped to crush opposition, namely the communists, and involving the population in their ousting. Opposition, from Muslim parties was also crushed and any organization opposed to Pancasila was banned.

The election of Marcos marked the beginning of authoritarian rule in the Philippines, which sustained for twenty years. He declared Marshall law, ruled by decree, closed down congress and was able to extend his term through rigged elections. In Marcos’ “New Society,” a new constitution provided for a parliamentary system of government although Marcos did not hold elections. Increasing the power of the military was his greatest strength. The military was used to eliminate opposition  – election candidates, journalists, and organizations. Particularly a special unit was created to crush demonstrations.[2]

How the military enables authoritarian regimes

According to Dan Slater, “Military regimes can exhibit astounding resilience in the absence or because of the absence of countervailing powers in a ruling party of royalist clique.[3]” Military leaders are not politicians and thus use violence to avoid political opposition.

In Thailand, there was huge support for the king although he does not have much say in the running of the constitution. The military is a powerful factor hindering democracy as they have led a series of coups comprised of educated elites and is also seen as the protector of the monarchy and can intervene if there is any opposition towards him. The new government is elitist and not democratic enough to include the lower classes. Since the king is worshipped as a god and the military is his protector, the monarchy is still in place and the military has been able to crush opponents although opposition continues to rise. The fact that a constitutional monarchy is in place but has yet to be implemented shows that the country is not a democracy. Thailand also has major cleavages such as the conflict between the “Red shirts” supporting poor and the military “Yellow shirts” supporting the monarchy and a flailing economy. In response to such anti-democratic circumstances, it is natural for a powerful institution such as the military to take and maintain power.[4] To continue this trend and the military’s rule in the past century, elections will continue to be rigged.

Countries such as Thailand should appoint military based on merit & seniority rather than loyalty to create a fair military. However, this has been unlikely in developing countries such as those in South Asia and South East Asia although the bureaucratic nature of their governments has been improving. There should also be a rule that prevents the military from being in power of government decisions. This may become more challenging, especially when model countries such as the United States is appointing unqualified and inexperienced individuals in positions of power.

Authoritarian regimes & economic development

In theory, economic development can lead to institutional reform and democratization. As discussed in many readings and case studies in this course, economic development does not always lead to improved institutions. However, factors such as authoritarian regimes, weak states, client-patron ties, the military and decentralization have prevented economic development achieving progress. Economic development does not necessarily lead to democracy. As mentioned in the case of Indonesia, Suharto was able to maintain power because of the economic developments he brought about. But the political and social impact of his rule was not beneficial to many people in Indonesia.

Continuing Thailand’s case study, the kings starting from Rama I was able to make a series of developments including fixing the civil law, infrastructure, and education. This is especially true for Rama IV who maintained tariff under 3%, introduced trade and economic modernization and offered health, education and public welfare. However, there was no power to the people because of the strong monarchy. After a peaceful transition to a constitutional monarchy in 1932, the country is still not democratic till date. A series of laws were created to protect the king and his family and many citizens believe that this is a hindrance to freedom of expression as anything they say or do against the monarchy can get them arrested, which is unfair and certainly not democratic. [5]

Decentralization & accountability systems

Different countries have different institutions that keep them in power such as the Monarchy in Thailand’s case. In countries such as India and Bangladesh, governments can put on the façade of free elections. However, these elections are often rigged and/or the public does not know how many seats and votes parties get. The idea is to reduce transparency. To maintain this, government’s control things like citizenship, i.e. there are restrictions on who can vote and who can run for office. This is seen in Myanmar, where Muslims are being denied citizenship. In this way, the regime controls who is in power.

Clearly, factors such as client-patron ties, nepotism and elitism allow inefficient and corrupt institutions to flourish. In reference to countries mentioned in this essay and countries studied in this course, I believe that decentralization is key to create and maintain efficient, transparent and just institutions. Decentralization is the process of redistributing or dispersing functions, powers, people or things away from a central location or authority to yield national development outcomes. The concept is especially important in South and South East Asia where most countries have experienced a centralized government from the colonial period to the present.

The benefits of decentralization include representation of minority groups. Local governments can pay more attention to individual needs. If there are ethnic or other kinds of conflicts, they can be identified more easily and effectively by local government and dealt with faster. Thus, decentralization can help to protect the heterogeneity of countries. Elections can be held at a local level and regulation can be controlled on a local level to account for the local population. This leads to a strong civil society, who will be better informed about political processes and can access the help and resources needed to make their communities, towns, cities and countries flourish.

Decision-making process is faster and fairer if all states make decisions collectively as opposed to the national government. States will be more accountable for what they do, which will lead to greater transparency and thus a possibly lead to democracy. This might also be motivation for states to perform better economically compared to the rest of the nation, which is one of the main reasons states decentralize. The theory is that since more functions will be performed at the local level, it can produce job opportunities and reduce rural/urban brain drain. This also leads to strong state institutions, which make states stronger.

However, some drawbacks are that local elites may decide to use resources for their own benefit and use their authority to challenge the central government. The theory of too many cooks can spoil a broth applies can also apply – if there are too many players in national decision-making it may give rise to conflicts. Although some policies of decentralization may be beneficial for a state, it might not be for the rest of the country. Some states may benefit from higher economic growth, more access to resources or an increase in employment rates. Furthermore, all local governments cannot fairly compete for the same resources because of geographical differences and factors such as proximity to trade routes and immobility of labor. This may increase class/race gaps within the whole nation and could result in or result from local elites being corrupt and using resources and their authority for personal gains.

Thus, appropriate legislature through watchdog organizations could be implemented to ensure transparency and electoral laws should be implemented for fair elections. To avoid disparities between states, Information and resources should be made available in local communities especially in rural cities to reinforce unity and stability. Furthermore, to avoid drawbacks of decentralization, the military should definitely not be decentralized and decentralization should be done at a local level as opposed to regional level. Minority rights should be protected by the federal government, especially in countries such as Bangladesh, where freedom of speech can get you killed. These regulations must be implemented to allow all citizens of a country to feel involved in the decision-making processes and also voice their concerns.

In conclusion, authoritarian regimes prevent institutional reform and democratization as seen in country examples from Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand. The military is also a key component of authoritarian regimes, and should not be allowed to take control of government decisions and thus should remain centralized. However, decentralization should be carried out in other administrative processes to lead to better institutions and democratization by including citizens in decision-making and to increase transparency and fairness. Furthermore, freedom of expression should be a right of a citizen.

[1] Sekiguchi, Masashi. Government and Politics – Volume I. EOLSS Publications. P.92

[2] SarDesai, D.R. Southeast Asia, past & present. 7th ed. Boulder. Co: Westview, 2016.

[3] Slater, Dan. The Architecture of Authoritarianism Southeast Asia and the Regeneration of Democratization Theory. Taiwan Journal of Democracy, Volume 2, No. 2: 1-22

[4] SarDesai, D.R. Southeast Asia, past & present. 7th ed. Boulder. Co: Westview, 2016.

[5]  “Running Afoul of the Thai Monarchy”. The New York Times.