The Rise of Sophisticated Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia

Policy Innovation Hub
The Machinery of Government
6 min readOct 22, 2019


With a majority of countries in South-East Asia currently under autocratic leadership and little history of liberal democracy in the region, Dr Lee Morgenbesser has found that the region’s penchant for authoritarianism is stable and the level of sophistication is increasing — which is a concern for champions of democracy.

Dr Morgenbesser, from the School of Government and International Relations, the Centre for Governance and Public Policy and Griffith Asia Institute, has closely examined the techniques of five authoritarian regimes in his 2018 Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Research Award project — The Rise of Sophisticated Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia: Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, Vietnam, Brunei — in order to identify what explains the persistence of these regimes and to rank their movements on a scale of retrograde to sophisticated.

To understand authoritarian governments in South-East Asia, firstly visualise the political regime scale that starts with liberal democracies then shifts across to electoral democracies (Indonesia, Philippines), competitive authoritarian regimes (Malaysia, Singapore), then across to hegemonic authoritarian regimes (Cambodia, Vietnam), and further across to closed authoritarian regimes (Brunei and China).

Then within this political scale authoritarian regimes can be segmented further on their level of sophistication, and Dr Morgenbesser has developed a classification system that incorporates different techniques depending on the level of sophistication or preference for traditional practices.

“They (the five countries in the project) were basically selected for two reasons — one is they are the longest-lasting authoritarian regimes in the region, with the exception of Brunei keeping in mind this is up to 2015 — and Malaysia has now changed leadership as the ruling party lost power last year,”

“So they are the longest lasting but there is also variation in terms of the types of the authoritarian regimes that they are. Cambodia and Vietnam are hegemonic, Brunei is closed which means they don’t hold national elections, like China, which makes the political system closed to participation and contestation.”

“And this group of countries has challenges, I mean the difficulty is that Brunei is very controlled and lacks basic political rights and civil liberties. While some people will answer questions you get tailed by State security forces.”

“So Brunei is a problem and then with Cambodia I am banned from going there due to my previous research on the regime, so that only leaves three countries I can safely visit for field research.”

Competitive versus Hegemonic Authoritarianism

The decision on whether to remain competitive authoritarian or to strive to become hegemonic authoritarian is one that presents different challenges for regime leaders. Morgenbesser explains that it’s very difficult to make this transition using sophisticated techniques “I talk about competitive authoritarianism that’s the modal type around the world. I mean that’s between the extreme of liberal democracy and closed authoritarian regimes like North Korea,”.

“A whole bunch of authoritarian regimes after the cold war settled on this competitive model where you have competitive elections, but you skew the playing field in favour of yourself. And when it comes to using sophisticated techniques — it’s actually very difficult to move from competitive to hegemonic and do it in a sophisticated way because you are going to have to crack down, so you are going to have to jail opponents.”


The research centred around a theoretical framework and dataset that has autocratic techniques tabulated across seven South-East Asian Countries over forty years (1975–2015). With the addition of Myanmar and Laos that were added after the DECRA project began.

“The framework involves seventy-three indicators in two categories from retrograde to sophisticated, and when you plug those seven countries in from 1975 to 2015 and all the indicators — as a region it has been more sophisticated since 2012, So as a region it has gone from retrograde which is a standard scale and it finally tips over at that level in 2012 towards sophisticated. So the trend is good for autocracy and bad for democracy.”

“And if you examined by who’s the most sophisticated as of 2015 it would be Vietnam. If you looked at who has changed the most over time — it would be Singapore.”

Photo: Prachattai: Aung-San-Suu-Kyi, CC BY NC ND 2.0

“But then Myanmar has a substantial increase when they decided to release Aung San Suu Kyi, and undertake liberalisation, which included holding competitive elections.”

“Cambodia is moving upwards and then it flatlines in 2005. So it’s not inevitable that they become more sophisticated, there’s a lot of variation over an extended period of time.”

“Myanmar is a wave up and down on line chart and Brunei never goes anywhere (maintains a flatline).”

“Malaysia is one of the more fascinating things that I found — So Malaysia has one of the sharpest decreases seen in all of the data (towards retrograde) — once Najib Razak gets in power in 2009, he starts to do certain things that are retrograde and the score plummets.”

“I compared that to Indonesia and the Philippines — so these are the only two cases of democratisation — whereby they have switched from autocratic to democratic governance. Whereas in Indonesia Suharto ruled for 31 years he never made a shift towards sophisticated authoritarianism, it begins here in 1967 and ends there in 1998.”

“In the Philippines here you have a case where Marcos engineering a move towards sophisticated authoritarianism, but it ends in 1981 and it starts to go down and then he loses power in 1986.”

“And that’s what I saw in Malaysia and this is what we are starting to see in Cambodia — so if I was going to make any future predictions — the data suggests a trend that regimes are at risk of losing power if they don’t become more sophisticated.”

Sophisticated Regime Techniques

Research has identified techniques that sophisticated authoritarian regimes employ to gain advantage and retain power, such as permitting opposition parties, stacking opposition parties and legislatures with loyalists and holding competitive elections that have skewed playing fields.

“So if you take elections for example — a lot of the research shows if you hold ‘competitive elections’ (skewed to government) as opposed to one party elections with no competition, over the long term that will provide you stability,” said Dr Morgenbesser.

“The election is merely just one indicator of what I call sophisticated authoritarianism. And there is a whole bunch of other ways that you can be sophisticated as opposed to retrograde.”

“Elections are important but they are scheduled infrequently, they are only every 4 to 6 years. So you have got a lot of work to do in between them. And whether you have a legislature that involves opposition parties, as opposed to not involving them, this is a sign of a different quality of authoritarianism.”

“Or you can get even the step further if you can have fake opposition parties in the legislature. So you stack it (with loyalists), you just get them to run in the election and they take some vote share away from the opposition.”

“And you get them to sit in the legislature and they ask you soft-ball questions and it all looks all very representative of a healthy party system, but really underlying it, it’s not very representative at all.”

“While elections are important, some autocratic regimes don’t use them for legitimacy. They don’t care what the United States or the European Union thinks about them.”

“Instead they might employ a public relations firm in Washington DC to advocate on their behalf. Or they might employ a cyber-army or troll-army to spread positive propaganda about them, and to me, that is another sign of sophistication.”



Dr Lee Morgenbesser examines authoritarian regimes, democratisation, dictators, flawed elections, hybrid regimes and South East Asian politics.

His latest book, which is entitled Behind the Facade: Elections under Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia (SUNY Press, 2016), investigates why dictators, ruling parties and military juntas bother to hold elections.

Dr Morgenbesser is Senior Lecturer in Comparative Politics in the School of Government and International Relations, and a Research Fellow in the Griffith Asia Institute at Griffith University, Australia.



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