Authoritarianism and Politics in the Developing World


Authoritarianism is commonly portrayed in Western media as an emptily negative, detrimental, and dangerous political system of governance. As a basic definition, authoritarianism is a form of government characterised by power being concentrated in the strong central government, most usually around one individual who is the political leader of the ruling party. Certain type of authoritarianism has led to the “Developmental state”, which shows us just how complex the definition of authoritarianism can be with positive outcomes for state socioeconomic development. The concept of authoritarianism can be vague, but it is critical to understand its role within the context of state development to determine the reasons why some countries succeed under this form of government while others fail.

Trustee of National Development

Developmentalism is a relatively new concept but has become relevant in political sciences to describe states with an economy that is capitalist without basis on the free-market and maintains government interventionism with total centralized control over economic activity (Prado et al., 2016, p.370). A democratic developmental state exists in theory but is difficult to consider in practice. Developmentalism presents a state induced private sector activity in an objective-oriented approach. It enables the functioning of a market economy but normalising state intervention in wider economic activities through incentives, policy, and fostering of private-public strategies and relationships. This is done through instruments such as state-owned banks, taxes, redistributive policies, and sectoral regulations (Prado et al., 2016, p.371). Meanwhile, Doner et al. (2005) define developmental states as “organizational complexes in which expert and coherent bureaucratic agencies collaborate with organized private sectors to spur national economic transformation” (p. 328). The state which becomes the primary decision-maker and controlling all the internal variables becomes a “trustee” of national development. This type of governance system and the economy is less influenced by external influences of other stakeholders in society, being the full authority to decide on what efforts need to be done to move towards economic growth and industrialization.

Ng (2008) argues that the success of developmental states stems from a concept labelled as ‘embedded autonomy’ where the state is closely linked with the private sector, but providing enough freedom as to leave room for negotiation and police cooperation to ensure that capital interests become aligned with goals of national development (p.1). Embedded autonomy is the underlying factor contributing organizationally to the effectiveness of the developmental state. It implies a contradictory combination of bureaucratic insulation with strong immersion in the surrounding social structure, achieved through the natures of the state apparatus and social structure (Evans, 1992, p.154). Success is never guaranteed, it depends on the conditions of social and institutional capacity, as well as the capability of its leaders to act on rational motivations.

Investment of Resources

It is important to consider that development and economic growth are not synonymous, as a country can experience exceptional GDP increases, but struggle developmentally as its social institutions are weak. Developmental success is attributed to a range of factors such as economic policies, availability of specific natural resources, geographic advantage, colonial heritage, and state strength (Sáez & Gallagher, 2009, p.93). Empirically, resource abundant countries typically have authoritarian governments, as this resource wealth allows for consolidation of power. When the state institutions are weak that budgeting lacks transparency or is discretionary, the status becomes friendly to the consolidation of an authoritarian regime and creating political instability, which is why a range of Third World political regimes are heavily dependent on natural resource revenues (Wantchekon, 2002, p.2).

In developmental states, the government, not the private sector, ultimately decides where to direct these resources. This is done through state control of finance as well as being the majority stakeholder in the resource or energy companies, directing all development projects and policies virtually. In the interaction between the private sector and the state, the latter serves as the catalyst, while managers respond to the incentives established by the state (Ng, 2008, p.3). One example is the Taiwanese state, which from the country’s origins, Taiwan’s ruling party the KMT, focused on state-owned enterprises as instruments of industrial development. By modern day, the state used its capital into transformative investments such as electronics (particularly microprocessor production), entrepreneurship, and enabling the competitiveness of firms on the global market (Ng, 2008, p.3). Taiwan is one of the most well-developed countries in the world, that eventually shifted to a democratic form of governance, albeit state control over enterprise is still present.

Success or Failure

History has shown that authoritarian rulers can either survive in power for decades or collapse shortly after acquiring power. Some of these long-ruling leaders succeeded in keeping power and relative peace in their countries and are well-known in the political world. There were Mubarak of Egypt and Gaddaffi of Lybia, both ruling nearly 40 years, Asia has Phú Trọng of Vietnam and Hun Sen of Cambodia, until recently there was Maduro of Venezuela. Of course, there are the modern political leaders, legitimate presidents who keep power through actual popularity in their countries such Putin of Russia or Xi Jinping of China. While it can be argued that these strongmen around the world consolidated power in one way or another, their ability to remain in power for so long also depended on their policies. Gandhi & Przeworski (2007) suggest that to deter the threat from society, these autocratic leaders often rely on democratic socio-economic institutions, because while political will or use of brutal force may work, it is unsustainable, especially in the modern world of information and connectivity. The key for these non-democratic is to achieve cooperation, but to do so superficially through false opposition, corruption, and offering perks to those institutions such as banks that support their policies.

Under authoritarianism, there are eventually cracks which begin to appear in the system, because at its core autocratic rulers often cannot win legitimate elections because their personal vision misaligns with that of the population. That is when elements such as censorship, surveillance, militarized police force, false imprisonment of non-sanctioned opposition, human rights violations, and others begin to take place. There are also factors of corruption, stagnation, and propaganda which begin to frustrate the population (Kasparov & Halvorssen, 2017, p. 2). In order to survive, effective autocrats must rely on institutions to create a developmental state – society and economy that are actually (not superficially) growing and developing, resulting in a better quality of life and means of living for the larger population, in terms of finance, education, healthcare, job outlook, and other important factors. This cooperation with institutions, allowing the state to take on the essential role of harnessing national resources and serve as the primary decision-maker in the economic policy creation process, is how the developmental state is established (Ng, 2008, p.2).

The question is what factors then ultimately determine the success or failure of authoritarian regimes in establishing developmentalism in their countries. The primary factor of the success of a strong developmental state relies on the formation of agreements with the private sector. Donner et al. (2005) emphasises that maintaining a broad coalition helps to foster growth rates (p.329). Meanwhile, Ng (2008) indicates that bureaucracy and business working together can respond flexibly to economic challenges, also supporting the autocratic government involved (p.2). Kendall-Taylor & Frantz (2014) find that in modern times, it is mass-revolts rather than traditional coups that are most effective at toppling authoritarian regimes and having profound consequences (p.36). Mass protests of such scale occur largely when the socio-economic situation reaches a critical point, and they are largely supported by the private sector as well. Therefore, to remain in power, the autocratic party has to maintain a level of stability and ensure cooperation across the public-private sector that would stabilize the regime’s role in guiding decision-making.

In the long-term, it is a strategic and politicized game of chess, but those autocrats able to navigate these challenges of addressing both internal political forces and outside societal volatility, can remain in power for prolonged periods of time (Kasparov & Halvorssen, 2017). In most of the authoritarian countries, people often see no good alternative to leadership than their current ruling leader or party. Therefore, they are more willing to accept some of the losses of freedoms and choice in return for economic stability. In cases where autocratic leaders become self-oriented, fail to make partnerships with other parties and private sectors, and misuse their power to create poor economic policy, their reign is likely to fail much quicker.


Authoritarianism can be useful to advance the discussion of politics in the developing world, but it is critical to be more specific and analyse aspects within authoritarianism itself. Authoritarian regimes may have unique strengths that democracies lack as explored in this paper such as efficiency, immediate decision-making, and ability to focus resources on economic and social sectors that they see fit making developmentalism an effective system for some societies. By analysing the developmental state concept, it helps to understand the factors that lead some regimes to fail while others succeed in establishing this balance of an autocratic but capitalism-based system.


Doner, R.F., Ritchie, B.K., & Slater, D. (2005). Systemic vulnerability and the origins of developmental states: Northeast and Southeast Asia in comparative perspective. International Organization, 59(2), 327-361.

Evans, P.B. (1992). The politics of economic adjustment: International constraints, distributive conflicts, and the state. Princeton University Press.

Kasparov, G., & Halvorssen, T. (2017). Opinion: Why the rise of authoritarianism is a global catastrophe. The Washington Post. Web.

Kendall-Taylor, A., & Frantz, E. (2014). How autocracies fail. The Washington Quarterly, 37(1), 35-47. Web.

Ng, C. (2008). The ‘Developmental State’ and economic development. E-international relations. Web.

Sáez, L., & Gallagher, J. (2009). Authoritarianism and development in the Third World. The Brown Journal of World Affairs, 15(2), 87-101.

Wantchekon, L. (2002). Why do resource abundant countries have authoritarian governments? Web.

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1. DemoEssays. "Authoritarianism and Politics in the Developing World." November 13, 2022.


DemoEssays. "Authoritarianism and Politics in the Developing World." November 13, 2022.