Authoritarianism and Resistance: Dynamics between Government and Society

Autoritarisme et résistance : Dynamiques entre le gouvernement et la société


Friday, October 22, 2021


09:00 – 10:45

VenueVenue 3Venue 3


Chair/Président: Nhu Truong, Yale University

Discussant/Intervenant: Nhu Truong, Yale University

Event poster


Face of the Regime, Face of the Nation: Anthropomorphism, Cult Promotion, and Personalization of Power in Four East Asian Autocracies

Paul Schuler, University of Arizona; Mohammad Khan

How do personality cults emerge under authoritarian rule? Existing political science research suggests that regime-sanctioned cults of personality follow institutional personalization. As leaders consolidate power and sideline rivals, they promote cults to cement their dominance over elites and society. We concur that this process explains some forms of cult production. However, we also show that many intra-regime rivals promote leaders as faces of the regime even before the leader personalizes power. This cult promotion gives the leader a leg up on rivals to consolidate institutional personalization after regime consolidation. Given this advantage, why would a regime promote a leader as the face of the regime? Using social psychology research on anthropomorphism, we argue that aspiring authoritarian regimes have an incentive to promote a leader as the “face of the regime” under conditions of great political uncertainty and where awareness of the regime is low. Using four cases from East and Southeast Asia—China, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia—we conduct process tracing exercises to demonstrate the plausibility of our theory.

Post-populist Moment in Thailand: From Protests to Redefining Political Legitimacy

Shenghua Zhang, Department of Politics and International Studies, SOAS, University of London

Populism involves the use of anti-establishment appeals and the symbolic production of social identities, which together construct an “us versus them,” or “the people versus the elite” divide in society. While many academic studies of populism in Thailand focus on the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra—the archetypal populist of this country—this paper moves on to the aftermath of populism and suggests that we may be witnessing a post-populist moment rendered by the recently politicized young Thais. It analyzes the political tensions in Thailand that escalated after the 2019 general election and were instantiated by a string of demonstrations, which culminated in August 2020, when a group of student protestors openly demanded reform of the monarchy.

Drawing on the author’s fieldwork data collected in Thailand during the 2019 election period, this paper argues that the recent protest movements signify a spontaneous attempt to challenge and redefine the political legitimacy of the Thai state. Such an attempt is mainly prompted by the novel social identity of the younger generation, which emerged from social media campaigning during the latest populist moment—the 2019 election period—and crystallized in the struggle against issues of injustice, such as the dissolution of the opposition Future Forward Party. These events reveal the transformative potential of populism. Therefore, instead of positing a simple dichotomy between populism and democracy, this paper suggests that the dynamics of populist politics are fundamentally complex and that, in the Thai context, populism could actually pave the way towards democratization.

Religious Rhetoric in Politics: Competition versus Alignment

Mohamed Salihin Subhan, University of British Columbia

Why and how do governments use religious rhetoric? In this paper, I argue that governments use religious rhetoric in response to potential electoral threat from religious political actors, and that the nature of religious rhetoric usage depends on the perceived level of electoral threat. Political incumbents use competitive religious rhetoric when faced with low electoral threat from Islamists and aligning religious rhetoric when faced with high electoral threat from Islamists. I explore the above research question and formulate the framework of religious rhetoric usage through a historical comparison of two government administrations in Malaysia. Specifically, I compare the use of Islamic rhetoric in the Mahathir Mohamed administration (1981–2003) and the Najib Razak administration (2009–2018). I argue that the difference in the use of Islamic rhetoric by the Prime Ministers across the two administrations can be attributed to the difference in perceived Islamist electoral threat at different points in time. I identify three factors that influence the relative electoral threat of Islamists to political incumbents: 1) the political strength of the incumbent; 2) support for Islamists; and 3) the competitiveness of religious markets. The ways in which political incumbents respond to the growing political strength of Islamists have implications for the status of democracy and the political and social rights of religious minorities. As the salience of religion in the politics of these societies grow stronger, the effect of religious rhetoric on political mobilization is likely to deepen polarization among religious cleavages in plural societies.

Breaking the Royal Taboo: Anatomy of the Youth-Led Protest Movement in Thailand and the Corresponding State’s Response

Grégoire Legault, School of Political Studies, University of Ottawa

Thailand, a flawed democracy and coup-prone country, saw unprecedented political protests in 2020. The protests, led primarily by youth, called not only for Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to step down, for the drafting of a new constitution to replace the current one drafted under military diktat, and new democratic elections, but also for the reform of the monarchy as an institution. The protesters, middle-class urbanites, took to the streets and used various creative ways to spread their revindications, including references to pop culture and aligning their movement to the emerging “Milk Tea Alliance” against dictatorship. While the state has by and large been successful in repressing the movement via targeted “lawfare” against key youth figures, in the process, protesters have broken the previous taboo of discussing the monarchy and its role in Thai society. This paper examines how this protest movement fits into the literature on social movements, and explores the various strategies deployed by the state to snuff out dissent. It will show the limits of online mobilization in semi-authoritarian states as well as the long-lasting chilling effects of repeated coups d’état in Thailand on the country’s societal fabric.

CCSEAS Conference 2021 |