Observations of an expat: Elected Autocrats

There is a new descriptive term that is entering the political lexicon – Elected Autocrats.

The European Parliament recently used the term to describe Hungary’s Viktor Orban when it suspended EU payments to the country.

It can also be applied to Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. There are a few Asian and African leaders that also come under this heading and there are signs that it is creeping into Western democracies.

An Elected Autocrat is an elected political leader who was most likely voted into office in free elections, and then used their power to consolidate their position and build a political structure that insures they are re-elected in subsequent ballots.

The goal of an Elected Autocrat has nothing to do with preserving the rule of law. It bears no resemblance to the protection of individual rights or the state’s constitution. Their aim is simply reconfiguring political structures so that they gain a monopoly of power.

Putin was first elected President in 2000. At the time there was a free press and a relatively speaking active opposition. The independence of the Russian judiciary has always been questionable.

The judiciary is now firmly under Putin’s control. Opposition media outlets have either been closed down or are controlled by the state or Putin’s oligarchical cronies. Opposition leaders have been murdered or imprisoned. Alexei Navalny is currently serving a nine-year prison sentence. Another opposition figure Ilya Yashin was this week imprisoned for two and a half years for daring to tell the truth about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Turkey is a NATO member and nominally democratic country. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has moved from mayor of Istanbul to Prime Minister to President. Along the way he rewrote the constitution to consolidate power in presidential hands.

This did not sit well with the military who attempted a coup in 2016. It was quashed by Erdogan who has used the failed manoeuvre to imprison an estimated 77,000. They are military officers, journalists, civil servants, judges, lawyers, academics and most anyone who dares to criticise the Turkish president.

Erdogan faces re-election in six months. If he wins he will enter his third decade in power. He shouldn’t. Inflation in Turkey is running at 85.5 percent and the Turkish lira has collapsed against world currencies because of his daft economic policies.

Erdogan should be panicking even with his octopus like grip on the media, universities, judiciary and electoral commission. This could explain why a prison sentence was recently handed down to chief opposition figure Ekram Imamgolu.

Imamgolu was in 2019 elected Mayor of Istanbul – twice. After the first vote, Erdogan had the vote annulled because his AKP candidate narrowly lost by 13,000. But in the second election, Imamgolu was swept into office with a majority of 800,000. This established him as a threat.

The jailing of Imamgolu has been condemned by the US State Department and European Parliament. The Americans said they were “deeply troubled and disappointed.”

But then some people are deeply troubled by events in the US. One of  the most worrying developments is a case currently being considered by the Supreme Court which could have far-reaching consequences for America’s electoral system.

At issue is whether or not the state legislatures have the absolute power to determine electoral boundaries and electoral laws in their state.

The case is being brought by the North Carolina state legislature. If the court decides in favour of the North Carolina lawmakers then it paves the way for different political parties to take almost permanent control of a state and its voting apparatus. It should be noted that the case has been brought by the Republican-controlled legislature after the state supreme court blocked its blatant attempt to gerrymander congressional boundaries.

If North Carolina wins, then once a political party gains control of the state legislature it can redraw the electoral boundaries to insure that they remain in power.

They are asking for full control – without the existing judicial oversight – over all election issues. This means that the state legislatures could also pass laws which would affect how members of the US House of Representatives, the US Senate and even the Electoral College are selected. They could, in theory, vote themselves the power to overturn any election of which the legislature disapproved – local, state, congressional or presidential. Donald Trump tried to persuade key Republican-controlled state legislatures to do the above in the wake of the 2020 presidential elections.

The Supreme Court recently heard the oral arguments of the case. Based on the questions they asked of lawyers, the Justices appear split on the issue.

A ruling is expected in June. The most likely outcome is that the Justices will produce a fudged decision which pleases neither side. But if it is in favour of the legislatures then it could create a dangerous variation of an elected autocracy.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopedia of the War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain". He has a weekly podcast, Transatlantic Riff.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Thank you for the information about the USA, but are we not also going in a similar direction ? Our government has imposed FPTP on elections, is changing boundaries in ways that suit them, is removing Electoral Commission powers, curbing protests and giving more powers to ministers in each department of government. We have an opposition leader who is reluctant to consider proper reform like PR. Even more relevant, Boris showed how PMs have too much power over how they and other ministers behave and the opposition is not even suggesting a written constitution to ensure proper behaviour and a rebalancing of power between Executive and Parliament.

  • It is extremely concerning that so many politicians throughout the world, including the Uk, seek power to fulfil their own selfish agenda and are seemingly achieving those ambitions at the expense of the people they should be representing, is it fear, indifference or ignorance that allow them so much success?

  • Graham Jeffs 17th Dec '22 - 11:28am

    Ian Shires – I agree with what you are saying. What a pity, then, that our leadership does not constantly highlight the threats to our democracy. Periodic bleating about FPTP isn’t the answer (nor is being dumb on Europe).

    There is a whole lack of strategy and cohesion by the party leadership. Perhaps it’s time for a change.

  • I agree with all of your comments about the UK. I am the foreign editor so I tend to concentrate on foreign topics. But you are all quite correct. The emphasis of too many politicians in too many countries is on power rather than service. And once in power they concentrate on consolidating and extending their power at the expense of the rule of law. I think we are going to becoming increasingly dependent on the courts to protect our rights. This is unfortunate because it is dragging the judiciary into the political sphere and bringing it into conflict with power-hungry politicians who will work to circumscribe the power of the courts.

  • Martin Gray 18th Dec '22 - 6:47am

    PR, reform of the 2nd chamber , federal UK, & rejoin the SM – none of those resonate with the vast majority of voters …
    NHS waiting , GP appointments, ASB, crime , housing, insecure work , immigration etc ….It’s what concerns most voters…
    PR definitely doesn’t….sadly

  • @ Barry Lofty. I fully agree with all that you say; I would venture to suggest that it is the electorate’s indifference that allows politicians like Johnson to achieve so much “success”, because the much of the electorate views all politicians as being cut from the same cloth and purely out for all that they can get!

  • David Garlick 18th Dec '22 - 2:36pm

    Elected dicatorship is what I have called it for many years. All power corrupts and absolute power … you now the rest. Is the UK headed in that direction? You better believe it.

  • Nonconformistradical 18th Dec '22 - 4:00pm

    @Martin Gray
    PR etc – are we approaching the issue in the wrong way?

    Would it be better to engage with voters along the lines of – “if a future government did manage to improve significantly NHS waiting times etc. then what needs to be done to ensure it stays that way (or improves further) instead of one government’s good work being undone by a future government which doesn’t care about these issues but instead cares primarily for the well-being of the rich and cuts back on public services”?

  • Mick Taylor 18th Dec '22 - 7:42pm

    Political Parties should engage with the electorate on a wide front. Of course we should talk about the NHS and other things people care about, but we should also talk about things like electoral and constitutional reform and Europe. Just like we should continue to support Arts and Science as well as looking after the economics.
    What is important is to make the links between things so that people can see that it’s not possible just to fix one thing without making major changes to others. That’s the difference between being a political party and a single issue pressure group.

  • Barry Lofty 19th Dec '22 - 9:41am

    Has anyone noticed the reports on the enormous sums paid to our esteemed !! ex PM for speeches given since he was forced out of No10 and while he is still an MP and who ,supposedly , should be representing the interests of his constituents ?

  • You are right Mick Taylor about connections between issues; reform of our political system will help get government that serves the interests of a wider range of people; so many individuals will then get the benefits that they currently call for but do not get because of our power structures.
    Thanks Barry for Boris gaining huge income and Lord Bamford of JCB gave him £40,000 to cover his accommodation expenses as he went around making the speeches. JCB;s base is near North Staffordshire, where many people really need that £40,000. Shows how company giving is so often little more than a PR exercise.

  • Chris Platts 20th Dec '22 - 12:18pm

    Agree that there is not enough airtime given to issues around Constitutional matters. I hope our liberal MPS will continue to raise these issues and at the next election these issues need to raised.

  • Peter Hirst 24th Dec '22 - 1:43pm

    This will continue as long as politicians remain in control. Democracy belongs to the people and an independent strong judiciary acting on their behalf. A written constitution is needed constructed by the people via a Citizens’ Assembly and upheld by a constitutional court independent of the Supreme Court. We led the world in democracy before and we could do it again.

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